Thursday, 16 April 2020

Cyrus Mason - the Buonarotti Club and 'Woodyats', Tynong

I was going through Trove combining various words with Koo Wee Rup as a search term to see what I could discover and came up with an article in The Argus of August 10, 1929 on the Buonarotti Club - it was titled Buonarotti Club: Bohemians of the 'Eighties - Memories of noted artists by L.T. Luxton (read it here). Before I tell you about the local connection I will tell you about the Buonarotti Club.

Stephen F. Mead, wrote a  history of the club, The Search for Artistic Professionalism in Melbourne: the activities of the Buonarotti Club, 1883 -1887 which was published in the State Library of Victoria's La Trobe Journal in December 2011, read it here. I have extracted a few paragraphs from his article.

Stephen Mead writes - The Buonarotti Club was instigated by the engraver, draughtsman and artist, Cyrus Mason in May 1883 at the Prince's Bridge Hotel (Young and Jackson's), on the corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets, in Melbourne.  It flourished for the next four years, eventually concluding its activities during September 1887. Mason was well acquainted with colonial literary, artistic and bohemian circles long before forming the Buonarotti Club, especially through his membership of Melbourne's Yorick Club. In the 1860s, he was one of the first illustrators of the Colonial Monthly edited by his friend Marcus Clarke, then the source of early Melbourne's Bohemian attitudes.

The Club was a professional artists' organisation that utilised literature and music to build the group into a more comprehensive artistic institution, distinct from other art and cultural societies of the period. Although it was divided into three 'sections' – 'Artistic', 'Literary' and 'Musical'- its membership consisted mainly of men and women who aspired to be professional painters. These included Frederick McCubbin, Louis Abrahams, Tom Roberts and Jane Sutherland. Admittedly literary clubs and societies were very popular in Melbourne during the 1880s, as demonstrated by the existence of the Shakespeare Society, the Shelley Society, the Burns Society and the Lamb Society. It must be stressed, however, that these groups were purely and proudly made up of amateurs, not professional writers. The Buonarotti Club differed from them in that it was artist-dominated, with members who possessed professional goals. These included painters who desired instruction, a cross fertilization of ideas and the opportunity to exhibit and receive critique from their peers to assist them in their participation in the commercial Melbourne art world.

The name of the Club 'Buonarotti' had been proposed by the founder, Cyrus Mason, to honour Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564), the great Italian sculptor, painter, draughtsman and architect.

Stephen Mead concludes his article with Despite its early demise, it must be recognised that significant achievements were made of the Buonarotti Club in building up a strong code of artistic professionalism to meet the needs and challenges faced by artists of the period in Melbourne, even fostering a strong sense of artistic bohemianism in the city, and played a pivotal role with that group of artists who formed the now-designated Heidelberg School of painters.

Richmond Road in 1883 by Cyrus Mason
State Library of Victoria Image H2012.271

One of the members of the Buonarotti Club was Elizabeth Parsons, landscape artist, who painted scenes of Berwick, read about her here.

Now we get to the local connection of the Club and it is through the founder, Cyrus Mason, who had a property at Tynong where he hosted artists who had painting expeditions to the shores of the Koo Wee Rup Swamp. The Koo Wee Rup Swamp, of 40,000 hectares, was drained between 1889 and 1893, you can read about it here. This means that when the members of the Buonarotti Club saw the swamp it was in its natural state and undrained. How wonderful it would be to see paintings and drawings of that.

The article in The Argus that I referred to at the start of this post had an interview with a Club member, Louis Lavater, a musician. Louis shared his memories which were of the out-of-doors excursions rather than the social activities of the Buonarotti; of finding a tiger snake as a bed companion on an excursion to Eaglemont and of killing it with a walking stick and nonchalantly turning over and going to sleep again; of happy-go-lucky painting camps on the shores of the Koo-wee-rup Swamp.

"Often we used to set out from Mr. Cyrus Mason's estate at Tynong for the old Koo-wee-rup swamp, with a loaf of bread, a bag of tomatoes, a bag of oysters, bottles of beer and plenty of cigarettes," said Mr. Lavater. "Painting was the first object of the expeditions, but the rough life had a zest all its own which appealed strongly to all of us and the humour! I wonder whether humour is gone from the bush roads when I think of the incidents of those excursions. I remember that there was a dear old couple who lived on an island in the swamp, who received a letter from a Melbourne solicitor stating that they had been left a small sum of money. The old woman, who was aged 84 years - four years older than her husband-was keenly conscious of her husband's youthfulness, and it was with the greatest reluctance that she allowed him to go to Melbourne to arrange a settlement with the solicitor. She used to tell us that every time she thought of her husband among 'those Melbourne hussies' she had a 'paroxum.' Her stern disapproval of our bathing in the swamp apparently caused her a few more 'paroxums,' for she used to come down and seize our clothes and stalk away with them in righteous indignation."

Map of the Colony of Victoria  designed, lithographed and printed by Cyrus Mason, 1854.
State Library of Victoria  click here to see a high resolution version

Cyrus Mason was born in London in 1829. He undertook an apprenticeship as a lithographer and in the June of 1853 arrived in Melbourne. In September 1856 he joined the Victorian Railways as a lithographic draughtsman and set up its lithographic printing branch. He left the Railways in 1864  had various jobs, was a member of different Artist's Societies, undertook freelance work, lectured and as we saw established the Buonarotti Club in 1883. You can read a  more extensive account of Cyrus Mason's life in an article by Thomas Darragh in Design and Art Australia Online here.

Camping on the road. Artist W.H.O., lithographed  and published by Cyrus Mason, 1855
State Library of Victoria Image H83.236/2

According to the Shire of Berwick Rate books, Cyrus Mason purchased 282 acres of land from the Crown in 1877/1878. He called the property Woodyats. He was listed in the Rate books up until the 1898/1899 book. Thomas Darragh says he returned to Melbourne about 1900, so this tallies with the entries in the Rate books. He then lived in Mentone. His occupation was initially listed as a Draughtsman, but later changed to Grazier and towards the end it changed to the more refined Gentleman.  Cyrus bred Romney Marsh sheep and was a breeder of some note and participated in Stud Sheep sales, as we see from the advertisement, below.

Annual stud sales including  Cyrus Mason's Woodyats stud at Tynong

I wanted to find the exact location of Woodyats. The Rate books list the property as Lots 16 & 17, Parish of Bunyip, however there are no Lots 16 & 17 on the Parish plan - I've checked my two maps that I own, the ones on-line at the State Library of Victoria and the Public Records Office and none of them have Allotments 16 and 17. Even though Cyrus Mason purchased the land from the Crown, his name does not appear on the plan under a different Allotment number and I also checked the neighbouring Parish plans of Nar Nar Goon and Koo Wee Rup East and he's not there either, so it is all a bit of a mystery.

I presume by the fact that the members of the Buonarotti Club could walk to the Swamp that his property was between the railway line and the Gippsland Road (now called the Princes Highway) right on the edge of the Swamp. This is partially confirmed by something he mentioned in 1893 in a letter he wrote to the editor of the Leader newspaper essentially complaining about the Public Works Department and their Swamp drainage works, Cyrus writes inter alia - Altogether apart from the Bunyip River, there is another and far larger body of water, which enters below Garfield the Kooweerup country, spreads out in width for half a mile, having four deep channels flowing westward rapidly, gathers into a volume of faster running water 9 feet deep at the south west, corner of my property, and in a mile disappears in an immense reed bed about a mile and a half south of the 42 mile post on the Gippsland railway. It's an interesting letter which you can read in full here. Two years previously in 1891 Cyrus had  a letter published in The Age in which he gave a history of the Koo Wee Rup Swamp and talked about the current conditions on the Swamp, read it here.

Cyrus Mason also created a water lifting scheme - a method to transfer water from a creek into a tank and thus to be used for irrigation and stock water, so he was not only a talented artist but inventive as well.  The Australasian newspaper wrote about it - a simple and economical mode of lifting water, the system brought into use by Mr. Cyrus Mason, J.P., on his property, Woodyats, Tynong, is well worth the attention of anyone having the command of a running stream, and desirous of using it for irrigating green crops, small fruits, vegetables, or for watering stock. As Mr. Mason, when building his wheel, was only desirous of proving its capabilities for irrigating an orchard and perfume garden, also obtaining a head of water to work a hydraulic ram, he authorises us to say that he will have pleasure in communicating information to anyone desirous of constructing a similar wheel. All the details are in the article in The Australasian of December 24, 1892 if you want to make your own water lifter. Read the article, here.

Cyrus Mason's simple and economical mode of lifting water
The Australasian December 24, 1892.

There were two aspects of Cyrus Mason's life - the engraver and artist who sought the company of like minded people in the Buonarotti Club and the farmer of Woodyats at Tynong. It was his interest in his farm that was, in the end, one of the reasons for the demise of the Buonarotti Club.

L.T Luxton, the writer of the newspaper article I have referred to quotes an un-named female member of the club and she attributes the decline of the Club to Cyrus Mason's move to Tynong. He was elected president. From that point to the time when Cyrus Mason retired to live in the country and the club 'petered out,' three years elapsed-one year as a men's club and two years as a mixed club. A short life if you like, but a very merry one.

Louis Lavater, in the same article, also attributes the demise of the club to the resignation of key members - "The end of all clubs," replied Mr Lavater, extending his hands, "Chance carried away a few of the dominant personalities, such as Longstaff, Julian Gibb and Cyrus Mason, and soon there were not enough strong personalities left to carry the dead weight of that section which has to be carried in every club. A slow 'petering-out,' and in a year, or two years - gone!"

Family information
Cyrus married Jessy Montagu (nee Campbell) in 1853. They had, I believe, 10 children - I have listed them here with any details I can confirm.
Cyrus - born 1854, married Louise Scroggie in 1882 and died in 1931 in New South Wales.
Jessy Harriet - born 1855 and died  January 27, 1857.
Arthur John - born 1857.
Walter and Willie - born and died in April 1859 - Walter on April 15 at 4 days old and Willie on April 22 at 11 days old.
Laura - born in 1860, married Richard MacDonnell in 1883 and died in 1935.
Herbert Reuben - born in 1862, died in 1885 in Queensland.
Valentine Frank - born 1864, died in 1944.
Constance - born 1866, married Frederick Kneebone in 1890 and died in 1952.
Theodore - born in 1867, died in 1947 in New South Wales.

Cyrus Mason died August 8, 1915 at the age of 86 and his wife Jessy died November 21, 1909 aged 84. They are buried at St Kilda Cemetery with little Jessy and the babies, Walter and Willie. Also on the headstone, which is shown below, is their grandson, Arthur Robert Mason, Killed in Action in France on August 28, 1918.  There is also the quite unusual smaller headstone on the same grave for Jessy's daughters from her first marriage to George Conway Montagu - Edith who died at the age of 63 in May 1911 and Jane who died in August 1938, aged 93.

The Mason family grave at the St Kilda Cemetery, with the rather unusual second headstone for the Montagu sisters, the step-daughters of Cyrus Mason.
Photo: Isaac Hermann.

We will finish off this post with this beautiful poem, Noon at Woodyats, Tynong, by Grace Elizabeth Jennings Carmichael (1867-1904) , a member of the Buonarotti Club, published in The Australasian on January 21, 1888, under the name of  Jennings Carmichael (see here). Grace died in London just before her 37th birthday. You can read more about her short life in her Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, written by Lyndsay Gardiner, here.

Noon at Woodyats, Tynong
It is a day to dream one dream,
And then in full content to die,
Bearing away in memory
The colours of that cloudless sky;
The odour of the fragrant green
As 'mid its seeded spears we lie,
The motion of those throbbing wings
That up the bluey distance fly.

It is a day to dream one dream
Of earthly peace, forgetting all
The bygone gleam of darker days -
The keen cold blast and sullen fall
Of slant grey rain, the leafless range
Of solemn poplars straight and tall.
The burial thoughts mid-year June,
That wrap the earth with sable pall.

A day to dream one dream of trust,
Untortured by foreboding fears,
To drink in joy the breezy gust
That round this spreading lightwood cheers.
To clasp dear Hope with eager arms.
And look with eyes undimmed by tears,
While memory blots away for once
The sorrow of the yesteryears.

In the broad march the colours glow,
Nut browns and blues and shading gold,
Deep purples fill the dimpling clefts
Between the wooded mountain folds.
On yonder gradual slope the clear
Transparent summer-sunlight holds
No wraith of shadow standing bright
Against the circle of the wolds.

A day to dream one dream of rest -
Oh friends, your happy voices ring
So freshly from the glowing lawn
That glistens through the sombre wing
Of yon old fir; sweet is the sound
The echoes to my senses bring.
Fainting soft pictures of content
That ever to the brain will cling.

I ween 'twere happy so to die.
To see this perfect world alight,
Just as the shadow of th' eclipse
Falls in irrevocable might;
To close loth eyes, their vision rich
With earth sweet largesse, full and bright;
Then in that view to sink away
Into the silence of the night.

Darragh,  Thomas  Cyrus Mason in Design and Art Australia Online, see here.

Mead, Stephen The Search for Artistic Professionalism in Melbourne: the activities of the Buonarotti Club, 1883 -1887 in the State Library of Victoria La Trobe Journal No. 88 December 2011, see here.

Trove list - list of newspaper articles referenced in this post, access it here.

No comments: