When Arthur Streeton visited Lorne with his family in 1921, there was no Great Ocean Road. Visitors went the back way, strenuously, from Winchelsea railway station on a bumpy coach service. If you wanted to visit Lorne – and many knew it as a popular tourist destination – you had to really want to go there.
Streeton wrote lyrically of his time in a cottage his family later rented there – but during that 1921 visit, he painted Ocean blue, Lorne, his majestic, light-filled tribute to that still greatly loved resort.
He painted the town several times that decade, yet most of these works have been little known because they were bought by private collectors and have been out of public view. Then, in 2011, Sotheby's Australia acquired Ocean blue, Lorne for auction and there was one bidder particularly keen to get hold it: Geelong Art Gallery, there on the doorstep of the Great Ocean Road and the gateway to the rich pastoral lands of the Western District.
The gallery succeeded, and now that painting – with its utterly astonishing indigo expanse of the Southern Ocean – is a prized item and part of the inspiration for a new exhibition that celebrates a brief but beautiful stage in Streeton's late career with which many are unfamiliar.
Streeton's grandson Oliver, who died in 2013, was a great help to the gallery in helping to put the painting in context. Custodian of many papers related to the family and the dedicated compiler of a Streeton catalogue raisonne, the younger Streeton – while the gallery was preparing to bid for Ocean blue, Lorne – referred gallery director Geoffrey Edwards to letters written by the artist describing the family's times at Lorne.
In one reminiscence, Streeton describes Lorne as having "her back on gentle slopes and her feet stretched toward the wide and shallow bay", a place where the "rollers from the Southern Ocean crash shoreward like glittering cylinders of green glass, and lavish their foam over flat ledges of rock, that are outlined with lines and masses of mauve seed mussels".
If his writing was that lyrical, his paintings were even more so, and Edwards says much of the beauty we perceive, especially in Ocean blue, Lorne, is a result of Streeton having just returned to Australia in 1920, after his tour as an official war artist. Because of his experiences in the war, this and other paintings he did in the district from 1920-1932 encapsulate "his exuberant response to the sun-blessed and peaceful countryside of his homeland" and specifically to the fertile and prosperous west.
"We sense the joy Streeton found in these quintessentially Australian vistas that are just about as far away as one can be from the battlefields and dressing stations of the Somme," Edwards says.
While Streeton was certainly not the first to revel in the beauty of the coast, the Grampians and the rolling pastoral estates in between – Eugene von Guerard, Nicholas Chevalier and Louis Buvelot had all been there to great acclaim – the works that Edwards has brought together also do much to capture their unsullied grandeur.
Edwards says that while many of the works in the show are small in scale, they are "ravishing, exquisite and jewel-like".
Many of the paintings have been, or remain in private collections, while even those from public galleries tend not to go on show very often because the better known Streetons from his Heidelberg days tend to draw viewers.
"Streeton is among the best known household names and yet here is a whole decade of his career – and an important decade for him – after he had returned from almost two decades out of the country," Edwards says. "This is for him a great emotional re-engagement with the Australian landscape, a national landscape."
There is a complex play of emotions and ideas that works on you subliminally.Geoffrey Edwards
Edwards says that Streeton, while in Europe, had hoped to become an internationally renowned artist, following his huge success in Australia. Sotheby Australia's chairman, and adviser for the exhibition, Geoffrey Smith writes in the catalogue for the show, titled Land of the Golden Fleece – Arthur Streeton in the Western District, that Streeton's ambitions for Europe were largely unfulfilled despite several solo shows, the "occasional review" and a small following of collectors.
Even among his most loyal Australian supporters, writes Smith, "a feeling persisted that by painting European subjects in a European style for so long, Streeton's youthful and original brilliance had been sullied and dissipated, and perhaps even lost forever".
But, as this exhibition reveals, that was far from the case: look at those glowing seas, mountains and skies in painting such Ocean blue, Lorne, View up the Valley and The Grampians (Mt Abrupt). Streeton, says Edwards, was homesick before his return, especially given his lack of European success as an artist. "He finds solace in Australia and in these great sunny, sublime, landscapes," he says. "But you will also notice these vast shadows in the foreground."
Anna Gray, head of Australian art at the National Gallery of Australia, has argued that the shadows are perhaps symbolic of a threat in the air. She says treatment of clouds and shadows, perhaps cast by mountains, was part of a symbolism that is a key to understanding his later works: vague suggestions of threat with the ominous portent of economic catastrophe looming when the price of wool dropped by half in 1926, when Land of the Golden Fleece was painted.
"While these paintings are still to all intents and purposes celebrating pastoral prosperity and the pastoral panorama, there is just around the corner an inkling of the economic downturn, and the shadows could be interpreted as hinting at this," Edwards says. "He is relishing the opportunity to paint in this landscape, the optimism in these great vistas. Yet we need to see they were not just gorgeous, but that there is a complex play of emotions and ideas that works on you subliminally."
As Smith writes, Streeton's coastal subjects presented him with an opportunity to record "the power, force and beauty of the natural world", combining a plein-airist technique with deeply felt emotional responses to the environment. "He recorded what he saw with a mixture of accuracy and imagination and further extended his visual vocabulary of the Australian landscape."
Little wonder that Edwards has detected so much excitement about Ocean blue, Lorne since it returned to Geelong.
The most famous of his seascapes when they were first painted, Streeton chose it to be reproduced in the deluxe catalogue of his work published in 1935. First kept by Streeton's Canadian-born wife Nora, it passed into her son's collection and eventually passed into other hands before coming to Sotheby's five years ago.
"It is such an atmospheric subject," Edwards says. "Lorne has always been on people's lips as a destination." And Streeton, who died in 1943, is still doing his part to recommend it.
Land of the Golden Fleece is at Geelong Art Gallery, February 27-June 13, geelonggallery.org.au