ARTHUR STREETON (1867-1943) The Lagoon and Barges, Venice 1908-1910 Zinc etching, 25.5 x 35.5 cm
THE COLLECTION OF MICHAEL ADCOCK
Exhibition catalogue, Queenscliff Gallery and Workshop, 2017: Streeton Prints, pp. 12-13.
This beautiful etching came into my collection by the most fortuitous sequence of events imaginable. I had not been attentive to the gallery scene during these busy years of teaching, and had barely managed to find the time to organize myself to take my Millet etching to the Melbourne University Archives for curatorial care and remounting. I was quite ignorant of the fact that the Queenscliff Gallery and Workshop had just hosted an exhibition devoted to a set of Streeton’s graphic works. It was by the merest chance that, while chatting about art prints at the Archives, where my Millet had aroused considerable interest, that the curator commented on having seen a wonderful exhibition at Queenscliff. She kindly went and fetched a small catalogue, commenting at the same time that the works were being sold at very reasonable prices. On seeing the images in reproduction, I was immediately struck both by their sheer quality and by their subtlety. I realized that I had not really been very aware of Streeton’s graphic work. As I came away from the Archives, clutching my restored art works, I bundled myself into a taxi and, as it pulled out, did a search on my mobile phone to find the number of the Queenscliff Gallery, dialed, and soon found myself speaking to the director, Theo Mantalvanos, who quietly and courteously informed me that, although the exhibition had by now closed, there were still some prints available. I enquired after the prices, and quickly determined that I would use a part of an inheritance from my beloved aunt, Sheila Carlile, to buy a print in her memory. By now, I was convinced that the best of the set was The Lagoon and Barges, Venice, which has an almost Whistleresque delicacy. Theo kindly set one aside for me, while I looked at the best way to get to Queenscliff without a car. This turned out to be very easy: my Melbourne Myki pass would take me Melbourne-Geelong by train, then Geelong-Queenscliff by bus on the same pass, a return transit time of 5 hours from front door to front door. The journey was pleasant enough, and I whiled away the time gazing at the Western District countryside or reading a voluminous biography about Vincent van Gogh. I found that directors Theo and Soula had set up their gallery in Hesse Street in the old church that had once been a branch of Barwon Books. One glance told me that it was a private gallery set up with both consummate professionalism and deep love for the craft of printing. Despite the fact that I had to prepare to dash for the return bus in about twenty minutes, Theo kindly showed me all the prints, and explained the circumstances of their production.
Their story makes an interesting telling. Theo and Soula usually focus on contemporary printmaking, and have a small print group in their care. Theo recounted how he was approached by the Streeton family, who brought him a most unpromising set of metal plates wrapped in a grubby cloth. At first sight, they were so badly corroded that it would seem impossible to pull any image whatsoever out of them. But the Streetons encouraged Theo to at least try, accepting the fact that there was a real element of risk. Indeed, the plates looked so dilapidated that someone had at one stage cut a chunk of metal out of one of them to use for some other purpose. Theo had to use a buffer to strip back the accreted corrosion, and in doing so brought eleven of the thirteen plates back from the edge of extinction; just two were so badly damaged that they were irreparable. To do this, he coaxed them back to life with a buffer, and then had to deploy his printing skills to put them through the press to achieve an edition of 50. Technically, this obviously makes them posthumous prints, and so their authentication is achieved by Will Streeton signing the back of each print.
Art curator Margeurite Brown has taken up the story, finding that Streeton had executed these plates not in his late work, but in his mature work, about 1908-1910. As a young man, apprenticed to the lithographer George Troedel in Melbourne, Streeton had his first experience of graphic art, but was only introduced to etching specifically by the cartoonist Livingstone Hopkins some years later. It is thought that Streeton only took to etching again when he returned to London for his second sojourn in 1908. It was then that he married the violinist Nora Clench, and they set off on their honeymoon and for the revelation of Venice. Two of the resultant graphic works – Domes of St. Mark’s viewed from the Palace Courtyard and The Doge’s Palace, Venice are graphic versions of two oil paintings of the same titles painted in 1908. Other compositions, such as The Lagoon and Barges, Venice, are independent studies.
The series also contains exquisite scenes from England and France. These were of particular interest to me because my existing collection of Australian art has tended to focus on Australian artists who are responding to the experience of studying abroad. For example, I have an early oil painting by a youthful Brian Dunlop who, like Streeton before him, had stood on the edge of the lagoon and wondered how he was going to capture its magic.
Streeton would inevitably have come under the spell of the works of the great Turner when in London and, equally, of the graphic work of James McNeill Whistler, who did two major groups of etchings on Venetian themes. To his credit, Streeton did not try to reproduce the ethereal, minimalistic works of Whistler: most artists would note and admire his example, but would prudently avoid trying to replicate it. Streeton found his own way, which was to endow the shimmering city and its luminous atmosphere with greater materiality than Whistler ever did. In some pieces, such as Doge’s Palace, Venice , the line is actually quite heavy.
Possibly the most subtle and nuanced image of the whole set is The Lagoon and Barges, Venice. It is a three-touch zinc-plate etching, meaning that the artist achieved the three degrees of density – darkest for the nearby barges, middling for the single sailboat, and very fine for the distant buildings – by dipping different parts of the zinc plate into acid for differentiated times: the longer a part of the plate is in the acid bath, the deeper the acid ‘bites’ the engraved lines, making the eventual printed line darker than those not exposed to the acid for so long.
Streeton has taken his view from the San Marco side, looking across the Grand Canal and the Canal della Guidecca to the island of La Guidecca, towards the 16th century Church Il Redentore (The Church of the Redeemer), commissioned by the Republic of Venice in thanks for divine intervention to end the plague in the city (1575-1576). The church was designed by the great Palladio, and has been immortalised in countless images by the likes of Canaletto and other view painters. It is, however, gratifying that Streeton was not mesmerised by this classic topographical or touristic view, and relegated the monumental ensemble to the hazy background, achieving thereby a most powerful effect of atmospheric perspective. It is also impressive that he should have been willing to show something as prosaic as these heavy-duty barges instead of the ever-popular gondolas. While gondolas were, and are, a perfectly legitimate part of Venice’s waterborne traffic, they are undeniably elegant and picturesque. Those who observe the traffic in Venice know that there were then, and still are, all sorts of other vessels, including those equivalent to trucks, designed to deliver heavy cargo such as coal or, as in the nearest barge, barrels of consumables such as wine. These three barges, which nudge together, form a quite dark mass, which is further enlarged by their collective shadow in the water. In the closer expanse of water, Streeton notates the reflection of their masts and rigging on slightly agitated water, meaning that he makes very deft use of sharp, nervy, agitated lines ideally suited to etching. Beyond the barges, however, he has the nerve to suggest a large expanse of luminous water by simply leaving the paper blank, effectively replicating the fine, clear light of Venice.
(Field notes: Melbourne 2017).