Frederick McCubbin On the wallaby track 1896

Frederick McCubbin

Australia 1855–1917
McCubbin was one of the key members of the Heidelberg school. Like Tom Roberts, he painted at the Box Hill artists camps and in the 1890s became inspired to create large-scale pioneering history paintings after contributing several works to the 9 × 5 impression exhibition.

The Barbizon School and French plein-air painter Jules Bastien-Lepage were important influences, as was English artist JMW Turner, whose work McCubbin saw on a trip to London in 1907.

On the wallaby track 1896

Among the best known and most popular of Australian paintings, this was McCubbin’s tribute to the true pioneers of settlement – the rural labourers enduring poverty and hardship. The title was the colloquial term used to describe those who lived constantly on the move, camping by the roadside as they travelled in search of work. As the country headed out of an economic depression and towards Federation, McCubbin reflected the prevailing nationalist mood, choosing what was regarded as a characteristically Australian subject.

McCubbin used his family as models for this artwork, which was painted close to his home in Brighton, Victoria.

People and places

Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s unofficial national anthem – tells the story of a ‘jolly swagman camped by a billabong, under the shade of a coolibah tree’. It was originally a poem, written by AB ‘Banjo’ Patterson in 1895, which helped to immortalise – and romanticise – this iconic persona. The reality it reflects was harsh. Economic depressions in the 1860s and 1890s had led to an increase in the number of itinerant workers. Many walked the countryside in search of temporary jobs such as sheep shearing or cattle mustering. Often carrying a bedroll or ‘swag’, they became known as swagmen. In the early 1900s, their numbers declined, as pension and unemployment benefits were introduced, and many served as soldiers during the First World War.