Life in Australia during the early 1890’s was fraught with hardship. The colonies were not yet united and in the grip of a severe depression. Banks and building societies were collapsing and numerous small businesses were closing and being placed into liquidation.
To add to the woes a severe drought had settled across the land. The price of wool, long known as the backbone of the colonies, had halved as had the sheep numbers, falling from a record peak of 106 million in the 1880’s to 60 million by 1890. The drought and lack of liquidity eroded the living standards of most and shattered the hopes of many.
The 1890’s were also close to the time when a national identity in art was established. A few years earlier Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts were instrumental in developing a palette to reflect the colour of the Australian landscape. The change in colour was widely acknowledged across the artistic community and Sydney’s leading painter of the era William Lister Lister would say “As a result of our English training Fullwood and myself were painting in low tones, but after seeing Streeton’s work, we began to observe that the colour and atmosphere of the landscape were brighter than we had previously realised.”
This piece Newbold Crossing is an example of Fullwood’s work from 1890’s. The brushwork and colour is an endorsement of Streeton’s theories and influence. When this work was painted, Fullwood, Streeton and others including Julian Ashton and Tom Roberts worked and lived in the harbour camp at Mosman Bay, which was one of a number of established sites scattered around Sydney. These well-established camps were for men who could not afford to live in town and gave a degree of comfort that living rough couldn’t equal. Each camp came with a cook and the cost of accommodation was £1 per week.
Newbold Crossing is a complicated work and contains a number of messages. It depicts the effect of unrestrained clearing and over grazing by hard hoofed animals on the landscape. The ring barked trees are clearly visible and as with the land the people on the deep rutted track are a couple with an uncertain future before them. With their worldly goods and billy in hand the husband wife are setting forth into the unknown. They are on the Wallaby Track, that mythical track that swagmen followed around the countryside in pursuit of food, lodgings and (hopefully) employment. To increase the drama of the scene and with two deft strokes of his brush Fullwood has introduced a baby into the subject and the couple turn into a young family.
More than a landscape this work is a social commentary that’s poignancy has been lost with time. Fullwood has linked the condition of the land to that of its inhabitants in a subtle and non-confrontational manner – both the land and its people have an uncertain future before them and though the scene may appear idyllic, it is anything but.
There is a similarity in dramatic intent included in Streeton’s Fire’s on Lapstone Tunnel which was painted in 1891. In addition to the majesty of the Blue Mountain landscape Streeton has added the non-intrusive side drama of workmen carrying on a stretcher a deceased compatriot from the mouth of the tunnel. As with Fullwood in Newbold Crossing Streeton was asking the viewer to look further than the obvious – this landscape is filled with human drama.
In 1896 Frederick McCubbin was to paint a large narrative and romantic work titled “On The Wallaby” depicting a swagman with his wife and baby in camp. There is no suggestion of romance in this piece by Fullwood. It is a simple statement of the facts of the day, painted in the new style the time.
Prior to “Fire’s On Lapstone Tunnel,” Streeton’s work was a celebration of the Australian landscape and light, sometimes populated with people at play, work or leisure. Not before Fire’s On Lapstone Tunnel had the tragedy associated with working life been evident in his pictures. Perhaps Fullwood was able to share with Streeton an ability to casually introduce a narrative into a landscape, making the picture compelling viewing from any distance and containing the narrative not immediately obvious.