Nunn on Longstaff, Part 1

In the first of two reflections, conservator Catherine Nunn writes about two small paintings by John Longstaff in our collection. Nunn has been researching these works for her PhD in Technical Art History/Conservation. Here she touches on Longstaff's biography and in the next Reflection Nunn discusses her technical examination of the paintings.

John Longstaff, Moonlight after Rain, Belle -Île,  1890, oil on canvas mounted on cardboard, 19/7 x 26.5cm. Purchased 1940. Collection Castlemaine Art Museum. Image: Ian Hill.

Longstaff’s convalescence on Belle-Île

I am a PhD researcher and an independent painting conservator, and I have been visiting CAM since 2019; making the trip from Melbourne in between our lockdowns to examine the art collection. My research is currently focussed on two paintings in the CAM collection that were created in France around the same time as the little-known ‘Russian influenza’ pandemic of 1889-90 swept across the world. These are two small paintings by John Longstaff: Cabbage Plot, Belle-Île, and Moonlight After Rain, Belle-Île.

In 1888, John Longstaff arrived in Paris with his wife Louisa Rosa Crocker, known as ‘Topsy’. CAM has an engaging portrait of Topsy by Longstaff, which was the subject of an earlier Reflection by Helen Kaptein. Longstaff had won the inaugural National Gallery Travelling Scholarship in 1887, a much sought-after award that allowed the young Australian artist to travel to Europe to study at the Parisian art schools and copy Old Masters in the great galleries of Europe. While in Paris, Longstaff became ill with what his biographers have called ‘black influenza’ (Murdoch 1948, p. 99; Joske 1994, p. 59). At the time, Longstaff and Topsy were living in a miserable one-room lodging, which a curtain partition allowed to double as a studio. Fortunately, his friend the fellow Australian artist, John Russell, invited Longstaff to visit his home on the island of Belle-Île as part of his convalescence. Longstaff and Topsy accepted this invitation and stayed for several months in the summer of 1889.

John Longstaff, Cabbage Plot, Belle-Île, c.1889, oil on canvas (lined onto canvas), 27.0 x 46.0 cm. Gift of Mrs Brent Clark, 1942 in memory of her son Sgt. G.H.B. Clark, who died at Gaza, Palestine, on 11 February 1941. Collection Castlemaine Art Museum. Image: Ian Hill.

I had thought that the ‘black influenza’ from which Longstaff was recovering must have been ‘Russian influenza’. However, after further research I discovered that the ‘Russian influenza’ pandemic did not reach Paris until December 1889, and since Longstaff had become ill earlier that year, this was not possible. Nevertheless, Longstaff slowly recovered from his protracted illness on Belle-Île, and although Topsy and Russell’s wife fell out (forcing the visitors to find alternative accommodation), Longstaff created several paintings on the island in an uncharacteristic flirtation with the colours and techniques of Impressionism, as can be seen in these works from the CAM collection.

When Longstaff arrived at Belle-Île, Russell was already working in an expressive, high-key Impressionist style, having painted with both Monet and Van Gogh. Russell’s influence on Longstaff at this time is clear in these two paintings. The sun-drenched Cabbage Plot, Belle-Île is painted with short strokes of pure colour, creating the effect of the shimmering heat reflecting off the roof of the low farm building. Moonlight After Rain, Belle-Île is a similarly impressionistic work, but in contrast, captures the effects of low, subdued light. Longstaff kept this painting until the year before his death, and according to his biographer Nina Murdoch, he remarked to a friend that he would sooner have it in Castlemaine Gallery ‘than in any other in Australia, since that one was beautifully lit and only the best Australian work was admitted to it’ (Murdoch 1948, p. 102).

Longstaff’s stay on Belle-Île evidently did the trick for his recovery; he was able to return to Paris and painted the monumental The Sirens (1892) of 3m x 2m to satisfy the commitments of his Scholarship (now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria).

When reflecting on the impact of the current pandemic and the potential recovery of our normal lives, I ponder whether if not for Longstaff’s illness, would Russell have invited him to come and convalesce on the island? And without this experience, would this brief moment of Impressionism have ever occurred in Longstaff’s oeuvre? Luckily for CAM it did, and in this instance, a period of convalescence altered the course of a life in a fertile way.

Catherine Nunn
November 2021

Catherine Nunn

Catherine Nunn is a PhD candidate and independent conservator. She has held conservation positions at numerous institutions around the world, including the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), Hamilton Kerr Institute (University of Cambridge), Auckland Art Gallery (New Zealand) and National Gallery of Victoria. She examined CAM’s collection of paintings by E. Phillips Fox for her MA (University of Melbourne, 2011) and is consulting the CAM collection for her current PhD research on the materiality of Australian painters working in France from 1884-1915, supported by an Australian Government Research Training Scholarship and supervised by Dr Nicole Tse, Dr Alison Inglis and Dr Petronella Nel. Catherine recently conserved CAM’s Portrait of Jo Sweatman by AME Bale for the Archie 100 touring exhibition. Her business, Catherine Nunn Art Restoration, undertakes museum-quality conservation of paintings for regional galleries, private collectors and art dealers.

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