Turner to Monet
It is astonishing to think that Streeton was only twenty-four years old when he painted ‘Fire’s on’, a work that remains one of the great icons of Australian landscape painting. When Streeton wrote to his friend Frederick McCubbin (1855–1917) about the work he was undertaking in the Blue Mountains, his excitement and ambition were palpable. It was the quintessentially Australian landscape and light that inspired him: ‘the vast hill of bright sandstone’ crowned by bush and the ‘deep blue azure heaven’.1Streeton was also taken with the fact that this landscape was the location of one of the engineering feats of the late nineteenth century, the construction of the ‘Zig Zag’ railway line across the Great Dividing Range and a new tunnel that would make this part of the country more accessible.
Towards the end of 1891 Streeton spent three months at Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains undertaking numerous sketches and watercolours. By the time he came to paint ‘Fire’s on’, he had familiarised himself with the terrain and was following the development of the railway tunnel with interest. In Streeton’s letter to Roberts in December 1891 he conveyed a tension between his enthusiastic response to the landscape and the dangers involved in the work being undertaken.
I arrive at my cutting, ‘the fatal cutting’, and inwardly rejoice at the prosperous warmth all glowing before me as I descend and re-ascend the opposite side up to my shady, shelving, sandstone rock, perched high up … 12 o’clock … and now I hear ‘Fire, fire’s on’, from the gang close by … BOOM! and then rumbling of rock, the navvy under the rock with me, and watching says, ‘Man killed’.2
On the one hand the scale of the landscape and the historic activity of constructing the railway may be seen as an expression of a heroic, nationalistic viewpoint. Yet ‘Fire’s on’ is a complex work, far removed from picturesque or pristine views of the land or people triumphing against the odds. Instead Streeton conveys a clear-eyed view of the pell-mell local scrub and the precarious rocks, dead tree-trunks and random scatter of stones on the steep hillside. On the right, it is as though a layer of earth has been peeled back by human progress to reveal the dazzling white sandstone, ochre soil and gaping mouth of the tunnel. Above the tunnel, delicately drawn figures are dwarfed by the environment, dissolving into its heat haze, while the figures below reveal the perilous nature of their endeavour.
Compared with depictions of similar subjects on the theme of human labour in the landscape, it is notable that in ‘Fire’s on’ people are not the main focus. Instead the human drama is enmeshed with the towering, implacable presence of the land. Ultimately it is Streeton’s passionate feeling for the environment as a whole and the heat and light of an Australian summer, conveyed through expressive brushwork, a daring compositional structure and intense, luminous colour, that would be an inspiration for generations of Australian painters to follow.
1 Letter published in R.H. Croll, Smike to Bulldog: letters from Sir Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts, Sydney: Ure Smith, 1946, pp. 20–3.
2 Letter published in R.H. Croll, Tom Roberts: father of Australian landscape painting, Melbourne: Robertson & Mullens, 1935, pp. 187–9.