Nunn on Longstaff, Part 2

Last week, conservator Catherine Nunn discussed two small paintings by John Longstaff in our collection. Nunn has been researching these works for her PhD in Technical Art History/Conservation. In this Reflection, Nunn discusses her technical examination of the paintings.

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.

Convalescence and canvases

John Longstaff's Cabbage Plot, Belle-Île, and Moonlight After Rain, Belle-Île were painted on the French island of Belle-Île in the summer of 1889. John Russell had invited Longstaff to come and stay with him there to convalesce from ‘black influenza’ which Longstaff had contracted in Paris. I have been analysing these paintings as part of my PhD research to help understand more about Australian painters working in France during this period.

During the time Longstaff painted on Belle-Île, his technique became more Impressionistic in response to the influence of Russell, who had worked with Monet and Van Gogh. This can be seen in these paintings from the CAM collection in the high-key palette and expressive technique where paint is rapidly applied with square brushes. Likewise, Longstaff’s use of small canvases for his paintings on Belle-Île reflects his adaptation to the local environment.

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.

In major cities, canvases could be bought from artist’s colourmen (specialist art supply stores) in standard sizes, pre-stretched and ready for painting. When working in Paris, Longstaff painted on these kinds of commercially stretched canvases, but on Belle-Île he used different materials. When travelling, it would have been cumbersome to transport bulky stretched canvases, and it was probably difficult to buy them on the island. Longstaff’s works executed on Belle-Île are instead painted on loose pieces of canvas, which have subsequently been lined (adhered onto a secondary support). Longstaff probably cut these small canvases from a large roll of fabric and then pinned them onto a flat board for painting. A flat piece of canvas would have been easier to carry to the plein-air painting location and would also have been more practical to transport back to Paris after the summer.

When comparing the dimensions of Cabbage Plot, Belle-Île (27.0 x 46.0 cm), and Moonlight After Rain, Belle-Île (19.7 x 26.5 cm), the height of the larger and width of the smaller are very similar (27.0 and 26.5 cm). Accounting for some loss along the edges during the lining process, it’s likely that both pieces were originally cut from the same roll of canvas. Another painting done by Longstaff on Belle-Île, now in the National Gallery of Victoria, (Farm, Belle-Île, c. 1889, 12.2 x 25 cm) may also have been cut from this roll of canvas. This painting is of the low, whitewashed farm buildings that appear in Cabbage Plot, Belle-Île, and it is also painted on a small piece of canvas that has been adhered to a board. Comparing the dimensions of this work (width of 25 cm) with the CAM paintings, it’s probable that these three canvases were all cut from the same canvas roll, from a strip about 80cm wide.

E Philips Fox, On the Mediterranean Coast, 1880-1915, oil on canvas, 38 x 45.5cm. Presented, 1935. Collection Castlemaine Art Museum. Image: Ian Hill.

It’s not unusual for artists to modify their materials to suit the environment. For example, the Australian Impressionist painter E. Phillips Fox prepared his own canvases when he was travelling, as seen in On the Mediterranean Coast from the CAM collection. Fox painted this work while on an extended painting trip around the Mediterranean and Northern Africa with his wife Ethel Carrick. It appears that Fox originally used these canvases for practical reasons when working ‘in the field’, however, he evidently liked the resultant surface effects and they became an intentional aesthetic feature of his works. His Standing Nude in the CAM collection was painted in the garden of his Paris home (65 Boulevard Arago). It also has a home-made priming layer, which creates a matt, pastel-like surface effect. Despite painting this work in Paris, with easy access to commercially prepared canvases from his colourman (the Foinet/Lefebvre firm, situated just a few blocks away at the corner of Rue Brea and Rue Vavin), Fox instead chose to prepare this canvas himself with an absorbent priming layer. This helps to create the diffraction of light from the rough, matt surface, which contributes to the verisimilitude of the shimmering heat reflected from the model’s flesh.

E Philips Fox, On the Mediterranean Coast, oil on board, 91.2 x 57.1cm. Purchased, 2010. Collection Castlemaine Art Museum. Image: Ian Hill.

While Longstaff adapted his technique to achieve a more Impressionist approach on Belle-Île, many of his other paintings have suffered from extensive cracking. This ‘alligatoring’ is caused by the different drying times of multiple paint layers, and his copy of Titian’s Entombment (Entombment of Christ (c.1888), 146.5 x 212.5, National Gallery of Victoria) is one such example. Fortunately, Longstaff’s Belle-Île works in the CAM collection do not suffer from these ills, thanks to their rapid, Impressionistic technique. However, Longstaff’s flirtation with these methods was short lived. After his time on Belle-Île, he went on to become a sought-after traditional portraitist, and most of his other works are painted on conventional, commercially stretched canvases, often with dark, labouriously applied layers, prone to cracking. In 1920 he returned permanently to Australia, and his work settled into what art historian Leigh Astbury has called a “basically academic and conservative” pattern; but on Belle-Île, his paintings were quite different.

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.

Womindjika Woorineen willam bit
Willam Dja Dja Wurrung Balug
Wokuk mung gole-bo-turoi
talkoop mooroopook

Welcome to our homeland,
home of the Dja Dja Wurrung people
we offer you people good spirit.
Uncle Rick Nelson

The Jaara people of the Dja Dja Wurrung are the Custodians of the land and waters on which we live and work. We pay our respects to the Elders past, present and emerging. We extend these same sentiments to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations peoples.

Enter here