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Artists' Camps and Sketching Grounds

Artists' camps and sketching grounds have played a crucial role in the history and development of visual art in Melbourne, with the camps of the Heidelberg School now enshrined in the mythology of the nation. The locations artists chose in which to sketch, paint or establish camps almost inevitably reflect city growth and, more especially, the growth of public transport. When the colonial artist Eugène von Guérard first sketched the Dandenong Ranges in 1855 and 1857, the area was secluded and relatively unspoilt, but towards the end of the decade it began to attract excursionists from Melbourne, among them other artists and photographers. In the late 19th century many artists' sketching grounds were already established beauty spots or picnic sites, and frequently accessible by public transport.

The establishment of semi-permanent artists' camps in the suburban bush by members of the Heidelberg School followed the ideals of plein-air painting which stressed communion with nature and direct observation of the landscape. As recorded in Tom Roberts' well-known picture The Artists' Camp, the first camp was established in 1886 by Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams in a small area of bush at Box Hill, only minutes' walk from the railway station. In the summer of 1888-89 Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder began the artists' camp at Eaglemont, subsequently to become the most famous of all Heidelberg School camps. In the meantime they found attractive painting grounds in eastern bayside suburbs such as Sandringham, Beaumaris and Mentone. Semi-permanent camps also presented artists with the opportunity to supplement their incomes through teaching: thus in 1894 Emanuel Phillips Fox and Tudor St George Tucker opened an outdoor summer school at Charterisville in Ivanhoe.

Artists in the 20th century tended to establish art communities, as distinct from artists' camps, in select suburbs and localities which often held a previous association with art and plein-air painting. Clara Southern, for example, helped establish an art community at Warrandyte after she moved there in 1905. As with earlier camps, these communities were frequently characterised by an art bohemianism and sometimes introduced alternative modes of living. Such was the artists' colony that Justus Jörgensen founded with his followers at Montsalvat in Eltham in 1935. In the same year John and Sunday Reed moved to their property, Heide, in Bulleen, which was to become a centre for avant-garde art and artists for the next decade. The art community at Murrumbeena offered Arthur Boyd, John Perceval and others a more traditional artistic environment during these years. With the exception of Clarice Beckett, who depicted Beaumaris and neighbouring suburbs, the role of women artists who sketched and painted Melbourne's comfortable middle suburbs in the interwar period still awaits due recognition.

Leigh Astbury