What I liked best about Plein Airs and Graces: The Life and Times of George Collingridge by Adrian Mitchell, is the way that the book explains in Chapter 7 the essential differences between the nationalist painters of the Heidelberg School, and their stylistic predecessors. Everybody knows about Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, Jane Sutherland and Tom Roberts, but if you don’t have a background in art history and appreciation, it’s not easy to articulate what it is that made their work so distinctive. In this very readable biography, Mitchell, author of Dampier’s Monkey: the South Seas Voyages of William Dampier, (reviewed on this blog) tells the story of this fascinating artist who emigrated to Australia at a pivotal time in the development of our art.
Collingridge never liked impressionism, and the beautiful paintings featured in the biography show that, but as a contemporary critic wrote:
George Collingridge … painted marvellously well … he was the first, and it is possible the only artist still to perceive and to pourtray (sic) that marvellous, delicate, lace-like fringe which the eucalyptus clothed mountain ridge makes across the dying light of the sky, when all below is black and all above grey, yet just on the world’s rim lurks a colour and a light, where clear eyes may see, and quick imagination mirror many things. (p. 89)
Because of copyright, I can’t show you any of the paintings reproduced in the book in full colour (on high quality paper), and most of them are from private collections, so buying the book is the only way to see them. An online search for Collingridge at the National Gallery of Victoria and at the Galleries of NSW and South Australia came up with nothing, which is really disappointing especially since Mitchell mentions that the NGV has got one. Links online are scanty and what I found was poor image quality: there is this one of a painting of Wiseman’s Ferry at Art Record, and there are three plastered with copyright notices at the online Collingridge Museum – but more happily the Art Gallery of NSW has a striking portrait of Collingridge by J.S. Watkins.
Update, (the next day)
Professor Mitchell has very kindly given permission for me to share images of these two paintings!
I found myself turning to the paintings again and again, so I would say that this biography belongs in any art lovers collection. Collingridge wasn’t interested in ‘landscape that opened out in front of the viewer and assailed the eye and the mind with its formidable stillness and emptiness’; he liked a subdued palette of greens, browns and greys and he was very skilful at blending all the different greens of the Australian bush. He liked shadows and filtered light and intimations of weather, and – reflecting his training under Corot in France, he liked outlooks across streams and valleys. Comfortable in his adopted home – never regarding it as melancholic or alien or moody, he liked depicting signs of settlement too – little cottages, pathways, or a boat somewhere… My favourite is a beautiful watercolour called ‘Hillside’ (1893) which features his wife, Lucy.
But that’s not all there is to this biography, because that’s not all there was to Collingridge. I took 12 A4 pages of notes about this book in my reading journal, tracing the achievements of this remarkable man. A Catholic Englishman, educated in Paris at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, where he studied architecture, wood-engraving and painting and became a pupil of Corot, Collingridge was also remarkable for his own writing and research. In 1895 he published Discovery of Australia which made an enthusiastic case for the Portuguese and Spanish as discoverers of Australia in the early 16th century. You can just imagine how this went down in colonial Australia barely a century after Cook had been hailed as its discoverer in 1770! Mitchell explains that this affront to establishment history was not only linked to the (still smouldering) sectarianism of Protestant and Catholic but also to Sydney’s ambition to claim its history as Australia’s history, sidelining maritime discoveries in Western Australia and Tasmania. It’s fascinating stuff: who knew that Cardinal Moran wrote his own rival history of Australia’s maritime exploration - with a 16th century Portuguese Catholic Mass on Queensland shores, complete with ‘a providential [but anachronistic] abundance of oranges, bananas, fowls and pigs’? Who knew that the Catholics had their own version of Australia’s maritime history in their own school textbook after NSW finally got round to legislating for public education in 1880, eh? 
Alas for Collingridge, he was a gifted amateur but not a real historian. He was on the right track but ‘his basic premise was amiss’, and his theory was constructed on the wrong evidence. While on the strength of his study of the Dieppe maps,  he was able to style himself as an ‘expert’ in maritime cartography at a time when such experts were thin on the ground in Australia, the book’s claims were soon demolished. Collingridge had taken on the role of historian without fully understanding what an historian does: not merely amassing evidence but also testing it, and mounting a convincing interpretation of it. In his enthusiasm for prosecuting Catholic claims for the discovery of Australia, he brushed aside the clear evidence of Dutch (Protestant) exploration and he did so by descending to scorn, ridicule and most egregious of all, an assertion that the Dutch had destroyed evidence of Portuguese prior claims. Along with the failure of the book, so lovingly (and expensively) illustrated with gorgeous wood engravings and illustrated capitals, came the failure to have a simplified version of it adopted for NSW schools.
Which was a pity because Collingridge was never really financially secure…
He was such an optimistic, energetic man, given to all kinds of enthusiasms, but as Mitchell explains, the art of wood-engraving was being displaced by photography and his style of painting became unfashionable. By rejecting the Heidelberg School’s light and sunny palette which revels in the colours of the Australian bush with golden tones and luminous skies, Collingridge began to be regarded as a bit of ‘an old fogey’. Critics were patronising and sales fell off, despite his best efforts to market his paintings in the pamphlets and books he indefatigably produced.
Interestingly, considering that Mitchell credits his own wife with the impetus to write this biography, there is very little indeed about Collingridge’s wife Lucy in the book. I wondered how she felt about her husband’s enthusiasms: with his brother Arthur he formed and became vice president of a breakaway art society almost as soon as they arrived in Australia (ironically because the Academy of Art was too conservative); he was active in the local Progress Association at Hornsby; and his writing – although never commercially viable – was costly to produce because it was beautifully illustrated and published at a price that precluded a wide readership. But all we really know about Lucy is that she couldn’t stand the isolation of Berowra Waters where Collingridge wanted to establish an artists’ colony.
It seems as if Collingridge was fated to ‘miss the bus’. The Portuguese and Spanish honoured him with knighthoods for his research into their respective maritime exploits, but these honours were never recognised in Australia. Perhaps influenced by the success of Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding, his attempts to enter the emerging children’s literature market were a flop: his spin-off of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, called Alice in One Dear Land, (1922) featured excruciating puns and the follow-up Through the Joke in Class (1923) was no better. His ‘memoir’ – which apparently owes a debt to Hilaire Belloc’s The Path to Rome – is a strange miscellany of ideas, hobby-horses, unreliable memories and personal history, published in separate parts each one about a different place in his life, and not following a coherent chronology, A biographer’s nightmare, perhaps, but this biography by Adrian Mitchell – although no hagiography – is obviously a labour of love and he has done a wonderful job of bringing this most interesting man to life.
Another review is at Flinders Ranges Research. You can read an extract at Wakefield’s website, which includes some lovely wood-engravings on the chapter headings. Do also have a look at The Collingridge Museum which has some memorabilia online, and admire Mitchell’s writing style in the Sensational Snippet that I posted a little while ago.
 Victoria established ‘free,compulsory and secular’ education in 1872. (See Wikipedia). NSW passed the Public Education Act in 1880.
 The Dieppe maps are hand-made world maps produced in France, between 1540-1570. They show a large land mass called ‘Jave La Grande’ which resembles Australia. The one by Guillaume Brouscon in 1543 (see Wikipedia) is especially misleading. See also the summary of debates about the Portuguese discovery of Australia in which Collingridge gets a mention.
Author: Adrian Mitchell
Title: Plein Airs and Graces: The Life and Times of George Collingridge
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.
Or direct from Wakefield Press.