Was Elioth Gruner a fun-loving bon vivant, or a grumpy neighbourhood eccentric?
Perhaps he was both, as the curator of the major survey of his work at Canberra Museum and Gallery is slowly discovering.
Gruner may well have remained an under-appreciated footnote in the annals of Australia’s art history until the exhibition opened in March.
But, as hundreds of people have acquainted themselves with the painter’s light-filled landscapes and beach scenes over the past three months, the man himself, who died in 1939, is also revealing himself in different ways.
Curator Deborah Clark discovered many things about the artist and his work while researching the exhibition and tracking down his works, but even more has come to light since the show opened.
"People who are Gruner fans or aficionados or whatever have come to see it specifically … and many of them who have some connection have contacted me," she said.
Among them have been family members, descended from Gruner's siblings, and those with information about previously undiscovered artworks.
One woman was shocked to see her grandfather’s house in the centre of one of the paintings, and recalled that there had been an artist living nearby.
Another revealed that her father had grown up in Tamarama in the 1930s, close to the artist’s house, and recalled him as "Old Man Gruner", who would toil gruffly up the hill each day with his paintboxes.
But Canberra resident Ruth Schmedding is one of the only people alive who knew Gruner personally.
She was the daughter of then clerk of the senate Robert Broinowski, and the artist used to stay with her family in Red Hill when he was travelling around the region in search of landscapes to paint.
Although she was just 10 at the time, she remembers a gentle man who was good with children, and who always arrived with his younger companion Brian Cannell, ready for a good time.
“They always came together and they were great party people, the two of them. They had great fun. I remember when they were in the house, my father used to have parties when they came up,” she said.
“We used to have good talks … and I used to love that car coming down the street and parking outside.”
She also recalls that for years after Gruner’s death, there was an old fence on Weetangera Road that carried a spot of multi-coloured paint, where he used to wipe his brush.
She still owns the small, untitled painting of poplars that Gruner gave to her family, and has lent it for the exhibition.
She said Gruner’s death at the age 57 of came as a shock to the family, although his alcoholism was no secret, and that Mr Cannell spent a few weeks at the family’s home after the funeral, crying most of the time.
Cannell was left out of Gruner’s will, much to the surprise of all who knew him, and Ms Clark is still trying to track down anyone who knew him after Gruner’s death.
"I'd love to know what happened to him – he's last heard of in New Zealand, by me, I haven’t tracked him any further … In any case, it seemed as though the family felt on his behalf quite warmly towards him and didn't wish him any harm."
She said there had been various other connections made as a result of the exhibition, including a family reunion of the descendants of the farmer in the famous Spring Frost painting, a gathering that included members of the Gruner family who travelled to NSW from Auckland.
But for most, the exhibition, which is now in its last weeks, has been a process of discovery of a hitherto unknown artist.
Elioth Gruner: The Texture of Light at Canberra Museum and Gallery finishes on June 22, and opens at Newcastle Art Gallery on July 26.
Art of solving location mystery
Working out the precise location of Gruner’s landscapes has also been a major undertaking as part of the exhibition – a historical odyssey of the region as much as detective hunt. Mrs Schmedding has lent her own Gruner work, gifted to the family, for the show, and is fairly certain the poplars were painted somewhere at Acton.
And, from a completely different angle, two geologists at the Australian National University have contacted Ms Clark about the important geological quirks in the landscape captured in two of Gruner’s paintings.
"I was sent a photograph which is almost exactly the site of the 1929 painting that's owned by Canberra Museum and Gallery – I nearly fell off my chair," Ms Clark said.
"He [ANU professor Stephen Cox] didn't even have the reference material to hand when he took that photograph but he’d seen it reproduced and knew it to be a place where he'd been taking his students for years because it's a really ancient colonial landscape."
The other geologist, Patrick De Deckker, pointed out another of Gruner’s Murrumbidgee landscapes that contained a feature known as an anticline – a place where rocks are pushed up over time to form a cave.
"It's absolutely identifiable in the middle of the Gruner painting, and so we know where it is now," Ms Clark said.
"It’s on the road between Yass and Wee Jasper, just before you get to the Taymouth crossing, and he's also identified where he thinks three others are, because for these geologists, this is the most spectacular landscape for them, as it was for Gruner."
But one location is still a mystery, that of Golden Poplars, one of the most spectacular works in the exhibition.
Ms Clark wants anyone who has an idea to contact her at Canberra Museum and Gallery, at email@example.com.
The gallery has also organised a guided bus tour of the region to visit some of the sites of Gruner's paintings, and while the tour is sold out, there is one pair of tickets up for grabs.
The tour is on Saturday June 21 from 10.00am to 3.00pm, departing from CMAG.
For the chance to win the tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell us what you loved most about the Gruner show.