A different view from Eastern Hill

By Rhonda Dredge

When you gather artists together you usually have controversy, even at the Victorian Artists’ Society (VAS) in its lovely Romanesque building just east of the Hoddle Grid.

Not many are aware of the pleasures of the society nor its illustrious history.

It was here in the late 1800s that the Heidelberg School painters used to meet. 

Tom Roberts was a member, as was Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton, and they were resisting the old styles of landscape painting from Europe.

They changed their palettes to represent the grey and dun blobs of the bush, ushering in an era of Antipodean art.

Later on, between the wars, president Max Meldrum defended tonal realism, which he taught at the Gallery School, in another artistic controversy.

Today, a VAS member has an exhibition in the front room of the premises in Albert St that some might call safe but which strikes to the heart of this democratic club of 500 members.

You can join the club for $250 and pay $10 per month per painting for exhibition space in a beautifully restored building. 

The society has largely retreated from the mainstream art world, said Graeme Williams who is doing a PhD on its history. 

“I’m surprised that academics have ignored the society because it was the place to exhibit for the first 50 odd years,” he said. Members won 12 of the first 15 Archibald prizes. Albert Tucker took night classes in the 1930s. Many of the early exhibitors were women.

Current president Eileen Mackley is more upbeat about the society, accentuating its not-for-profit approach to the encouragement of art and creativity. 18 art classes are offered each week in the studio.

A $2.5 million restoration has just been completed, with funds raised by the committee, uncovering the charm of the original Victorian interior.

“Either side of the staircase was blocked off and turned into storage,” Ms Mackley said. “We opened it up and found lovely pillars were hidden beneath.” 

Beautiful arched windows had been covered over and there was no heating. Stairs were stripped back to their original slate, carpets pulled up, new glass doors installed, chandeliers cleaned and alcoves re-opened in the upstairs gallery.

The building may not have the pomp of the Royal Academy of Arts in London where the Heidelberg colonials exhibited but it does have the original bluestone studio with its paint-smattered wooden floors and easels.

The society was formed in 1870 as the Victorian Academy of Art and was granted Crown land by the colony. Ms Mackley does not deny the privilege.

“To be talented is a privilege,” she said as she leafed through all the books and words that had been spilled on the battles for identity that had preoccupied members. 

Ms Mackley acknowledged a certain faithfulness to the standards of the Victorian era. People of Eastern Hill used to look down on the mess on Elizabeth St. “Downtown was a bit grubby,” she said.

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