Australia 1855 – 1917
The red screen
oil on canvas
56.0 (h) x 25.5 (w) cm
McCubbin’s happy and settled family life probably contributed to his career-long interest in depicting glimpses of his own home. Early in his career, in the mid 1880s, he painted the bakery in the western end of Melbourne where he lived with his parents and siblings. Thirty years later, The red screen shows a corner of the music room at ‘Carlesberg’, the house he rented in South Yarra from 1907. (He changed the name from ‘Carlesberg’ to ‘The Studio’ in 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War.) The same room depicted here is seen in An interior (cat 47). Soft lighting and rapid brushwork create a textured relief of embroidered birds and flowers on the glowing red silk of two panels of the Japanese screen; McCubbin’s small portrait of his daughter Sheila hangs above the bookcase. A photograph of the artist seated next to the same large screen, probably taken in his studio at the National Gallery’s school several years earlier, shows the screen had at least four folding panels (Topliss 1985, vol 1, p 45).
Visitors to ‘Carlesberg’ described its interiors as ‘artistic and beautiful’. McCubbin’s screen was typical of the Japanese or Japanese-inspired ‘art decorations’ that became very popular in Melbourne from the 1880s onward. He may well have bought it around the time of the now famous 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition of 1889 (to which he contributed five paintings)—the gallery was furnished by the fashionable decorators Cullis Hill & Co with japonaiserie including fans, parasols and silk drapery. McCubbin certainly owned this screen by 1892, when he made it the scarlet backdrop for a full-length portrait of his wife (the portrait was subsequently cut down to half-length (NGV)). He also included the screen in a sketchbook drawing of his music-room interior (cat17B).