Evening (Mt Coot-tha from Dutton Park) 1898 (illustrated) currently on display at the Queensland Art Gallery, is an accomplished work of a painter aware of the work of his Australian contemporaries Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder. Frederick James (FJ) Martyn Roberts, born in 1871 was 27 at the time he completed Evening using the Australian impressionists broad-brushed technique to depict the landscape looking toward South Brisbane with Mt. Coot-tha in the distance.
Dutton Park, an inner southern suburb is bordered by Highgate Hill, Fairfield and Woolloongabba, and is only 3kms from Brisbane’s CBD. Development in the suburb was relatively slow because of difficult terrain as the area was originally heavily timbered with deep gullies, initially a farming area, however by around the 1890s, the area became increasingly populated.
You can see similar perspectives photographed in 1884 taken from O’Rielly’s Hill (now Highgate Hill) looking across West End (then South Brisbane) towards Toowong, with Mt. Coot-tha in the distance with the unsealed road now Dornoch Terrace. Contemporary photography of the Brisbane River from Dutton Park in 1914 and later are a good indication as to what Martyn Roberts would have seen, with views documented from Mt Coot-tha looking back to Dutton Park showing the Brisbane River snaking through the recently formed municipality.
Contemporary views from Dutton Park
Contemporary view from Mt. Coot-tha to Dutton Park
Although artists like Godfrey Rivers, perhaps Brisbane’s most prominent artist of the time when Evening… was painted, best known for Under the jacaranda 1903, he was not overtly influenced by the techniques of the Australian impressionists, however, the style was not unknown in Brisbane. All the significant artists working in the style came from the southern states — a number of works that had been influenced by the movement were being created and exhibited in Brisbane.
The inclusion of works by prominent southern artists, including Julian Ashton, Sydney Long and Tom Roberts, in the Queensland Art Society Annual Exhibitions during the 1890s was greeted with enthusiasm by local reviewers and artists. There was optimism that a continued presence by these artists would assist the development of the local art scene, and although few continued to exhibit with the Society after the turn of the century, and the works sent were not of the highest quality, Brisbane did experience at least a limited exposure to their work.1
The most notable Brisbane artist experimenting with the style was a student and colleague of Rivers, FJ Martyn Roberts, whose painting Evening shows that by 1898, at least one influential local artist was using the impressionists technique to depict a landscape in the afterglow — a favourite pictorial device of the Heidelberg School artists. Roberts had spent a short time in Sydney during the 1890s under the tutelage of Julian Ashton, and he had painted en plein air with a number of other members of Sydney’s avant-garde.
FJ Martyn Roberts ‘Evening (Mt Coot-tha from Dutton Park)’
Evening was immediately recognised as a ‘modern’ work at its display in the Queensland Art Society’s 1898 Annual Exhibition. Roberts’s painting shared the Society’s prizes that year and the Brisbane Courier reviewed the work with guarded enthusiasm:
Mr Roberts is an impressionist, and an exponent of much of the broad modern school of work… Altogether the picture is a very vigorous and distinctly convincing suggestion, and a promise of the future excellence of the artist is contained in it.2
Roberts’s style attracted much local attention, and many years later it was regretted that he had not been able to paint more prolifically, due to his teaching commitments at the Brisbane Technical College where he succeeded Rivers as Supervisor of the Art Department.3
He was somewhat in advance of his time … had the opportunity been his to continue more as a practising painter than as a tutor he would have held a place to-day with Streeton, Gruner, and Lambert. His work and that of Streeton was [sic] very similar in those far-off days.4
Edited extract from ‘Looking for the ‘Beau Mode’ in Brisbane: Godfrey Rivers Under the jacaranda‘ by Sara Tiffin from Brought to Light: Australian Art 1850-1965, Queensland Art Gallery, 1998. Curatorial extracts, research and supplementary material compiled by Elliott Murray, Senior Digital Marketing Officer, QAGOMA
1 Brown & Maynard, p.187.
2 Brisbane Courier, 28 July 1898, p.2.
3 Roberts attained the position ahead of Max Meldrum who had also applied for the position with the endorsement of the prime minister and members of the Senate (David Seibert, ‘The Queensland College of Art 1881-1985’, The Professional Officer, August/September 1985, p.100).
4 P. Stanhope Hobday, art master at Brisbane Polytechnic and one-time president of the Queensland Authors’ and Artists’ Association, quoted on the occasion of Roberts’s retirement, in ‘Art Master to retire’, press clippings file, 1937, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.
FJ Martyn Roberts
FJ Martyn Roberts was a major influence on students and artists in Brisbane. He began teaching in 1894 at the South Brisbane Technical College and after a number of moves within the system was appointed Supervisor of the Arts Department at the Central Technical College in 1916 following the resignation of Godfrey Rivers in 1915. Roberts held this position until his retirement in 1936 despite widespread public agitation to have his appointment extended. Noted artists among his pupils at the Technical College were Lloyd Rees and Daphne Mayo.