Whilst most painters work long hours alone they don’t paint in a vacuum. Companionship, intellectual stimulation and patronage are essential elements in the lives of all artists. This is as true today as it has always been.
The camaraderie that existed amongst the community of painters who met, camped and painted along the shores of Port Phillip Bay and out at Box Hill and Heidelberg was part of the fabric that defined them. McCubbin, Roberts, Streeton, Conder, Withers were friends who together formed what was to become the Heidelberg School.
What isn’t as well known as these painters was that, when the group was first forming as they painted together in their camps, there was another painter who has remained relatively unknown amongst the common public. His name was Louis Abrahams - The Don to his friends. Here is a portrait of him as painted by Tom Roberts.
The first en plain air camp for these artists was in 1886 on a farm in Box Hill. Abrahams was there with the main players: Roberts, McCubbin, Streeton and Conder. Here is a painting done by Abrahams and ironically and significantly it is of the artists’ camp.
Apart from painting together, they discussed their ideas and smoked pipes and possibly cigars provided by Louis whose family owned a cigar box factory in Box Hill. And this factory was to define his destiny and in many ways the destiny of his artistic friends.
There can be no doubt that Louis wanted to be an artist. He here is at his easel painted by John Mather.
But the combination of family pressure and possibly not quite the talent the other painters had, Louis began work in the family cigar business of B. Sniders and Abrahams which I think is still standing today in Melbourne CBD at 8 Drewery Place, off Lonsdale St. This is the picture I have shown in today's hero image. And here is Louis' wife Golda as painted by Tom Roberts. Golda was an amateur sketcher herself.
And here is their daughter Julie as painted by Louis Abrahams.
Louis obviously still loved the arts and his friends the painters, so he set about providing them with the materials they couldn't afford to buy. He also agreed to sit as an artist model and is immortalised, rather sadly in McCubbin's Down on his Luck.
But McCubbin and his mates weren't down on their luck as Louis Abrahams arranged to provide the cigar box lid panels to the Heidelberg painters for the famous 9x5 Impression Exhibition held in Melbourne in 1889. Roberts, Streeton and Conder were the 3 principal artists involved in the exhibition of 183 works (about half were painted on the cigar box lids) and which is considered to have defined the new direction for Australian landscape painting.
Here are three examples of the cigar box lid paintings. The first By the Treasury by Tom Roberts which sold for $200,000 in 2002.
Then Evening Game by Arthur Streeton.
And Arcadia by Charles Conder.
By now you must know how much I love to link facts together. Guess where the inspiration for the exhibition came from? An exhibition titled Notes-Harmonies-Nocturnes held in London in 1884 by none other than the ubiquitous Jimmy Whistler! We can assume that Tom Roberts saw the exhibition and returned to Australia determined to hold something similar in order to promote and define their work. And the support (especially in terms of funds) for such a controversial exhibition came from their friend and now patron Louis Abrahams. The exhibition was a great success with nearly 80 of the pictures being sold.
There was no precedent in the history of Australian art for artists grouping together to plan, promote and present an exhibition that reflected such a unified vision, and which aimed to engage the public with what was still widely regarded as a bold new approach to painting. (Ref: NGV)
Louis Abrahams and his wife Golda, along with Louis’ brother Lawrence, were significant patrons of the Heidelberg artists helping to support them financially and also purchasing their works.
Let us remember Louis for his generosity. Here is his painting Reflection.
The business of Sniders & Abrahams became famous for the collectable sporting cards that could be found in its cigarette packets. They are highly sought-after today and can fetch thousands of dollars at auction.