Arthur Streeton

Australia, England 1867–1943
A largely self-taught artist, Streeton was one of the founding members of the Heidelberg school and participated in the ‘artist camps’ in the late 1880s and 1890s outside Melbourne. After the Art Gallery of NSW bought his painting ‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’, he moved to Sydney in the early 1890s, then spent several years in Europe, where he served as an official war artist during World War One.

Fire’s on 1891

For many people, Streeton’s paintings defined a unique image of Australia. This is possibly his greatest evocation of the country’s heat, light and dust, and one of the most famous works in the history of Australian art. It captures a critical moment during the construction of a railway line across the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney: the death of a railway worker in an explosion. ‘Fire’s on’ was the warning call before a blast, as the gang fired explosives to create Lapstone Tunnel through the hillside. In viewing the painting, however, the human drama is overshadowed by the landscape itself.

Streeton’s treatment of this landscape, with a flattening of the picture plane, was a decidedly modern approach.

People and places

The Great Dividing Range along the east of the continent is Australia’s most substantial mountain range. It wasn’t until the 19th century that European colonists were able to reach into the interior of New South Wales after the explorers Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth discovered a usable route from Sydney across the Blue Mountains and on to Bathurst in 1813. A railway route followed. Although primarily established to move produce and goods to Sydney, it also allowed for urban development along the rail lines, and Lapstone is now the easternmost of a string of towns across the Blue Mountains.

Arthur Streeton Fire’s on 1891

Related material

Streeton also produced a strikingly similar watercolour, which is in the Gallery’s collection.