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Walter Withers

Walter Withers

1854 – 1914

The fact that Walter Withers was president of the Victorian Artists’ Society for only one year from October 1904 to October 1905 does not mean that his involvement was minimal. In fact Walter Withers served on the Council of the Society continuously for 23 years from 1890 until 1913.

Unlike the previous president of the Victorian Artists’ Society, Frederick McCubbin, who has had many books and articles written about him and numerous exhibitions of his work, Walter Withers has had little attention. His widow Fanny wrote a biography of her late husband c. 1919, a slim volume of only 28 pages titled The Life and Art of Walter Withers. It was published in the early 1920’s by Alexander McCubbin (1893-1945), the third child of Frederick and Annie McCubbin.

Withers had to wait more than 60 years until 1987 for a second book, when the Mannagum Press published Walter Withers: The Forgotten Manuscripts. This book is another slim volume with many fascinating early photographs and documents from the family archives, which illustrate the life of Walter Withers, the family man and artist.

Compiled by Andrew Mackenzie, it contains a foreword by Frederick McCubbin’s youngest child, Kathleen Mangan (1906-1999), an introduction to Withers’ life and work, a study of the historic panels at the Manifold Estate at Purrumbete, the writings of Fanny Withers including her article on The Victorian Artists’ Society’s Annual general meeting, 31st October 1911, her manuscripts on the life and art of her husband and some contemporary newspaper notices of Withers’ work. Richly illustrated with works of art, photographs, documents and copies of the illustrated envelopes from letters that Walter sent to his daughters, it is an informative and fascinating glimpse into the life of this artist.

Kathleen Mangan writes of her memories of the interaction between the McCubbin family and the Withers family. “There was a close bond between my family and the Withers family. When the artists of the Heidelberg School drifted off to other states or settled in England and Paris, Walter Withers and my father preferred to remain in Victoria. Withers became involved with the moods of the Australian landscape and revelled in painting it as he saw it. He shared this love of the bush and the countryside with my father, and this shared feeling for the sunjects they each loved to paint brought them together and they became firm friends. It was a friendship that flowed on to their wives – Fanny Withers and my mother, Annie McCubbin – and they too became close friends.”

Walter Withers was born in 1854, the youngest of fourteen children, at Aston Manor, Warwickshire, England. His father owned a successful rope manufacturing business and wanted his son to follow him into a business career, not sharing his son’s enthusiasm for art. Walter showed an early love of nature, of the beautiful English countryside, taking long tramps with a knapsack on his back and expressing his love of the landscape in watercolour. Amateur theatricals, so popular in England, turned the course of his life. A forest scene was needed for a Christmas performance in a private house. Someone in the company suggested that Walter should paint the backdrop and despite his protestations that he had never painted in oils, the stage manager bought the materials, provided a room for him to use and the writer of the play was on hand to give instructions. The scenery was a great success and received loud applause when the curtain went up. Between 1870-1882 Walter attended the Royal Academy Schools of South Kensington and London.

Walter Withers - 'The Drover' - 1912  

Collection: Bendigo Art Gallery

Walter’s father, still adamantly opposed to life as an artist for his son, offered him a sum of money to go to America or Australia to start on the land. Walter chose Australia and arrived in Melbourne in 1883 with little money, soon leaving for the country where he worked as a jackeroo in the Western District for eighteen months until he returned to Melbourne with nothing much to show for his hard work, but a developing love of the very different Australian countryside and friendships with a number of wealthy landowners including William Thompson Manifold.

He painted a few small oil panels to send home for Christmas and when he went to buy some boxes to pack them in, the proprietor of the shop commissioned him to paint as many as he could before Christmas Eve. Life as a painter seemed to become more than a dream.

As with most of the early artists, he worked for printing firms and his black and white skills developed. From 1884?1887 he attended life drawing classes at the National Gallery School under Folingsby and O.R. Campbell and eventually he had work accepted by the Victorian Academy of Art in Melbourne. He now set about earning enough money to allow him to go to Paris and study.

It was around this time that he met Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams who became lifelong friends and encouraged him to go to Paris. In June 1887 he arrived in London and visited his family and old girlfriend, Fanny Flinn. He married Fanny in October that year and they departed soon after for Paris where he met and studied with Emmanuel Phillips Fox, Tudor St. George Tucker and John Longstaff at the Académie Julian. While in Paris he received an offer from Ferguson & Mitchell to illustrate The Chronicles of Early Melbourne. Accepting the commission, the Withers returned briefly to England to farewell family and friends and departed for Australia arriving back in Melbourne in June 1888.

Fanny and Walter rented a small cottage in Denmark Street, Kew where the first of their six children Emily Gladys was born and where he completed the drawings for the book. Among the many visitors eager to hear the latest art news from Europe, were Arthur Streeton, Charles Condor, Arthur Loureiro and George Rossi Ashton.

Fanny returned to England in 1889 to help her ailing father with his business and while she was away Withers moved into a farmhouse at Eaglemont which he shared with Tom Roberts and Arthur Sreeton. A great stickler for tidiness and smart clothes, his efforts to organize the others earned him his nickname, ?Colonel’. Fanny returned from England in 1890 after the birth of their second daughter, Margery and the family moved to the Charterisville Estate in East Ivanhoe where Withers painted the local landscape as can be seen in the Artists’ Footsteps walk devised by Andrew Mackenzie.

By 1891 Withers had established a studio in the city of Melbourne on the 2nd floor of the Provident Building at 463 Collins Street where he taught private students and held exhibitions. The Land Boom was at its height with money flowing in steadily. However the great financial crisis of 1891 and a disastrous reverse of fortune meant great hardship for Withers and his family and he considered returning to England. 1891 also saw the death of their son Frederick aged five weeks who was named after Withers’ good friend Frederick McCubbin. However McCubbin secured teaching positions for Withers at Melbourne Grammar School, Presbyterian Ladies College and Ruyton Girls School. Twelve years of hardship for artists followed with a great many leaving Melbourne for Sydney. Walter Withers, John Mather and Frederick McCubbin stayed in Melbourne.

In 1893 and again in 1896, Withers visited Creswick where he taught watercolour plein air with English watercolourist John Miller Marshall during the day and at night he gave drawing classes at the Ballarat School of Mines. Amongst his pupils were Percy, Lionel and Norman Lindsay.

In 1895 the National Gallery of Victoria acquired Tranquil Winter which was sent to the Grafton Gallery, London in 1898 for an exhibition of Australian paintings. R.A.M. Stevenson, who was at that time art critic for the Pall Mall Gazette described Tranquil Winter as “This is, perhaps the most beautiful canvas in the show. Rolling downs of grey grass, chequered by shadows, from white-stemmed forest trees, the gently illumined house and the delicate sky, make a delicious harmony of colour, as natural as it is decoratively beautiful”.

Withers won the first Wynne Prize for landscape painting in 1897 with The Storm and again in 1900 with Still Autumn. By 1900 he had revived old friendships with the property owners whom he had met during his jackerooing days when he first arrived in Australia. Withers was invited to stay and work at various properties and in 1901 was commissioned by Edmund Smith to paint ?A Breezy Day off Point Henry‘. In 1902 W.T. Manifold commissioned him to paint the six large panels at Purrumbete that depict the story of the Manifold’s settlement of that part of the Western District of Victoria. The panels are painted in an Art Nouveau style. Withers also painted a seventh panel with the subject of Spring and in the midst of all this work his sixth child Charles Meynell was born.

These commissions provided the means to buy, in 1903, Southernwood, a house on two and a half acres in Eltham, to which he added a studio and which provided him with a wealth of subject matter. Other studios that Withers occupied were at Oxford Chambers 473-481 Bourke Street and Robb’s Building 533 Collins Street, Melbourne. Due to ill health Withers often stayed at his Oxford Chambers studio returning to the Eltham house at weekends and holidays. He was elected as President of the Victorian Artists’ Society in October 1904 and in 1907 and 1908, Withers painted a number of scenes around the docks on the lower Yarra.

Fanny Withers’ 13 handwritten pages manuscript titled The Victorian Artists’ Society’s Annual General Meeting, 31 October 1911, forewarns impending trouble for the Society, which led to a breakaway group of Professional Artists who in 1912 formed the Australian Art Association. Fanny writes “Every Member, be he, or she, Professional or Amateur, should have but one fixed idea ? to make the Victorian Artists’ Society the Premier Society of the Commonwealth.

To make it grow into an importance, which shall bring people from all parts of the Commonwealth to its Exhibitions; to lift it into a position, which shall compel the notice and respect of all classes of the community; to make it vie even with the Cup, in its popularity!

Imagine a time, when it will be necessary to run the Society’s Exhibition at Cup Time, in order to satisfy the demands of the Visitors to Melbourne, at that festive period.”

Withers was one of the judges of the work of the National Gallery students for 14 years and from 1912-14 was a trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria. He died in 1914 at his home in Eltham and is buried nearby in the Anglican churchyard at St. Helena. During his life time, financial necessity meant that Withers had to spend much of his time teaching which reduced considerably the amount of time and concentration that he could spend on his own work. In a letter to Fanny he writes, “Your bright little plans ? sent me back to my work with a light brush.. . It seems as though all would come right this time! I don’t care how hard I work, if only we can keep out of debt and make some provision for the little ones. Our old age too, as much for our children’s sake as our own. The new house promises to be a very charming and complete one and should act as an inspiration to us both. I am only afraid that I will not be able to keep up the teaching at its present high pitch for many years more.”

Fanny Withers was tireless in support of her husband’s work. She was ready with pen and paper to defend him when any art critic was too severe. She was a housewife and mother to his six children and also helped in running the business side of life. She not only helped organize exhibition for her husband but also for other artists, as well as finding time to teach music and run a small private school at Heidelberg and later in Eltham. She died suddenly in 1933 at the age of 75 working right until the end. Her daughter Nan, in a letter to a sister describes what had happened while Fanny was staying with her. “She was weeding ? could anything have been more typical of mother. I am sure that is how she rather would have gone. Died in harness as they say. She fell backwards, then she went to sleep. Now she has gone back to her old home to have a rest.” Fanny was buried in the old churchyard in Campbelltown, South Australia.

References: Walter Withers: the Forgotten Manuscripts compiled and introduced by Andrew Mackenzie 1987; internet ? The Artists Footstep by Andrew Mackenzie; Encyclopedia of Australian Art by McCulloch; The Gallery on Eastern Hill: The Victorian Artists’ Society Centenary edited by C.B. Christesen; Presbyterian Ladies College East Melbourne 1910-1912; Catalogue of the National Gallery of Victoria 1943; freebmd UK register of births marriages and deaths

Thanks go to Andrew Mackenzie for permission to reproduce material from Walter Withers: The Forgotten Manuscripts and for answering questions.