State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 88 December 2011


Stephen F. Mead
The Search for Artistic Professionalism in Melbourne: the activities of the Buonarotti Club, 1883 -1887

The Buonarotti Club was established in Melbourne during the 1880s, one of the city's most artistically vibrant decades of the nineteenth century. However, to date, it has not received due credit as a genuine force in the city's art world. Instead, there has been a tendency to assess it as – to use the historian Alan McCulloch's phrase – 'a sketch and music club', operating between c.1880 and c.1883.1 This essay will endeavour to display the Buonarotti Club as both a strident advocate of artistic professionalism and amplifier of Bohemian ideas. Furthermore, an important question will be examined: Did the Club have both a relationship with and an influence on the Heidelberg School of painters of the period?


The Buonarotti Club was instigated by the engraver, draughtsman and artist, Cyrus Mason in May 1883 at the Prince's Bridge Hotel (Young and Jackson's), on the corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets, in Melbourne.2 It flourished for the next four years, eventually concluding its activities during September 1887.3 Mason was well acquainted with colonial literary, artistic and bohemian circles long before forming the Buonarotti Club, especially through his membership of Melbourne's Yorick Club. In the 1860s, he was one of the first illustrators of the Colonial Monthly edited by his friend Marcus Clarke, then the source of early Melbourne's Bohemian attitudes.
The choice of Young and Jackson's for the Club's inaugural meeting is significant. This establishment had a strong link to the Melbourne art world through one of its owners, the art collector Henry Figsby Young (1845-1925). After acquiring the hotel in 1875, Young 'became interested intensely in the arts and his private collection of paintings and statues was to become one of the best in the state'.4 He decorated the hotel with nineteenth-century European and Australian paintings and displayed a selection of 'South Sea island weaponry' on the walls.5 This was, indeed, an exciting and simulating venue for aspiring bohemian artists and their dilettante friends. After holding the Club's early meetings at Young and Jackson's, the group met for short periods at other betterclass hotels in the city beginning with the Earl of Zetland, close by in Swanston Street, and expanding to Sheehan's New Treasury Club Hotel on Spring Street, the Duke of Rothsay in Elizabeth Street and the newly established Melbourne Coffee Palace, on Bourke Street.6 Again, as with the Prince's Bridge Hotel, the latter venue offered the Club a distinctly modern and stylish identity.
The Buonarotti Club should be assessed as a professional artists' organisation that utilised literature and music to build the group into a more comprehensive artistic institution, distinct from other art and cultural societies of the period. Although it was divided into three 'sections' – 'Artistic', 'Literary' and 'Musical'- its membership consisted mainly of men and women who aspired to be professional painters. These included Frederick McCubbin, Louis Abrahams, Tom Roberts and Jane Sutherland. Admittedly literary clubs and societies were very popular in Melbourne during the 1880s, as demonstrated by the existence of the Shakespeare Society, the Shelley Society, the Burns Society and the Lamb Society. It must be stressed, however, that these groups were purely and proudly made up of amateurs, not professional writers. The Buonarotti Club differed from them in that it was artist-dominated, with members who possessed professional goals. These included painters who desired instruction, a cross fertilization of ideas and the opportunity to exhibit and receive critique from their peers to assist them in their participation in the commercial Melbourne art world.
Music and literature were present to provide the Club with an added dimension of entertainment and discussion. Other art societies were established before and during the period, including the Victorian Academy of Arts (1870-1888), the Australian Artists Society (formed in 1886) and the Victorian Artists Society established in 1888.7 But their sole purpose was the study and exhibition of art. The Buonarotti Club was a unique artistic entity by comparison.
The strong artistic character of its founding members and the sound reputation of the principal instigator Cyrus Mason, an innovative artist and printmaker, established the Club as a genuine venue for artistic development. Mason and his colleague and fellow founding member, Edward Gilks (c.1882-c.1900), were senior engravers in the colony. Professional painters present at the inaugural meeting in May 1883, included Fred M. Williams, Tom Humphrey, John Longstaff and Alexander Colquhoun, while younger artists, who were also art teachers, John L. Himen, Theodore Dewey and Izett Watson were equally in attendance. By establishing the Buonarotti Club, these experienced professionals gave leadership to various young aspiring artists and teachers producing a strong combination that allowed the young Club to be perceived and promoted as a genuine professional venue.
One important component was the Club's quarterly 'conversazione' (sometimes referred to as 'The Ladies' Nights'), held at the elegant Melbourne Coffee Palace. Programmes were printed outlining the evening's entertainment; some members singing or playing music, while the Artistic Section exhibited their new works.8 Members were encouraged to bring guests and supper was provided at one shilling per head. The importance of the Club as a venue for the exhibition of members' works at these occasions is significant. The social evenings, members (distinguished by a maroon ribbon on their lapel), alongside their guests, viewed 'large numbers of paintings in oils and watercolours, portfolios of sketches and specimens of wood engraving'.9 These evenings provided the Club's Artistic Section with what modern American scholar Paula Gillett describes as
an 'art public', a group of independent collectors and peers, who were much needed and welcomed by late-Victorian artists.10 From the late-1870s, London's Grosvenor Gallery had provided a new exhibition model to attract 'art audiences', through such means as its Grand Opening banquets, 'invitationals', Sunday openings, private views, athomes and soirées, all intended to give it a distinct 'character and meaning'.11 Similarly, the Buonarotti Club, albeit on a smaller scale, held its 'conversaziones' to exhibit and promote its artists to a select audience.
Just as the Club took the opportunity to stage viewings of members' art works at its 'conversaziones', following the popular London practice of the period, so too does its choice of the name 'Buonarotti' provide evidence of the group aspiring to imitate European trends. From the first instance, the name 'Buonarotti' had been proposed by the founder, Cyrus Mason, to honour Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564), the great Italian sculptor, painter, draughtsman and architect.12 Significantly, a widespread revival of interest in Michelangelo had occurred in Europe, Britain and its Empire during the nineteenth century and Mason chose Michelangelo as the Club's namesake because the Renaissance figure excelled in a number of artistic disciplines.
Historian Lene Østermark-Johansen provides insight into the reason behind Mason's choice, when she claims of the British experience: 'As public curiosity and knowledge of the artist [during the nineteenth century] increased, so various groups began to ally themselves to aspects of Michelangelo's persona'.13 She adds significantly: 'Critical discussion of the artist's genius and work became irretrievably bound up in debates of the period about art and how the Romantic view of art and criticism as selfexpression turned the focus from the work of art to the artist himself'.14
It can be well argued that the Buonarotti Club's admiration and study of Michelangelo, during the same period, displays a parallel to the artist's 'reception' discussed by Østermark-Johansen, during the late-Victorian period in England, revealing the Club to be abreast of international attitudes. From the beginning, the Buonarotti Club embraced the nineteenth-century revival of Michelangelo and its implications. Such was the regard for the great artist that one of the founding members, Edward Gilks, described Michelangelo as the Club's 'patron saint'.15 Michelangelo's maxims and persona were studied by Club members and were incorporated in designs for a Club circular and badge. One such 'Club crest' designed by Tudor St. George Tucker in 1883, features a shield emblazed 'Buonarotti', Music, Art and Literature', placed in front of a crossed paint brush and pen with the name 'Michael Angelo' at the top of the shield (fig.1).16 Izett Watson's winning circular design shows a classical female figure, the personification of Ambition, standing on a podium, wearing a laurel head-piece and carrying a shield. In her left hand she holds a staff inscribed: 'Ambition lead the way', a maxim attributed to Michelangelo.17 These Michelangelesque symbols are the dominating theme of the two drawings and clearly display the Club's focus on the Master and his symbolic resonance. Popular works on Michelangelo and his art were available at the Melbourne Public Library, before and during the Buonarotti Club's existence, and could have been accessed

Buonarotti Club Crest designed by Tudor St. George Tucker in 1883. Buonarotti Club Papers, Australian Manuscript Collection,

by members to satisfy their inquiries. For example, in 1869, an 1817 copy of Le Rime, one of Michelangelo's major collections of writings, had been presented to the Public Library by artist Eugène von Guérard.18
In 1886 Cyrus Mason gave a lecture at the Club on the horse in motion; exhibiting a series of images from magazines to support his assertion that such study resulted in 'more natural drawings'.19 Humphrey McQueen claims that Tom Roberts, at this point a member of the Buonarotti, attended this lecture and it contributed to 'Roberts's upto-date-ness in his composition, Shearing the Rams (1890)'.20 Østermark-Johansen has shown that British artists like Poynter, Watts, Leighton and Burne-Jones 'were all painters to whom Michelangelo was obviously an important source of inspiration'. It would appear that Roberts, along with other members, were imitating international trends. Club members were presumably challenged to review Michelangelo's approach to his art when considering their own drawing techniques. Michelangelo's fascination with the human body and its movement was discussed by Cyrus Mason in another of his Club lectures21 and, significantly, life classes were conducted by the Club, when members
would be given twenty minutes to sketch a fellow member referred to as the 'victim'.22
Further examples of the Buonarotti Club's emphasis on instruction and art historical debate provide substantial proof of the Club's perception of the Renaissance artist. This can be found in the work of the amateur poet and 'Artistic' member Alice Brotherton, who wrote and recited poems honouring Michelangelo. These commenced with a work, titled March 5th 1474. March 5th 1884, delivered at a conversazione in 1884 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Michelangelo's birth, in which she praises his 'great and lasting fame'.23 In 1885 she wrote and delivered the Club's motto attributed to Michelangelo, Bounarotti, Puolidie Addisco ('Still I learn').24 She praised Michelangelo for encouraging artistic fraternity for 'art's sake' through literature and music.25 Again, in 1885, to mark the year following the anniversary of his birth, Rodney Cherry delivered an extensive lecture on Michelangelo's life.26


As shown by the particular instance of Michelangelo, the Buonarotti Club acted as an important forum for artists to discuss Art and related topics in Melbourne during the 1880s, as part of their broader quest for professionalism. Issues addressed by Club members included practical considerations relating to artistic technique, important art-related issues of the day, such as the importation of English pictures by London's Grosvenor Gallery, along with discussion of individuals whom they considered important in art history and literary figures who influenced painting during the period.
Painting and improved technique figured largely in the speakers' agenda. Commencing in 1883, Mason delivered a lecture entitled 'The Bridge between The Falls, River Yarra' describing his recent boating trip down the Yarra River to Dight's Falls and the scenes he sketched. His 'nostalgic portrayal of the Yarra' belies the importance artists placed upon depicting 'the social and cultural importance of rivers in the nineteenth century'.27 It would suggest that his firm aim was to share modern artistic concerns with fellow Club members. At this meeting, Mason showed members the resulting art works, depicting the Yarra River, and proceeded to utilise them as examples in a second lecture concerning 'Beauty' in art.28 It would appear these impressionistic 'sketches' may have been preliminary studies for later paintings, which were exhibited nationally and internationally. At the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, Mason showed Sketches of the Bridges over the Yarra River, Melbourne 1884; which was also included in the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne.29 The Club had provided Mason with a valuable forum in which to exhibit and explain these earlier studies. In 1884 he gave a lecture titled 'Realistic merits of amateur and professional life', followed by 'What constitutes a portrait' the following year.30 Other Club members were also active in utilising the Club as a forum to pursue artistic questions. Edward Gilks spoke on 'Art in Education'; and 'A dream of an exhibition' in 1883, followed by 'Beauty [in art]' in 1884.31
Individuals in art history and literary figures who influenced art were studied and
discussed. In 1884 Mason gave a lecture on the work of Irish-born writer and author Oliver Goldsmith (c.1728-1774).32 Goldsmith was a close friend of Dr Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds and was considered 'something of a living legend in his circle of writers and artists'.33 In 1884 Tudor St. George Tucker delivered a paper on the recently deceased American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).34 Emerson's wish to 'open imagination to nature to merge the mind into a swimming light' has been identified by some modern scholars as influencing the ever-present use of light in Tucker's paintings and they describe his work as 'containing an 'Emersonian message of evanescence and lubricity'.35 Rodney Cherry spoke on 'Classical Education',36 while in the same year, Henry B. Blanche delivered a paper on the life and work of Professor William Denton (1823-1883), an American academic who wrote and lectured on the public's prevailing interest in Spiritualism.37 Lecture topics would appear to be chosen for their clear professional and progressive content.
Important local art-related issues of the day were also examined. Alexander Colquhoun touched upon a hotly debated topic in 1883, when he recited some humorous, but barbed, verses imploring the authorities to hang the French painter Jules Lefebvre's controversial nude Chloe (1875) in Victoria's National Gallery.38 Lefebvre's painting had been exhibited at the Melbourne International Exhibition 1881-1882, where it was purchased by Dr Thomas Fitzgerald. In 1882, Fitzgerald loaned the work to the National Gallery for display.39 In May 1883 the Trustees decided to open the Gallery on Sundays, causing protests from the Sunday Observance League and sections of the public.40 The protests intensified when it was found that Chloe featured prominently among the pictures.41 A black curtain was placed over the painting which resulted in a plea from eight Gallery students, including Buonarotti Club members McCubbin, Longstaff and Colquhoun, to remove it.42 Finally, Dr Fitzgerald asked for the painting's return. By placing 'Chloe's reception' and Sabbatarianism on the Buonarotti Club's agenda, Colquhoun was displaying the Club as 'passionately experimenting with, [and] contesting, the possible forms and roles of culture in a young society'.43
Cyrus Mason instigated a debate in 1886, 'upon the question whether a duty (imposed upon imported art works) would prove beneficial to [Australian] artists'.44 This was a much-debated subject underlying a possible crisis for Melbourne artists of the period. In October 1885, the Anglo-Australian Society of Artists had held an exhibition at Fletcher's Gallery in Collins Street, where Melbourne art lovers could examine one of Whistler's impressions, Note in Blue and in Green, alongside other British works at first hand.45 The Society was a commercial venture for shipping 'pictures of the year' from London to the Australian markets.46 Mason's motion was defeated in this instance, perhaps reflecting members' sentimental attachment to Britain, or the belief that such exhibitions may have 'raised the standing and awareness of art as a contributor to social and economic gains'.47 Nevertheless, it proves that important local professional issues of the day were not ignored.
Mason clearly felt that the Buonarotti Club should act as a forum for discussion
on pertinent issues as such matters could affect their future careers to the contrary. The Club was clearly not a bastion of conservatism or inactivity. Tom Roberts regarded the Buonarotti Club's role in this respect very seriously, and he was a strong advocate of the value of placing professional artists in charge of the Club's exhibition activities. In mid-1886, he proposed successfully 'to allow the Artistic Committee to consist of five members (previously it had only three members), who will be responsible for the exhibition of members' works at gatherings of the Club'.48 Roberts's new Committee consisted of Frederick McCubbin, Louis Abrahams, John Mather, Jane Sutherland and himself and their duties included hanging the works and providing exhibitors with constructive criticism of their pictures.49 Roberts clearly believed in the importance of the Club as a forum in which to exhibit and receive feedback, and he wished to improve this function through the efforts of experienced Club artists. Although there is no record of works being for sale, at either meetings or conversaziones, a strong likelihood must have existed for private sales, or commissions, to eventuate as a result of these more 'open' exhibitions.


When one considers the particular decade in which the Club was active (i.e. 1880s), and its continual emphasis on instruction and encouragement for young artists to paint outdoors, the relationship between the Buonarotti Club and the establishment of what is now designated as the Heidelberg School of artists during the same period, must be considered. Art historians commonly acknowledge that the Heidelberg School had its beginnings toward the end of 1885 when three artists, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams, (and it is not co-incidental that all had Buonarotti Club associations), established an artists' camp at Houston's farm, near the present-day Melbourne suburb of Box Hill.50
But scholars, who focus upon this period, do not mention the Buonarotti Club's own initiative of establishing artist camps prior to the trio's 1885 painting excursion to Box Hill. For the Buonarotti Club's members already painted at similar camps and exhibited the resulting plein air landscapes and accepted criticism of these works at Club meetings. It is worth noting that in April 1884, Rodney Cherry, in his capacity as Club Secretary, wrote to the Secretary for Railways 'requesting travel at reduced rates'51 and the Buonarotti Club's artists who would later become members of the so-called Heidelberg School, exhibited plein air works and were subject to the influence of their peers in the Club. These Club members include Fred Williams, who showed landscapes at the Club that he painted at Lilydale in 1883 and at Williamstown in 1884; Tudor St. George Tucker, with Lilydale studies in early 1884 and 1885; and two oil sketches of Riddell's Creek exhibited by Walter Withers in April 1884 and another of Alphington in the same year. Tom Humphrey contributed studies in oils, painted along the Yarra River in late-1886 and some other works executed during a trip to Cheltenham in early 1887.52 These paintings, as cited in the Club's Minutes, would all appear to be examples of plein

'Melbourne Gallery School Students', reproduced in William Moore, The Story of Australian Art, Sydney: Angus and Roberston, 1934, vol. 1, between pp. 226-27, as 'National Art School Group of Students, 1887'.

air painting before, during, and after the well-documented Box Hill artists' camp of 1885.53
McCubbin, Roberts and Abrahams should not be viewed in isolation; instead they were part of the Buonarotti Club's encouragement of its members to paint in the plein air tradition established by earlier artists and teachers like Thomas Clark, Abram Louis Buvelot and Eugene von Guérard.
At the very least, the Club may have played a valuable role in building relationships between the artists involved in the Heidelberg School. McCubbin was an early Club member, joining in 1883; Abrahams followed in 1884 and Roberts attended as a visitor in June, September and November of 1885, before being elected a member in January 1886.54 As Galbally has stated: 'The period at Houston's Farm, Box Hill, where McCubbin, Roberts and Abrahams camped and painted at weekends throughout 1886 and into 1887 was seminal.'55 This camp was undoubtedly valuable for the three artists, so proof of the
Buonarotti Club's role in supporting them in a similar fashion through parallel activities is an important discovery.
Composer, musician and writer, Louis Lavater (1867-1953), later recalled the spirit of the Buonarotti Club's painting camps in the mid-1880s and mentioned how on one occasion, during an overnight stay at Eaglemont, he awoke to find a tiger snake 'as a bed companion, and of killing it with a walking stick and nonchalantly turning over and going to sleep again'.56 These were clearly overnight camps, most likely under canvas, not day-time painting trips. Buonarotti Club members camped and painted autonomously at Eaglemont during the so-called early Heidelberg School period (1883-1887). Lavater, an active member, added that the Buonarotti's main camps, near Cyrus Mason's property at Tynong, were 'happy go-lucky painting camps on the shores of the Koo-wee-rup Swamp'.57 He described the artistic fraternity of these camps in the following words:
Often we used to set out from Mr. Mason's estate at Tynong for the old Koo-weerup Swamp, with a loaf of bread, bag of tomatoes, a bag of oysters, bottles of beer, and plenty of cigarettes. Painting was the first object of the expeditions, but the rough life had a zest all of its own which appealed strongly to all of us.58
Curiously the Club's camps are not recorded in more specialist studies of plein air painting.59 Again, Louis Lavater's testimony clearly reveals the trips as overnight camps in the spirit of the later Box Hill and Heidelberg camps, not simply afternoon excursions or picnics during which plein air painting occurred.
Several major paintings of the Heidelberg School movement were produced by Buonarotti members during the Club's life. In 1884, Frederick McCubbin was elected chairman of the Club's Art Committee and was responsible for exhibiting pictures at the June conversazione, along with Williams, Longstaff, Tucker and Withers. The Committee's composition clearly shows the early influence and high level of involvement of future Heidelberg School painters in these activities. McCubbin painted some of his bestknown works during his years of membership in the Buonarotti Club including Home Again in 1884, Lost and Winter Evening, Hawthorn in 1886 and Moynes Bay, Beaumaris in 1887. He also executed works at an often unacknowledged plein air painting site, the picturesque Melbourne suburb of Studley Park, including The Letter (1884), Picnic at Studley Park (1885), followed in 1886 by The Yarra, Studley Park, Two Sisters on a Rocky Hillside and Sunset Glow. Tom Roberts was also prolific during his Club membership producing A Quiet Day on Darebin Creek in 1885, the aforementioned The Artists' Camp, Coming South, Wood Splitters and A Summer Morning Tiff; all painted in 1886. These were followed by The Sunny South and Mentone, executed in 1887. Likewise, Jane Sutherland painted her popular picture of a small girl confronted by a bull, staring at her from behind a fence, titled Obstruction, Box Hill (1887), during the final year of the Buonarotti Club's life. These are all major works in the respective artists' careers. The possibility of their execution having taken place within the context of the Buonarotti Club's network of support, through instruction, discussion, paintings camps and criticism by the Art Committee and their peers, warrants serious consideration.
The Club's associations with the Heidelberg School can be clearly seen in its overlapping membership between 1883 and 1887. This 'circle' of painters include founding Buonarotti members like Fred M. Williams, Tom Humphrey and John Longstaff and subsequent colleagues of the calibre of Louis Abrahams, Aby Altson, Alice Chapman, Alexander Colquhoun, E. Phillips Fox, J. Llewellyn Jones, Frederick McCubbin, John Mather, David Davies, Tom Roberts, Julian Gibbs, Clara Southern, Jane Sutherland, Tudor Tucker, May Vale, Izett Watson and Walter Withers.60 The Minutes also record that other leading plein-air artists attended the Buonarotti Club as guests, notably English artist Arthur J. Daplyn in 1884 and Arthur Streeton in 1887.61 All of the above artists were either leaders of or associates in the Heidelberg School.
Further evidence of the Club's close association with the Heidelberg School is available in a much reproduced photograph, usually captioned 'Melbourne Gallery School students', which portrays Longstaff, Jones, Colquhoun, Fox, McCubbin, Tucker, Gibbs, Davies, Williams and Altson.62 Most modern scholars first encounter this photograph in William Moore's The Story of Australian art, published in 1934, where he captioned it: 'National Art School, Group of Students, 1887'.63
Later writers merely follow Moore, but they are all incorrect.64 For the photograph was first reproduced in an interview in the Argus in 1929, given by two former Buonarotti members, Ada Cherry and Louis Lavater, where it was described by Cherry as: 'Gallery students who were members of the Buonarotti Club in 1885'.65 This is not a photograph of 'Gallery School students' per se, it is a valuable, authenticated, record of the Buonarotti's primary role in the formation of the Heidelberg School's circle of artists.


As the Bohemian lifestyle was followed by some of the more notable painters in the Heidelberg School, such as the well-known Bohemian Charles Conder and the dandified Tudor St. George Tucker, so too the Buonarotti Club's pursuit of this ideal was a conscious one and was expressed through a variety of ways. These included tangible aspects such as Smoke Nights, music, literature, costume, painting camps, and a chronic lack of money; to intangible elements like a sense of artistic fraternity, humour and a desire to be associated with the earlier generation of Melbourne Bohemians, notably a key associate of Marcus Clarke – the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon. All these factors went into constructing the group's identity as 'Bohemia', as testified by a former member, Ada Cherry. More than forty years after the Buonarotti disbanded, she described the Club's meetings as: 'Bohemian in the best sense of that abused word'.66 It is worth noting that she mentions the men's monthly Smoke Nights, where sketching was accompanied by 'strains of music', as playing a distinct role in the Buonarotti's Bohemia. Suffice to say that smoking was representative of what the modern American art historian, Patricia G. Berman, describes as a 'depiction of the bohemian persona' during the late nineteenth century.67 Through such evenings, Club members appear to have been consciously
striving toward creating such an artistic 'persona', distinct from the daily mores of rigid Victorian Melbourne.
The Bohemian appearance of members was accepted, if not encouraged, within the Club, particularly where Tucker and Roberts were involved. Ada Cherry recalled Tucker who 'at the height of Oscar Wilde's "aesthetic craze" would: 'saunter down 'The Block' with a lily or a sunflower in his hand, and with hair combed out in beautiful fair curls'.68 One of the Club's female members 'made a great flopping sun-hat, [decorated] with an immense sunflower [the principal motif of Aestheticism] embroidered across the top, for him [Tucker] to wear playing tennis'.69 Aestheticism had been introduced to Melbourne in the years immediately preceding Tucker's 'saunter' down 'The Block', most notably at the Melbourne International Exhibition 1880-1881.70 Like Tucker, Tom Roberts was not averse to projecting a Bohemian appearance to enhance his professional artistic status. When he returned from London in 1885, Roberts possessed a red satinlined opera cape and a crush topper (collapsible opera hat with a spring). Cherry recalled Roberts: 'creating a great sensation when he shut up under his arm the first opera hat in Melbourne.'71 No doubt, she witnessed Roberts wearing the hat and cape to Buonarotti meetings or conversaziones.
Other evidence of the Club's Bohemianism is found in the content of humorous monologues delivered at meetings. These often imply that unconventional views were held by members and that they preferred 'good living' to a staid existence. These monologues include a 'lecture' by Cyrus Mason at a Smoke Night in 1883, entitled 'Drink and its relation to Art', in which he concluded: 'drink can be used as a faithful servant to the artistic mind'.72 Also in the Club's foundation year, the artist Fred M. Williams read Alexander Colquhoun's poem which was well received, 'The Ballad of Bohemia'.73. Likewise at a similar evening in 1884, Tucker gave a humorous presentation entitled, 'Sermon Time', displaying a common bohemian practice of the period, that of mocking the clergy and formalised religion.74


The Buonarotti Club was also of primary importance in advancing the careers of female artists in Melbourne. To some extent, this has not gone unnoticed. For example, Humphrey McQueen regards Jane Sutherland's inclusion in the Club's Artistic Committee, together with Tom Roberts, as 'but one sign of the influence of women in the club, since she also took her turn to chair its general meetings'.75 Mary Eagle states that Sutherland joined the Buonarotti at a period in her career when she (desperately) needed professional stimulation, describing the Club as a 'place where art and intellectual ideas were debated without fear or favour'.76 They both concur that the Club played an important role in Sutherland's career. But the life and work of other leading female artists of the period, including Alice Chapman, Isobel (Iso) Rae, Clara Southern and May Vale, must also be addressed through the Club. These particular four female artists were all active members
of the Buonarotti Club and therefore, presumably, gained similar opportunities as Sutherland.
Clara Southern is usually described as 'among the first women to be elected to the Buonarotti Society in 1886'.77 But this is misleading, as although she did join in that year several other female artists were already members. In fact, the gifted amateur poet and painter Alice Brotherton was the first woman elected to the Club in 1883. She was shortly followed by several other important women artists such as Sutherland and Vale, who both joined in 1884. Other senior female artists of the period were active Buonarotti members. These included the sculptor Margaret Baskerville, the noted flower painter A.E. 'Lizzie' Oakley and watercolourist Elizabeth Parsons, who would found a similar society, 'Stray Leaves', in 1889. All three joined in 1886.78 These individuals were all talented aspiring female artists, intent upon taking advantage of the Club's professional artistic environment and were equally welcomed by their male counterparts.


The Buonarotti Club concluded its activities in late 1887 and the reasons behind its winding-up appear to be a disintegration of artistic professionalism. Interestingly enough, a former member the watercolourist Elizabeth Parsons founded a similar club in 1889, known as Stray Leaves, containing several other ex-Buonarotti members, perhaps to fill the void. When interviewed in 1929 concerning the Buonarotti Club's final days, the composer Louis Lavater cited the loss of stalwart members and a lack of leadership by the Artistic Section. Lamented Lavater:
The end of all clubs', replied Mr. Lavater, extending his hands. 'Chance carried away a few of the dominant personalities, such as Longstaff, Julian Gibbs, and Cyrus Mason, and soon there were not enough strong personalities left to carry the dead weight of that section which has to be carried in every club. A slow 'petering out', and in a year, or two years – gone!79
The final Minutes record a 'Farewell' to artist member John Longstaff and his wife, at the Coffee Palace on 23 August 1887, before the couple sailed to London aboard the ship Valetta.80 More than 30 members, former members and guests were in attendance including Cyrus Mason, Elizabeth Parsons, Alice Brotherton, Jane Sutherland, McCubbin, Lavater, Abrahams, Humphrey, J. Llewellyn Jones, Altson and guest Arthur Streeton.81 All joined hands and sang Auld Lang Syne to conclude the evening.
Despite its early demise, it must be recognised that significant achievements were made of the Buonarotti Club in building up a strong code of artistic professionalism to meet the needs and challenges faced by artists of the period in Melbourne, even fostering a strong sense of artistic bohemianism in the city, and played a pivotal role with that group of artists who formed the now-designated Heidelberg School of painters.


Alan & Susan McCulloch & Emily McCulloch Childs, The New Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2006, p. 295.


Buonarotti Club Minutes, 1883-1887, MS10977, State Library of Victoria (hereafter Buonarotti Club Minutes). Meeting held in May 1883. Note that there is also a second set of records at MS 12966. These are referred to here as Buonarotti Club Minutes (2).


Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Leslie A. Schumer, 'Young and Jackson's', Royal Historical Society of Victoria Journal, vol. 54, no. 1, March 1983, p. 45.


Alison Inglis, 'The gift of John Connell to the National Gallery of Victoria', in Andrew Grimwade & Gerard Vaughan, eds, Great Philanthropists on Trial: the art of the bequest, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2005, pp. 157-158.


Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Christine Downer, Artists' Societies in Colonial Victoria, 1853-1888: the search for identity, (MA Thesis), University of Melbourne, 1981-1982.


Buonarotti Club Minutes (2).


'News of the day', Age, 6 October 1884, p. 4.


Paula Gillett, Worlds of Art: painters in Victorian society, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 217-224.


Paula Gillett, 'Art audiences at the Grosvenor Gallery', in Susan P. Casteris & Colleen Denney (eds), The Grosvenor Gallery: a palace of art in Victorian England, London: Yale University Press, 1996, pp. 39-58.


The Buonarotti Club's spelling of Michelangelo Buonarroti's surname differs from that found in modern texts. The Club's version contains one letter 'r' and two of 't', while the modern spelling has two of 'r' and one 't'. The club debated this point and after the secretary, Rodney G. Cherry, 'submitted a list of authorities'; members 'considered the balance of evidence' and chose Buonarotti as their preferred spelling at a meeting held on 2/06/1883. Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Lene Østermark-Johansen, Sweetness and Strength: the reception of Michelangelo in late Victorian England, Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 1998.




Edward Gilks, 'An antipodean club: An account of the Melbourne fine art club, called "The Buonarotti Club" after Michel Angelo Buonarotti'. MS10116, State Library of Victoria.


Buonarotti Club Minutes (2).




Michelangelo Buonarroti, Le Rime, Rome, 1817.


Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Humphrey McQueen, Tom Roberts, Sydney: Macmillan, 1996, p. 301.


Buonarotti Club Minutes (2).


Ada Cherry quoted in L. T. Luxton, 'The Buonarotti Club: Bohemians of the 'eighties': Memories of noted artists', Argus Camera Supplement, 10 August 1929, p. 3.


Buonarotti Club Minutes (2).


Buonarotti Club Minutes (2). This definition appears in Hugh Percy Jones, ed., Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Classical Quotations, Edinburgh: John Grant, 1913, p. 22.


Buonarotti Club Minutes (2).


Meeting held on 5 March 1885. Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Ann G. Carew, Wealth Glitter Grime on the Flowing Tide: representing the Port of Melbourne on the Yarra 1840-1920, (MA Thesis), University of Melbourne, 2006, pp. 1 & 2.


Buonarotti Club Minutes (2).


Thomas Darragh, 'Mason, Cyrus', Joan Kerr, ed, The Dictionary of Australian Artists: painters, sketchers, photographers and engravers to 1870, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 520.


Buonarotti Club Minutes (2).






Richard D. Altick, Paintings from Books: art and literature in Britain, 1760-1900, Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1985, p. 158.


Meeting held on 1 Ocotber 1884. Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Mary Eagle & John Jones, A story of Australian Painting, Sydney: Macmillan, 1994, p. 97.


Buonarotti Club Minutes (2).




Meeting held on 1 October 1884. Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Lefebvre, Jules. AAA File held at the State Library of Victoria (SLV).






Keith Dunstan, 'Ode to a Nude', Bulletin, 23 May 1995, p. 38.


Stephanie Holt, 'Chloe: a curious history', Jeanette Hoorn, ed., Strange Women: essays in art and gender, Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1994, p. 134.


Meeting held on 11 September 1886. Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Caroline Jordan, 'Fletcher's of Collins Street: Melbourne's leading nineteenth century art dealer, Alexander Fletcher', La Trobe Journal, no. 75, Autumn 2005, p. 83.


McQueen, 1996, p. 151.


Alison Inglis, 'Aestheticism and Empire: the Grosvenor Gallery Inter-colonial Exhibition in Melbourne, 1887', (unpublished manuscript), Melbourne, August 2007, p. 12.


Meeting held on 25 May 1886. Buonarotti Club Minutes.




Helen Topliss, The Artists' Camps: 'Plein Air' painting in Melbourne, Melbourne: Hedley Australia, 1992, p. 65.


Meeting held on 4 April 1884. Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Ann Galbally, Frederick McCubbin, Melbourne: Hutchinson, 1981, p. 59.


Louis Lavater quoted in Luxton, 1929, p. 3.






Topliss, 1992, p. 65. Andrew MacKenzie, The Artists' Journey: discovering the Victorian coastline 1840-1910, Mornington, Vic.: Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, 2004.


Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Buonarotti Club Minutes.


William Splatt & Susan Bruce, Australian Impressionist Painters: a pictorial history of the Heidelberg School, Melbourne: Currey O'Neil, Melbourne, 1981, p. 103. Jane Clark & Bridget Whitelaw, Golden Summers: Heidelberg and beyond, (exhibition catalogue), Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1985, p. 11.


William Moore, A Story of Australian Art: from the earliest known art of the continent to the art of today, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1934, vol. 1, photograph titled 'National Art School, Group of Students, 1887' between pp. 226-227.


Clark & Whitelaw, Golden Summers, p. 11. Eagle, 1994, p. 82.


Ada Cherry quoted in Luxton, 1929, p. 3. The photograph came from the Cherry Family Papers and was dated 1885 by Ada Cherry who was a member of the Buonarotti Club and daughter of the founder, Cyrus Mason.


Ada Cherry quoted in Luxton, 1929, p. 3.


Patricia G. Berman, 'Edvard Munch's Self portrait with Cigarette: smoking and the Bohemian persona', Art Bulletin, December 1993, p. 645.


Ada Cherry quoted in Luxton, 1929, p. 3.




Andrew Montana, The Art Movement in Australia: design, taste and society 1875-1900, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2000, p. 43.


Ada Cherry quoted in Luxton, 1929, p. 3. McQueen, 1996, p. 139.


Buonarotti Club Minutes (2).


Meeting held on 16 June 1883. Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Buonarotti Club Minutes (2).


McQueen, 1996, p. 164.


Eagle, 1994, p. 83.


Victoria Hammond & Juliet Peers, Completing the Picture: women artists in the Heidelberg era, Hawthorn East, Vic.: Artmoves, 1992.


Buonarotti Club Minutes.


Louis Lavater quoted in Luxton, 1929, p. 3.


Meeting held on 23 August 1887.