Katharine regularly visited the art gallery in Melbourne as a young woman and in 1906, home from stints as a governess in Gippsland and the outback, she saw the newly acquired painting ‘The Pioneer’ by Frederick McCubbin. A decade later, writing her first (published) novel, The Pioneers, in a cold London flat, she grafted her experience of Gippsland onto a plot which follows the three panels of the triptych. The Pioneers’ opening scene describes her characters setting up camp in the uncleared bush; its body narrates the hard work of ‘pioneering’; and its epilogue evokes the third panel as the grandson of the original pioneer visits his ‘lichen-grown wooden cross’. I don’t know if she had a print to work from in London or if she was relying on her memory. The first edition of The Pioneers in 1915 has the painting as a frontispiece. When Katharine returned to Melbourne in 1916, her old journalist friends put on a lavish dinner in her honour at the Cafe Francais. (One of the reviewers of my manuscript wondered why on earth I include details of what they ate that night, but for me it is the wonder of biography to be able to re-create the particulars of a moment in time.) A special guest at the dinner was an aging Frederick McCubbin, who was to die the next year. I searched in vain for some record of the interaction between Katharine and McCubbin that night, but found nothing. Katharine’s novel and McCubbin’s painting are products of the celebratory patriotism of Federation Australia, remembering the pioneering generations who were now dying out, but not remembering the Indigenous people displaced and massacred. More of the story can be found in chapter 12 of The Red Witch, ‘Breaking Out’.
An A to Z of Katharine Susannah Prichard: M is for… Frederick MCCUBBIN
20 Thursday Oct 2022