Thirty five in 1900,
Phillips Fox, with due time served
in Heidelberg’s plein air and Paris,
obtains an Empire’s sweet commission,
Captain Cook at Botany Bay.
It takes two years, a big bequest,
and ‘must be painted overseas’ —
to gain perspective, we assume.
The painting, rich with expertise,
reduces to a set of gestures:
Cook, his right arm stretched and level
already in an English future;
Solander who is here for plants;
Banks who points to two Eoras;
the Royal Marine who kneels and aims
his musket at the ‘natives’,
one of whom has raised a spear
symbolically against the sky.
The artist’s basic browns and greys
are broken by the clever white
of Cook’s well-tailored britches,
the red of England’s ensign
flapping in a breeze, its blue
a little darker than the blue
above his cloud bank done in beige.
The trustees have obtained
exactly what they paid for —
and Mr Phillips Fox, before
the age of irony,
is happy to provide it.
In 1900, too, he paints
that spritzy Autumn Morning,
delighting in a half-cleared hillside
north of Eaglemont perhaps:
washed greens and April yellows,
the grass with hazy dabs of blue
giving back the sky —
which takes up more than half the shot,
the clouds more hinted at than rendered.
A pair of youthful eucalypts
arch towards each other.
One bifurcated, scrappy gum
is added on the left.
We sense the artist relishing
paint and landscape equally,
one to reinvent the other.
Any thought of Cook as hero
has no purchase on this canvas.
If there’s a lesson it is merely:
enjoy your dappled day in history,
its dancing yellows, greens and blues.
Phillips Fox was dead at fifty.
I saw this painting in Benalla
once as I was passing through.