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 PICTURING A NATION : THE ART AND LIFE OF A.H. FULLWOOD

By Gary Werskey

NewSouth Publishing (UK distributor – Eurospan). 340 pages. £28.95. ISBN 978-1-7422-36681

Reviewed by Jim Burns

In 2017 I went to the National Gallery in London to have a look at an exhibition entitled Australia’s Impressionists. It covered the work of four artists – Tom Roberts. Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder and John Russell. With the exception of Conder, I knew nothing about them but the exhibition was an eye-opener in terms of introducing me to paintings by Roberts and Streeton. Both seemed to have absorbed some ideas from Europe but adapted them to producing canvases which were resolutely Australian in their content. They had not slavishly followed Impressionist techniques and, like some of the painters linked to the Newlyn School in Britain, had taken what was needed from French sources and used it within a home-grown context.  

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition was informative and mentioned a few other Australian artists active towards the end of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth. But the name of A.H. Fullwood certainly wasn’t among them. And yet he had been a close friend of both Roberts and Streeton and had sketched alongside them on their trips into the bush. Plein air painting in Australia often took place in a setting where mates (a term employed by Gary Werskey, and which points to the primarily male membership of the groups) gathered round the campfire in the evening to compare notes and tell tales. Werskey refers to a 1991 exhibition, Bohemians in the Bush: The Artists’ Camps of Mosman, which perhaps sums up the situation. From what he says in his book, Fullwood was a convivial type, as well as a talented artist, so it seems strange that he disappeared from the records of Australian art in later years.

He was born in 1863 in Birmingham, England, into a family engaged in the jewellery trade. He left school “possibly as early as 1876, (and) joined the family business as an apprentice jeweller”. But his inclinations were towards becoming an artist and he enrolled at the Birmingham School of Landscape Art around 1879. When his father died in 1883, and the economics of the jewellery trade went into a downturn, Fullwood’s mother took her son and two of her daughters to Australia. His skills had developed enough to enable him to quickly find employment in Sydney. Fine art was not then of great concern in Australia, and Fullwood’s work involved “catalogues, illuminated addresses, and illustrations for the firm’s publications”.  He could paint pictures in his own time, but the steady income needed to help support his mother and sisters would come from commercial activities.

He set up his own studio and advertised himself as “artist-illustrator” and ready to turn his hand to designing and illuminating. Art by him was soon appearing in the Australian Town and Country Journal. What probably brought him more notice was his work for the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, a project designed to celebrate “the scenic beauties, civic virtues, and social progress of the nation”. Well-produced and with “engraved illustrations from the pens and brushes of leading artists” the sections circulated widely, and brought attention to Fullwood’s achievements. Illustrations in Weskey’s book show him to have been a deft illustrator of landscapes but also able to turn out quick sketches of mines and similar settings. It strikes me that Fullwood’s quite considerable contributions to the Picturesque Atlas should have ensured him a place in later surveys of Australian art, but perhaps the division too often made between fine and commercial art prevented a genuine acknowledgement of his talents?

That he was quite capable of producing paintings designed to appeal to collectors of fine art, and those in charge of private and public galleries, can be seen in the 1889 canvas, “Wet evening, George Street, Sydney”, which captures well the overcast scene with its horse-drawn carriages and scurrying people. A somewhat sombre painting, it might suggest certain Impressionist influences. Being of the opinion that “impressionism” could be one of the most overworked words in the art dictionary, I’m more inclined to think that it draws its inspiration from late-19th century naturalist painting which, admittedly, had taken on some surface aspects of impressionism but retained a firm basis in direct representation. A lighter painting, “Sturt Street, Ballarat”, clearly indicates this.

There are rural paintings by Fullwood which made me think of Daubigny and Bastien-Lepage, though it’s difficult to determine how familiar he was with the work of these French artists. And one painting, “The Swing”, put me in mind of the English artist, William Stott of Oldham, who had been influenced by Bastien-Lepage, among others. On the other hand, a canvas such as “Reflections” quite clearly has a direct link to late-19th century Parisian painting (if one didn’t know otherwise it could easily be mistaken for a Paris street scene). One wonders just how much he knew about French art in general and impressionism in particular?  

Fullwood seemed to have an established place as “one of Sydney’s leading artists”, and he was, largely thanks to his commercial work, comfortable from a financial point of view. But it may have held him back from achieving wider critical recognition. Werskey points to the fact that Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton both concentrated on oil painting and on the whole kept clear of working as illustrators. But economic circumstances were to affect all artists in the 1890s and, for Fullwood, there was the added problem that photographs were increasingly being used by newspapers and magazines and so reduced his earnings as an illustrator.

By 1900 he had decided to try his luck in New York where there appeared to be opportunities for an illustrator. He failed to establish himself sufficiently in the art world there and moved to London. He had married earlier and had two sons, but his wife, Clyda, was showing increasing signs of mental instability possibly as a result of post-natal depression accentuated by worry about the financial problems that now began to affect Fullwood’s career.

I mentioned earlier that Fullwood was a convivial type who enjoyed associating with old friends like Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton, who were both in London, and new friends such as Alfred Munnings and Frank Brangwyn. He became a member of the Chelsea Arts Club and seems to have spent a fair amount of time there. Was he a heavy drinker? There are suggestions by Werskey that he may have had a liking for alcohol, though perhaps not to the point where he was an alcoholic. But the facts were that, despite some critical attention, he wasn’t earning a great deal from painting, and had to find school fees for his sons, and the expense of keeping his wife in a private asylum. At one point he had to apply for relief from the Wandsworth Poor Law Guardians. There was also a strange episode when Fullwood, despite problems with his wife and sons, disappeared to Cape Town for several weeks. Werskey acknowledges that it’s unknown what Fullwood’s reasons for this action were.

He was “exhibiting everywhere – selling nowhere” and turned to designing postcards for the Raphael Tuck organisation. But Werskey suggests that he did make a living of sorts as “a producer of affordable fine art – small oils and watercolours, as well as pastels, monotypes, lithographs, and etchings”, and that he relied on “boutique galleries” to sell his wares. When the war started in 1914 he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps and worked at a hospital in London. He was 52 and  needn’t have joined up but gave his age as 42. When he was discharged from the army in 1917 he became a War Artist and went to the Western Front to draw and paint pictures of Australian soldiers in action and behind the lines.

Fullwood’s youngest son had died in 1910. And his wife, Clyda, had passed away in an asylum in 1918.  With the eldest boy, Geoffrey, now living in Australia, he must have felt isolated in London. He wasn’t prospering as an artist, either. In addition, Frances Prudence, a woman he had formed an attachment to, had moved to Australia. It was not long before Fullwood himself would take the decision to return to Sydney, which he did in 1919.  Once there, he had some successful exhibitions, sold pictures, and led a lifestyle which was, as Werskey puts it, “largely defined by his daily transit between his home, studio, and favourite drinking establishments”. He did sometimes visit Frances, though it doesn’t appear that she ever contemplated a settled arrangement with him. And it perhaps wasn’t what he wanted, in any case,

Throughout the 1920s, Fullwood managed to support himself with artistic endeavours of one kind or another. He had exhibitions in private galleries and his work sold but not at high prices. He also mixed with younger artists who saw him as a survivor from “a bohemian yesteryear”. There is a delightful caricature of Fullwood which shows him looking dapper and cheerful. He seems to have been popular among the younger artists and writers he mixed with. It’s possibly significant that he chose to align himself with a group called the Black and White Artists’ Society whose members were painter-etchers, and to relax in the Sydney Press Club. Did he network among the fine art practitioners in Sydney to any great degree? Possibly, though not enough to draw attention to his work outside the illustrative and commercial. 

On the surface things might have looked reasonably tolerable, though his jaunty bohemianism may have simply been a cover for his uncertainties about the future. He was frequently impoverished, partly because he gave money away, especially to veterans of the Australian armed forces who had fallen on hard times. His health wasn’t good, and towards the end of September, 1930, he was taken into hospital suffering from “acute lobar pneumonia”. He died from heart failure on the 1st October, 1930.  

It’s possible to make suggestions about why Fullwood was forgotten so quickly after his death. He had spent almost twenty years absent from Australia between 1900 and 1919 which must have removed him from the public eye. And there were all those diversions away from gallery-art into areas of illustrating and designing. He was also probably a victim of changing tastes. Fresh ideas were creeping in from Europe and America in the 1920s, and by the 1930s were sufficiently established to provide for a new bohemia often with paintings of a radical nature, whether of an artistic or political persuasion and sometimes a combination of the two. I have a book, Rebels and Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art by Richard Haese (Allen Lane, 1981), which looks at movements in the 1930s and 1940s.  It’s significant that established artists such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton are mentioned more than a few times in the text, even if in a critical way which sees them as typical of an older, more-conservative tradition. But Fullwood doesn’t even rate that sort of reference, nor any other. He just doesn’t exist in the story.

One aspect of Werskey’s account that struck me is the number of times he refers to a painting as “now lost”. There is an irony in the fact that, provided the old newspaper and magazines still survive in a library somewhere, it might be possible to see a fair amount of the illustrative work that Fullwood did. But if a canvas is lost then it may be necessary to rely on a critic’s description, assuming one exists, or a reproduction in a contemporary newspaper or magazine, again assuming one exists though it’s likely be in black and white, for an idea of what the painting in question amounted to.

Picturing a Nation is a well-researched book that not only highlights the life and work of a neglected artist, but also throws light on the development of an artistic tradition in Australia. Looking at canvases like “Bad News” and “Solitude” inclines me to think that Fullwood was a very good painter.