The cigar being smoked by Louis Abrahams (1852-1903) in the portrait by Arthur Streeton shown above was almost certainly made by B. Sniders and Abrahams, the family firm which Abrahams ran. Both Abrahams and his cigar business have a significant place in the history of Australian art.
The lids of the cigar boxes were used as supports by the artists in the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition in Melbourne in August 1889. The title of the show, which featured 183 works by the Australian Impressionists, the majority painted en plein air by Tom Roberts, Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton, referenced the dimensions of the lids (9 x 5 in).
The exhibition generated great interest and around 80 of the pictures were sold. According to the National Gallery of Victoria, ‘There was no precedent in the history of Australian art for artists grouping together to plan, promote and present an exhibition that reflected such a unified vision, and which aimed to engage the public with what was still widely regarded as a bold new approach to painting.’
Louis Abrahams, known as ‘The Don’ by his friends, was first recorded painting en plein air in March 1886, at the first of the Australian artists’ camps on a farm at Box Hill, Victoria. Alongside him on that weekend trip to the countryside were Roberts, a fellow former National Gallery of Victoria art school student who was nicknamed ‘Bulldog’, and Frederick ‘The Prof’ McCubbin, whom Abrahams had known for even longer.
Between 1885 and 1888, these three Melbourne artists, along with others including Arthur ‘Smike’ Streeton and Charles ‘Kay’ Conder, regularly travelled by train to Box Hill and Blackburn to capture the native bushland bathed in the distinctive Australian light. Taking their inspiration from Europe’s avant-garde, they set up their easels and began describing the unique landscapes of their homeland in the broken brushstrokes pioneered by the French Impressionists. Each evening, they retired to their camp, where they talked, smoked pipes around a fire and slept in tents.
As Christopher Riopelle, the curator of the National Gallery’s 2016 exhibition on Australian Impressionism, told us last year: ‘This was a small group, but they were very closely allied... it was very much about friendship and a shared sense that they were doing something interesting and original. They painted together, lived together and went on camps together. They shared their progress on an almost daily basis.’ Roberts, who had travelled through Britain, Spain, Italy and France between 1881 and 1885, was the group’s leader.
In later years, the artists would relocate to the Mount Eagle Estate, close to the town of Heidelberg and with sweeping views of the Yarra River. Abrahams, who by then was only an occasional exhibitor, made weekend excursions to the camp at Heidelberg with his wife Golda, who was an amateur sketcher.
Works from Abrahams’ own collection, which were passed down to his grandson, Sir Denys Lasdun (1914-2001), the English architect whose most famous work is the National Theatre complex on London’s South Bank, show the extent of his connections with fellow students and artists in the vanguard of plein air painting in Australia through the 1880s. Of particular interest are the ‘friendship’ portraits made of him by Roberts, John Mather, Julian Rossi Ashton, Streeton and McCubbin.
Abrahams was also painted by Tom Roberts in The Artists’ Camp (1886), in which he is depicted with Frederick McCubbin next to a tent on the farm at Box Hill, and sat for two of McCubbin’s large pictures, Down on His Luck, 1889 (Art Gallery of Western Australia) and A Bush Burial, 1890 (Geelong Gallery).
Despite these close associations, Abrahams would not make a career in art; to his regret, more of his time in the 1890s was taken up with his work in the family cigar business. By this time, he was married to Golda, of whom Roberts painted a portrait (Mrs L. Abrahams, 1888, National Gallery of Victoria) in his studio in Grosvenor Chambers in Collins Street — where Abrahams also kept a studio. The portrait was a wedding present and companion piece to Roberts’ recently discovered portrait of Louis, painted in 1886 (National Gallery of Australia).
Abrahams and McCubbin had known each other since their time together at the Artisans School of Design in Carlton in the late 1860s. They both went on to enroll at the Gallery School in 1871, where they founded the ‘Life-Club’ in 1882 to study the nude. In 1890 McCubbin named his first son Louis for Abrahams. Louis and Golda would reciprocate, naming their son Frederick.
If Abrahams was gradually drawn away from painting by his duties with B. Sniders and Abrahams, he remained firmly in touch with his friends. As well as providing many of the cigar-box lids used by the Heidelberg artists for their ‘9 x 5’ impressions, the Abrahams also hosted soirées at their mansion in Kew.
Funded by their successful cigar business, Louis and his brother Lawrence, as well as Golda, were important patrons and collectors of the Heidelberg artists and their plein air precursors and followers.
‘Amongst the patrons of Australian Art in its early stages the names of brothers Lawrence and Louis Abrahams stand very prominent’ — Melbourne auction catalogue, 1919
In September 1903 Louis himself had offered to fund a trip to London with McCubbin. Months later and while suffering from depression, however, Louis Abrahams shot himself.
Louis’ widow Golda bought McCubbin’s Sawing Timber (sold at Christie’s in London on 12 December 2007 for £731,700) at the artist’s Guild Hall exhibition in March 1907. This and other sales from the exhibition finally enabled McCubbin to take his one and only European tour in the same year.
The Abrahams’ patronage of the Australian Impressionists continued after Louis’ death. McCubbin’s 1911 view from his home on Kensington Road in South Yarra (above) was possibly bought by Golda from McCubbin’s joint exhibition with his son Louis, Pictures by Fred and Louis McCubbin, at the Athenaeum Art Gallery in Melbourne in August 1912.
Some of the Abrahams’ purchases, including McCubbin’s A Bush Idyll and At Macedon, were sold at auction in Melbourne in 1919. The foreword to the auction catalogue stated, ‘Amongst the patrons of Australian Art in its early stages the names of the two brothers Lawrence and Louis Abrahams stand very prominent. The brothers were intimately associated with many of the earlier artists, and their collections were naturally very similar in character.’