The enthusiasm for painting outdoors, embraced by the Impressionist movement in France, hit Sydney in the 1880s. A handful of artist camps were established around Sydney Harbour in the last two decades of the 19th century, leading to a prolific creative outpouring of landscape paintings that includes some of my favourite paintings of Sydney.
Where were these camps? Well, two of the most famous ones were at Balmoral Beach and Little Sirius Cove.
The one at Balmoral Beach centred around a weekender built by Bulletin cartoonist Livingston Hopkins (aka Hop) and was established in the 1880s. Among the artists who frequented this camp were Julian Ashton, AH Fullwood, Frank Mahony, John Mather and Frederic Schell.
Living and painting outdoors gave artists new subjects and challenges. All the artists involved in the camps pursued new subject matter, exploring maritime scenes and contrasting the city with the still, idyllic bushland and coves of the north shore.
Melbourne artists Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton came up to Sydney in the 1890s and they were captivated by Sydney Harbour. They spent considerable periods painting around the harbour and formulating different views of Sydney from across the water. Roberts and Streeton were associated with the Curlew Camp at Little Sirius Cove (below today’s Taronga Zoo).
There is a wonderful photograph in the Dictionary from the State Library’s collections (see below), showing Streeton in action, crouched by the water, shirt off, painting en plein air.
The camps were popular with male artists because of the camaraderie, creativity, bohemian freedom and cheap living. It is worthwhile noting that women artists did not stay at the camps, but were frequent visitors. Many women were also bitten by the plein air bug and became enthusiastic landscape painters.
The Mosman artists’ camps were relatively short-lived, petering out in the first decade of the 20th century. But their artistic output and influence made an extraordinary contribution to landscape painting and Sydney’s art scene.
You can also experience the harbourside beauty of Sirius Cove for yourself on the Curlew Camp Artists’ Walk developed by Mosman Council and Taronga Zoo. The walk is about 1.6km, follows the route around Little Sirius Cove used to access the artists’ camp in the 1890s, and there are interpretive signs along the way. A detailed map is available from Mosman Council’s website here.
And there is a beautiful retrospective of Streeton’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW on exhibition now until 14 February 2021. Find details here.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa, for ten years of unstinting support of the Dictionary! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio