They called him “The Orderly Colonel”.
It was a name given to him affectionately by his fellow artists as a passing nod to his organized ways. They started out as a loose association in the mid ’80s in what was then semi-rural Box Hill, experimenting with plein air painting, but as suburbia overtook the artists’ camps along the Gardiners Creek they relocated to a new camp on “Mount Eagle”, at an old cottage at what is now Summit Drive in Eaglemont near Heidelberg, cementing in our consciousness by doing so an art movement that would forever be remembered as the “Heidelberg School”, Australia’s first nationally focused art movement.
Typically it was Walter (Walt) Withers, The Colonel, who found them another home when the group moved from the Eaglemont cottage. In September, 1890 Withers arranged a lease on the late David Charteris MacArthur’s “Charterisville”, just to the south of Mount Eagle, and here he painted and taught while subletting the lodges to a procession of his fellow artists. The contemporary critic Sidney Dickinson named him, along with Arthur Streeton, as a leader of the “Heidelberg School”, which in Withers’ case was almost certainly an exaggeration, but there is no doubting his significant role within the group.
In the critical period between 1889-90, at a time when Frederick McCubbin and several others were still painting in a conventional style, it has been noted that Withers “was experimenting with a brave and confident impressionistic style” and that “he was probably the first artist to paint major works using techniques of impasto”, (holmes à court Gallery).
When the Heidelberg School artists dispersed to other places after those “Glorious Summers” of the late 80s and early 90s, it was the English born Withers who chose to stay on in the Heidelberg district and paint impressions of the Australian bush while the Australian born Streeton left to paint in foreign fields and the real leader of the Heidelberg School, Tom Roberts was lost to portraiture. Withers alone remained, the sight of his bicycle with canvas and painting box strapped on board becoming a regular sight throughout the Heidelberg district.
In 1894, with his wife Fanny and the beginnings of their family of six children, Walt leased another house in Cape St, Heidelberg where he taught painting while maintaining a city studio.
Four years later the Withers family moved again to a new home, “Withers Court” on the corner of Darebin and Hawdon Streets, Heidelberg and it was probably there or at Cape Street that the grown up daughters of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge took painting lessons from him, learning techniques they would bring to their home to paint selected interior joinery at the homestead.
Possibly it was a social as well as an artistic outlet for the Wragge girls. Their mother, Sarah Anne Wragge wrote cryptically and critically in 1898 in a letter that she believed her daughters weren’t learning much about painting under the artist’s supervision.
“So Jessie has finished her paintings at last, and I quite think with you that there must be more talk than work at that studio.” (Sarah Anne Wragge – her underline – quoted by Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales)
The weather boarded Withers Court house still stands next to the rail tunnel in Heidelberg near to where the current duplication of the rail line between Heidelberg and Rosanna is right now, in a way that is pertinent to this story, reshaping the surrounding landscape. It was the building of the original cutting and rail tunnel under Darebin Street that determined Walt to move his family from Heidelberg in 1903 to a new location in Eltham. A large rock, blasted from the Heidelberg cutting, had crashed through the roof of his studio and damaged the canvas he had been working on, making Walt’s mind up in the process that it was high time to move on.
The Withers family relocated to “Southernwood”, a small farm set on 2 ½ acres on Bolton St, Eltham opposite the Montmorency Estate where he built a large adjoining studio. Here he spent the last 10 years of his life, famously painting many scenes in and around Eltham while still continuing to roam further afield on his bicycle as the painting mood took him.
He was living there, dividing his time by spending weekdays at his city studio and his weekends with his family at Southernwood when one day in 1907 he headed off from Eltham on a painting expedition on the road to Heidelberg. The result of that day, a small, loosely painted plein air oil sketch, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria alongside some other more well-known and polished Withers’ masterpieces, carries the somewhat misleading title, “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg”. The title has helped to obscure the identity of this sketch for a hundred years as the result of a close inspection of the painting, which is freely available to view online the NGV web site, has only now revealed some rather familiar details.
In 1907 “Heidelberg” would have been a somewhat generic term. The old blue stone, Lower Plenty Road Bridge marked the official separation of Lower Plenty and Main Roads but it was on the Lower Plenty or Main Rd side that Walt appears to have set up his easel that day to paint the sort of rural Australian scene so beloved by him.
The apparently anonymous building in the painting on the left side of the road is on closer study quite obviously a loose interpretation of nothing other than the old Plenty Bridge Hotel, the story of which has been recounted on several occasions within the pages of this blog.
From the service wing with chimney, set at right angles to the main building, the post and rail fence on the opposite side of the road and the poplars planted at the far end of the building – the details are all there.
It was a light bulb moment when I was looking at this painting on the NGV web site and realised what I was really looking at. Withers has painted the land fall past the front of the PBH towards the valley of the Lower Plenty River, showing the road stretching towards the approaches of the bridge, hidden by the bend, just as it is today.
It got me thinking and to doing a little reading. Two versions of a biography of Walt Withers written by his widow Fanny have been reproduced in Andrew Mackenzie’s 1987 book, “Walter Withers – The Forgotten Manuscripts”. The longer of these two biographies, somewhat misleadingly titled, “A Short Biography of Walt Withers”, was published by Withers’ fellow Heidelberg School artist Alexander McCubbin in about 1920. Together, the two biographies contain Fanny’s written descriptions of many of her husband’s artworks and reading through them they make for some rather interesting details in the telling.
In 1907 Withers had painted a major canvas which Fanny called “Springtime on the Lower Plenty”, or “The Valley of the Lower Plenty, Victoria”, the obverse of which contained a replica of another Withers work. The story of the main painting as explained in Fanny’s writing is confusing because she freely interchanges the titles of her husband’s artworks in the context of the two biographies, but from the description “Springtime” was obviously an enlarged, studio version of the NGV oil sketch. I use the third person singular indicative as sadly the painting was destroyed in a devastating bush fire at Eltham on Black Friday, 13 January 1939.
Fortunately another painting of the same subject but painted in the tones of Autumn, “but from another point of view” was started at about the same time as “Springtime” and was worked on by Withers on and off up until the day he died. This painting has been called both “The Return from the Harvest” and “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” which makes for more confusion but Fanny wrote that it was a favourite of the artist and the largest canvas her husband ever worked upon.
“Again a road subject, with three figures, swags on their backs, two together and one following behind, walking with swinging steps towards the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees, at the side of the road. The time is Autumn, and the colouring rich and full toned. This painting is the most romantic of the painter’s work. It was much beloved by him, and it was the last canvas he painted on, the sky being completed by him the day before he was seized by his last attack of illness.” (Fanny Withers writing in “The Life and Work of Walter Withers, Landscape Painter.)
The painting was purchased and gifted to the Geelong Art Gallery which inexplicably today does not keep it on current display. It is some years since I saw the painting in the Geelong gallery myself and my memory of it is vague but clearly from the above description the painting is another image produced from painting expeditions to the countryside around the Plenty Bridge Hotel.
Recent attempts to gain a viewing of the original of this artwork at Geelong have been unsuccessful. The very poor resolution reproduction from the Gallery shown here does not allow for an observation of “the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees” described by Fanny but it does give a general feeling of the landscape on the western approach to the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge. In this painting the trees on the left hand side of the picture mark the southern boundary of Thomas Wragge’s Yallambie and one is left wondering whether the three swagmen returning “from the harvest” and painted by Withers might have been itinerant field workers going for a drink at the Plenty Bridge Hotel after a long day working in the Yallambie fields.
Maybe Walt even dropped by the Homestead that day to pay a visit to his former painting students, heading off with Sarah Annie’s husband, Walter Murdoch for a drink, as was Murdoch’s want, at the Plenty Bridge soon afterwards. It’s a thought.
Plagued by ill health later in life, Walt Withers died at Eltham of cerebral thrombosis on 13th October, 1914 aged just 59 years.
His daughter remembered him as being six feet tall in his socks and solidly built, with brown hair slightly curling at the sides, big, soft, hazel eyes and a large, bushy moustache. He is buried in the church side graveyard at the Rose Chapel (St Katherine’s), St Helena.
Writing in the forward of Andrew Mackenzie’s book, Kathleen Mangan, the daughter of Charles McCubbin wrote of the Heidelberg School artists that:
“…it was a time of freedom of spirit, gaiety, and great artistic and intellectual advancement, a glorious burst of artistic achievement which erupted into flame at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, a flame that was all too quickly extinguished by the Outbreak of World War One.”
The Great War was only two months old when Withers died. The artist mantra in the district passed to others, the colonies at Montsavat in Eltham and the Heide Circle at Bulleen becoming just two expressions. A story from the Heidelberg Artists Society of an incident involving artists during the Second War has a certain relevance to the Yallambie story. It is recorded that one day around 1940, two painters had set up their easels in the vicinity of Banyule Rd when a farmer armed with a shotgun and accompanied by a couple of enormous dogs arrived on the scene demanding to know their business. The artists were dressed for painting in Army disposals – slouch hats and blue boiler suits – while from a distance their easels might have been mistaken for surveyors’ tripods.
At that time the Army had just resumed a part of the old Yallambie Estate nearby to create Camp Q (Watsonia), now known as the Simpson Barracks, and the unnamed farmer feared that a survey heralding a forced annexation of his own land was about to take place. Summing up the relative sizes of the farmer’s firearm and the jaws of his hungry hounds, the artists wisely packed away their easels for another day, the decision possibly a loss to art but a gain for rural diplomacy in the district.
The association of the work of Walt Withers with the story of the Yallambie area joins the tradition of the earlier pictures of A E Gilbert and E L Bateman and the writings of Richard and William Howitt and Louisa Anne Meredith. For all that, the work of Walt Withers has fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years. Not one of the paintings he produced in and around the Heidelberg and Eltham districts and that are now in public ownership are currently on display at the galleries. “The Return from the Harvest”, AKA “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, described by Fanny as “the most romantic of the painter’s work… much beloved by him” and likewise the NGV’s oil sketch “Springtime” must remain therefore, at least for present time, unobserved.
Heightening this unfortunate circumstance is the reality of the danger posed to the artists’ footsteps by the plans of the North East Link Authority, a subject and side subject of this blog in recent times. The location of the two Walt Withers paintings discussed above stands under direct threat of the potential building of a Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty. The tranquillity of Walt Withers churchyard grave at St Helena would be broken by the building of a Corridor C. And the implications of Corridor A on the legacy of the Heidelberg School in Banyule goes without saying.
Does anybody care?
His paintings largely forgotten, his Plenty Valley and Heidelberg subjects at risk of being despoiled by the road builders – poor Walt, “The Orderly Colonel” must be turning over in his St Helena grave.