Australian Artists Abroad




cultural history, clubs, artists, abroad

How to Cite

Williams, G. H. (2016). Australian Artists Abroad. M/C Journal, 19(5).
Vol. 19 No. 5 (2016): abroad
Published 2016-10-13

At the start of the twentieth century, many young Australian artists travelled abroad to expand their art education and to gain exposure to the modern art movements of Europe. Most of these artists were active members of artist associations such as the Victorian Artists Society or the New South Wales Society of Artists. Male artists from Victoria were generally also members of the Melbourne Savage Club, a club with a strong association with the arts.

This paper investigates the dual function of the club, as a space where the artists felt “at home” in the familiar environment that the club offered whilst they were abroad and, at the same time, a meeting space where they could engage in a stimulating artistic environment and gain introductions to leading figures in the art world. For those artists who chose England, London’s arts clubs played a large role, for it was in these establishments that they discussed, exhibited, shared, and met with their English counterparts. The club environment in London would have a significant impact on male Australian artists, as it offered a space where they were integrated into the English art world, which enhanced their experience whilst abroad.

Artists were seldom members of Australia’s early gentlemen’s clubs, however, in the late nineteenth century Melbourne, artists formed less formal social groupings with exotic names such as the Prehistoric Order of Cannibals, the Buonarotti Club, and the Ishmael Club (Mead)Melbourne artists congregated in these clubs until the Melbourne Savage Club, modelled on the London Savage Club (1857)a club whose membership was restricted to practitioners in the performing and visual artsopened its doors in 1894.

The Melbourne Savage Club had its origins in the Metropolitan Music Club, established in the late 1880s by a group of professional and amateur musicians and music lovers. The club initially admitted musicians and people from the dramatic professions free-of-charge, however, author Randolph Bedford (1868–1941) and artist Alf Vincent (1874–1915) were not content to be treated on a different basis to the musicians and actors, and two months after Vincent joined the club, at a Special General Meeting, the club resolved to vary Rule 6, “to admit landscape or portrait painters and sculptors without entrance fee” (Melbourne Savage Club). At another Special General Meeting, a year later, the rule was altered to admit “recognised members of the musical, dramatic and artistic professions and sculptors without payment of entrance fee”  (Melbourne Savage Club).

This resulted in an immediate influx of prominent Victorian male artists (Williams) and the Melbourne Savage Club became their place of choice to gather and enjoy the fellowship the club offered and to share ideas in a convivial atmosphere. When the opportunity arose for them to travel to London in the early twentieth century, they met in London’s famous art clubs. Membership of the Melbourne Savage Club not only conferred rights to visit reciprocal clubs whilst in London, but also facilitated introductions to potential patrons. The London clubs were the venue of choice for visiting artists to meet their fellow artist expatriates and to share experiences and, importantly, to meet with their British counterparts, exhibit their works, and establish valuable contacts.

The London Savage Club attracted many Australian expatriates. Not only is it the grandfather of London’s bohemian clubs but also it was the model for arts clubs the world over. Founded in 1857, the qualification for admission was (and still is) to be, “a working man in literature or art, and a good fellow(Halliday vii). If a candidate met these requirements, he would be cordially received “come whence he may.” This was embodied in the club’s first rules which required applicants for membership to be from a restricted range of pursuits relating to the arts thought to be commensurate with its bohemian ideals, namely art, literature, drama, or music.

The second London arts club that attracted expatriate Australian artists was the New English Arts Club, founded in 1886 by young English artists returning from studying art in Paris. Members of The New English Arts Club were influenced by the Impressionist style as opposed to the academic art shown at the Royal Academy. As a meeting place for Australia’s expatriate artists, the New English Arts Club had a particular influence, as it exposed them to significant early Modern artist members such as John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Walter Sickert (1860–1942), William Orpen (1878–1931) and Augustus John (1878–1961) (Corbett and Perry; Thornton; Melbourne Savage Club).

The third, and arguably the most popular with the expatriate Australian artists’ club, was the Chelsea Arts Club, a bohemian club formed in 1891 by local working artists looking for a place to go to “meet, talk, eat and drink” (Cross).

Apart from the American-born founding member, James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), amongst the biggest Chelsea names at the time of the influx of travelling young Australian artists were modernists Sir William Orpen, Augustus John, and John Sargent. The opportunity to mix with these leading British contemporary artists was irresistible to these antipodean artists (55).

When Melbourne artist, Miles Evergood (1871–1939) arrived in London from America in 1910, he had been an active exhibiting member of the Salmagundi Club, a New York artists’ club. Almost immediately he joined the New English Arts Club and the Chelsea Arts Club. Hammer tells of him associating with “writer Israel Zangwill, sculptor Jacob Epstein, and anti-academic artists including Walter Sickert, Augustus John, John Lavery, John Singer Sargent and C.R.W. Nevison, who challenged art values in Britain at the beginning of the century”  (Hammer 41).

Arthur Streeton (1867–1943) used the Chelsea Arts Club as his postal address, as did many expatriate artists. The Melbourne Savage Club archives contain letters and greetings, with news from abroad, written from artist members back to their “Brother Savages” (Various).

In late 1902, Streeton wrote to fellow artist and Savage Club member Tom Roberts (1856–1931) from London:

I belong to the Chelsea Arts Club now, & meet the artists – MacKennel says it’s about the most artistic club (speaking in the real sense) in England. … They all seem to be here – McKennal, Longstaff, Mahony, Fullwood, Norman, Minns, Fox, Plataganet Tudor St. George Tucker, Quinn, Coates, Bunny, Alston, K, Sonny Pole, other minor lights and your old friend and admirer Smike – within 100 yards of here – there must be 30 different studios. (Streeton 94)

Whilst some of the artists whom Streeton mentioned were studying at either the Royal Academy or the Slade School, it was the clubs like the Chelsea Arts Club where they were most likely to encounter fellow Australian artists. Tom Roberts was obviously attentive to Streeton’s enthusiastic account and, when he returned to London the following year to work on his commission for The Big Picture of the 1901 opening of the first Commonwealth Parliament, he soon joined. Roberts, through his expansive personality, became particularly active in London’s Australian expatriate artistic community and later became Vice-President of the Chelsea Arts Club

Along with Streeton and Roberts, other visiting Melbourne Savage Club artists joined the Chelsea Arts Club. They included, John Longstaff (1861–1941), James Quinn (1869–1951), George Coates (1869–1930), and Will Dyson (1880–1938), along with Sydney artists Henry Fullwood (1863–1930), George Lambert (1873–1930), and Will Ashton (1881–1963) (Croll 95). Smith describes the exodus to London and Paris: “It was the Chelsea Arts Club that the Heidelberg School established its last and least distinguished camp” (Smith, Smith and Heathcote 152).

Streeton, who retained his Chelsea Arts Club membership when he returned for a while to Australia, wrote to Roberts in 1907, “I miss Chelsea & the Club-boys” (Streeton 107). In relation to Frederick McCubbin’s pending visit he wrote: “Prof McCubbin left here a week ago by German ‘Prinz Heinrich.’ … You’ll introduce him at the Chelsea Club and I hope they make him an Hon. Member, etc” (Streeton et al. 85). McCubbin wrote, after an evening at the Chelsea Arts Club, following a visit to the Royal Academy: “Tonight, I am dining with Australian artists in Soho, and shall be there to greet my old friends. How glad I am! Longstaff will be there, and Frank Stuart, Roberts, Fullwood, Pontin, Coates, Quinn, and Tucker’s brother, and many others from all around” (MacDonald, McCubbin and McCubbin 75). Impressed by the work of Turner he wrote to his wife Annie, following avisit to the Tate Gallery:

I went yesterday with Fullwood and G. Coates and Tom Roberts for a ramble … to the Tate Gallery – a beautiful freestone building facing the river through a portico into the gallery where the lately found turners are exhibited – these are not like the greater number of pictures in the National Gallery – they represent his different periods, but are mostly in his latest style, when he had realised the quality of light (McCubbin).

Clearly Turner’s paintings had a profound impression on him. In the same letter he wrote:

they are mostly unfinished but they are divine – such dreams of colour – a dozen of them are like pearls … mist and cloud and sea and land, drenched in light … They glow with tender brilliancy that radiates from these canvases – how he loved the dazzling brilliancy of morning or evening – these gems with their opal colour – you feel how he gloried in these tender visions of light and air. He worked from darkness into light.

The Chelsea Arts Club also served as a venue for artists to entertain and host distinguished visitors from home. These guests included; Melbourne Savage Club artist member Alf Vincent (Joske 112), National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Trustee and popular patron of the arts, Professor Baldwin Spencer (1860–1929), Professor Frederick S. Delmer (1864–1931) and conductor George Marshall-Hall (1862–1915) (Mulvaney and Calaby 329; Streeton 111).

Artist Miles Evergood arrived in London in 1910, and visited the Chelsea Arts Club. He mentions expatriate Australian artists gathering at the Club, including Will Dyson, Fred Leist (1873–1945), David Davies (1864–1939), Will Ashton  (1881–1963), and Henry Fullwood (Hammer 41).

Most of the Melbourne Savage Club artist members were active in the London Savage Club. On one occasion, in November 1908, Roberts, with fellow artist MacKennal in the Chair, attended the Australian Artists’ Dinner held there. This event attracted twenty-five expatriate Australian artists, all residing in London at the time (McQueen 532).

These London arts clubs had a significant influence on the expatriate Australian artists for they became the “glue” that held them together whilst abroad. Although some artists travelled abroad specifically to take up places at the Royal Academy School or the Slade School, only a minority of artists arriving in London from Australia and other British colonies were offered positions at these prestigious schools. Many artists travelled to “try their luck.” The arts clubs of London, whilst similarly discerning in their membership criteria, generally offered a visiting “brother-of-the-brush” a warm welcome as a professional courtesy. They featured the familiar rollicking all-male “Smoke Nights” a feature of the Melbourne Savage Club. With a greater “artist” membership than the clubs in Australia, expatriate artists were not only able to catch up with their friends from Australia, but also they could associate with England’s finest and most progressive artists in a familiar congenial environment. The clubs were a “home away from home” and described by Underhill as, “an artistic Earl’s Court” (Underhill 99). Most importantly, the clubs were a centre for discourse, arguably even more so than were the teaching academies. Britain’s leading modernist artists were members of the Chelsea Arts Club and the New English Arts Club and mixed freely with the visiting Australian artists.

Many Australian artists, such as Miles Evergood and George Bell (1878–1966), held anti-academic views similar to English club members and embraced the new artistic trends, which they would bring back to Australia. Streeton had no illusions about the relative worth of the famed institutions and the exhibitions held by clubs such as the New English. Writing to Roberts before he joins him in London, he describes the Royal Academy as having, “an inartistic atmosphere” and claims he “hasn’t the least desire to go again” (Streeton 77). His preference lay with a concurrent “International Exhibition”, which featured works by Rodin, Whistler, Condor, Degas, and others who were setting the pace rather than merely continuing the academic traditions.

Architect Hardy Wilson (1881–1955) served as secretary of The Chelsea Arts Club. When he returned to Australia he brought back with him a number of British works by Streeton and Lambert for an exhibition at the Guild Hall Melbourne (Underhill 92). Artists and Bohemians, a history of the Chelsea Arts Club, makes special reference of its world-wide contacts and singles out many of its prominent Australian members for specific mention including; Sir John William (Will) Ashton OBE, later Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Will Dyson, whose illustrious career as an Australian war artist was described in some detail. Dyson’s popularity led to his later appointment as Chairman of the Chelsea Arts Club where he initiated an ambitious rebuilding program, improving staff accommodation, refurbishing the members’ areas, and adding five bedrooms for visiting members (Bross 87-90).

Whilst the influence of travel abroad on Australian artists has been noted, the importance of the London Clubs has not been fully explored. These clubs offered artists a space where they felt “at home” and a familiar environment whilst they were abroad. The clubs functioned as a meeting space where they could engage in a stimulating artistic environment and gain introductions to leading figures in the art world. For those artists who chose England, London’s arts clubs played a large role, for it was in these establishments that they discussed, exhibited, shared, and met with their English counterparts. The club environment in London had a significant impact on male Australian artists as it offered a space where they were integrated into the English art world which enhanced their experience whilst abroad and influenced the direction of their art.


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Author Biography

Graeme Henry Williams, Federation University

Graeme Williams has a Fellowship Diploma in Architecture (RMIT), holds qualifications in Building Surveying (RMIT & Swinburne) and has both a Graduate Diploma and a Master of Business in Property (RMIT).  Graeme is currently a CRHAH Doctoral Candidate at Federation University, where his research involves the debate between the Modernists and Academicians which took place in 1930s and 40s Australia. His Master of Arts by Research thesis (Deakin) was awarded the Graeme Love Memorial Scholarship.