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The Heidelberg School: Sydney, its beaches, the harbour and the Hawkesbury

Some of Australia's most iconic and evocative paintings were produced by a group of impressionist painters often referred to as 'the Heidelberg School'. These painters, amongst them Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin and Charles Conder, were known by this name because of the artists' camps they shared in areas around Melbourne, including Heidelberg.

Arthur STREETON, From McMahon, 1890, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia: NGA 72.126.

However, many of these artists captured scenes further afield and painted in locations overseas as well as in outback Australia and Sydney. And it was around this city that some of their most memorable works were created.

Richmond and the Hawkesbury River

During the 1880s the area around Richmond, a town at the foot of the Blue Mountains and near the Hawkesbury River, was a place favoured by plein-air painters.


Charles Conder (1868-1909), Springtime,1888, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria: 1117-4.

Artists such as A J Daplyn, A H Fullwood, Girolamo Nerli and teacher Julian Ashton painted and taught around Richmond and other locations, including Sydney beaches. Charles Conder, not long arrived from England with the purpose of studying surveying with his uncle, got to know this group and started sketching and painting with them, en plein-air. His career as a surveyor was over, before it had really begun.

In August 1888 Conder spent two weeks at Richmond in the company of other artists. During this short time he painted both Springtime and An early taste for literature, which depicts a cow eating a newspaper. Both paintings include delicate, Japanese-like spring blossoms on the trees. Blossoms were a theme in many of Conder's paintings, including Herricks' Blossoms, part of the 1889 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition and The farm, Richmond, New South Wales, both painted in 1888.

, 1896, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria: 33-2.

Arthur Streeton also travelled to the area and in 1896 painted a series of Hawkesbury River images renowned for the way they depict light, space and heat. They are among his most famous works. The purple noon's transparent might (1896) is probably the best known and admired. The title is taken from lines in a poem by Percy Shelley while the painting itself was created on a very hot January day on the banks of the Hawkesbury. Streeton later recalled the experience of painting it as he stood on top of a cliff overlooking the river, not bothering with an easel, instead using a dead sapling to support the canvas as he worked.

'The glory of the river and plain spread before me Far below were the tops of river-oaks, and water like the blue of a black opal. The brightness of noon, the power of deep blue, the flies, and the temperature now 108 degrees, wrought me to a pitch of excitement the atmosphere 10 degrees higher than my own temperature crept round my face like a flame; and it seemed like working in a fiery trance. I paused and found that in two hours two thirds of my canvas was covered with paint, I had stamped my big impression upon it, I had made my picture.'

His friend and fellow 'Heidelberg school' artist, Frederick McCubbin later wrote that the painting was a 'poem of light and heat' and that 'You could almost take this picture as a National Symbol.' It was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria the same year it was painted and remains there to this day, on permanent display.

Coogee Bay

Coogee Bay

Charles Conder (1868-1909), Coogee Bay, 1888, oil on cardboard. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria: A41-1980.

Coogee Beach is now a suburb of Sydney, just south of the celebrated Bondi Beach in the city's south east. In the 1880s it was a village destination favoured by city day-trippers who came for the fresh sea air.

Conder and Daplyn sketched scenes of some of Sydney's ocean beaches and in 1888, Tom Roberts and Charles Conder both spent time painting in areas around Sydney, including Coogee Bay. Their paintings of Coogee Bay interpret the same scene in very different ways. The variations in perspective almost allow you to image the two artists standing alongside one another on the hill overlooking the bay, sketching and painting in the midday sun.

Holiday sketch at Coogee

Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Holiday sketch at Coogee, 1888, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of New South Wales: 9078.

In June 1890, Arthur Streeton, aged just 23 and fresh from the success of selling Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide (1890) to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, moved to Sydney. He chose Coogee Bay as his first Sydney location for plein-air painting, knowing that his friends Roberts and Conder had also painted there. Soon after he wrote to Roberts of his delight with the area:

'What a lovely little place. Sand, bananas, empty bottles & colour & pretty children. Shall do some good here I think.'

Sunlight Sweet, Coogee

Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), Sunlight Sweet, Coogee, oil-on-canvas, 1890. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sunlight Sweet, Coogee was begun by Streeton on a spring day in September 1890. It was sketched and then painted on location from the top of the cliffs at Coogee Bay. Critics have drawn comparisons between this painting and one of his previous works, Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) as they both include young people gazing over blue and gold Australian landscapes. Considered a radical painting in its day for its vibrant colour and bold brushwork, it was also the first of Streeton's vertical compositions that was not structured around the horizon.

Like many of their other works, the images produced by Heidelberg School painters around this little bay have had a lasting impact on the way Australians see their country and themselves. Even as recently as 2008, their creativity and vision has been used as the inspiration for an exhibition entitled Greetings from Coogee: Streeton Inspired.

Curlew Camp, Sirius Cove

Not long after arriving in Sydney, Streeton again wrote to his friend Tom Roberts. This time, his initial delight with the beaches was replaced by more philosophical observations.

'The ocean is a big wonder. What a great miracle The slow immense movement of this expanse moves one very strongly I watched with happy interest all this delight that men can't sell to you Oh what a lot we enjoy & how good everything is.'

The effect the Pacific Ocean had upon Streeton is seen most intensely in some of the works he produced in the bays, beaches and coves just to the north of Sydney on the harbour.

Arthur STREETON, Sirius Cove

Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), Sirius Cove, c1895, oil on wood panel. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia: NGA 73.1.

In 1892, he joined Tom Roberts at Curlew Camp at Sirius Cove, a small inlet just to the west of Mosman on Sydney Harbour. The area is now adjacent to Taronga Zoo and commands a magnificent vista of the city and harbour. Today it is an inner-city location, yet remains an area of natural beauty.

At Curlew Camp, the two artists and their bohemian friends lived in tents for several years, painting some memorable images of the area. Sirius Cove (c1895), by Streeton is perhaps one of the most adventurous, showing a long 'slice' of the harbour and its sandstone rocks. On the headland a narrow path is visiblethis is the path leading up to the camp where the artists stayed. The camp, Sirius Cove (1899), by Roberts, shows the collection of huts and tents nestled in the bush that was Curlew Camp.

Other images of the area capture the moodiness of the ocean and the myriad colours of the sky and water during different seasons and in different weather. Like so many of the paintings of the Heidelberg School artists, they depict places Australians are familiar with yet bear little resemblance to the way they look today.

Streeton's 1895 Cremorne pastoral shows no evidence of any human habitation except for a narrow footpath snaking across the foreground. Yet his From my camp (Sirius Cove) (1896) indicates the area was in fact surrounded by people in the form of an approaching ferry, its thick plume of grey smoke reaching up into the sky.

Both Streeton and Roberts nostalgically returned to the themes they explored during their time at Curlew Camp in later years. In 1897, Streeton (possibly during a stay in London) painted Sydney Harbour: A souvenir. The final painting Tom Roberts completed before his death in 1931, Ring a Ring a Roses, is a version of a landscape he originally painted of Cremorne, during his time at Sirius Cove.

Urban scenes

Departure of the Orient - Circular Quay

Charles Conder (1868-1909), Departure of the Orient - Circular Quay, 1888, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of New South Wales: 829.

Scenes of urban Sydney serve as an interesting record of a city evolving and expanding and contrast strikingly against other more natural subjects and scenes chosen by the artists. During the four years Streeton and Roberts were living at Curlew Camp, they opened a teaching studio in Pitt Street, Sydney. Roberts also supplemented his income by painting portraits; something he much preferred to teaching. Their paintings demonstrate that they travelled around the city and its environs considerably.

An autumn morning, Milson's Point, Sydney, was painted by Roberts in 1888. It shows the dock at Milson's Point, which is now the resting point of the northern end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Crammed with buildings and busy with boats on the harbour, the sky is brown with the pollution from burning coal and the water grey and flat. Almost ten years later he composed another painting, Sydney Harbour from Milson's Point (1897) looking back across the harbour from the point itself, which is next to Lavender Bay. The eye is drawn to the harbour coloured a deep violet-blue.

Sydney Harbour from Milson, 1897, oil on wood. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of New South Wales: 346.1985.

Charles Conder was similarly fascinated with ships and the harbour. In 1888 at the age of 20 he painted Departure of the Orient Circular Quay from an upstairs room of the First and Last Hotel, just opposite the Quay. Today, it's considered to be his greatest 'Sydney painting', but even at the time it was received favourably, with The Sydney Morning Herald calling it 'one of the most character-marked pictures in the exhibition this year'. It shows the ship Orient just after it has cast off for a voyage to England while rain falls over onlookers watching from the dock.

After successfully selling this picture to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which had a policy of acquiring Australian artworks, he soon after left for Melbourne, where he joined his friend Tom Roberts and the group of painters who became known as 'the Heidelberg School'.

The railway station, Redfern

Arthur Streeton (1867 - 1943), The railway station, Redfern, 1893, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of New South Wales: 7209.

Four years later, Streeton painted his own Circular Quay (1892), although this representation shows the harbour in a completely different light, on a sunny day. In 1893, he revisited the site and produced The three liners, Circular Quay.

Like many impressionist artists (and as they did in Melbourne), the 'Heidelberg School' artists were fascinated by the colour and light created on a rainy day in the city. Streeton's The railway station, Redfern (1893) and Fireman's funeral, George Street (1894) are two such studies.

Although this group of Australian impressionist painters is often referred to as the 'Heidelberg School', their paintings capture a far broader slice of Australia than this one small area of Melbourne. The images Streeton, Conder and Roberts produced around Sydney are some of Australia's best loved and most beautiful paintings. As well as their paintings of Melbourne and of outback Australia and pioneer themes, these images are not only a record of a time past but the innovative development of a truly Australian art.

Useful links

Key resources

Listen, look and play

  • High noon on the Hawkesbury River: Arthur Streeton in the Hawkesbury district of NSW and Friendly rivalry: paintings of waterside Sydney 1888 and 1890s, audio recordings, National Gallery of Victoria .
  • Lectures, audio recordings. Lectures about some of the artists and their works- In the Artist's Footsteps

Arthur Streeton

Tom Roberts

Charles Conder

Other artists




Last updated: 30 September 2009
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