Artist Arthur Streeton went to live at Glenbrook, in the lower Blue Mountains of New South Wales, for several months in 1891. For a pound a week he had rented four roomed Daisy Cottage, located by the station master’s house. His original intention was to paint a panoramic view of the plains looking back to Sydney. However, his imagination was captured by the drama of a nearby tent city of workmen and their families. A new railway tunnel was under construction.
Streeton’s time was spent painting and sketching in the area.
The 24 year old described the vast excavation site in a letter to friend and fellow artist Frederick McCubbin. Clearly Streeton was an artist with words as well as paint;
I follow the railway line for 3/4 of a mile through a canyon or gully, where big brown men are toiling all the hot day excavating and making a tunnel which will cost thousands (about 1/2 mile long) but will save (apparently) wearing out a great number of Engines on the first Zig Zag. I’ve passed the crest mouth and am arrived at my subject, the other mouth which gapes like a great dragon’s mouth at the perfect flood in hot sunlight.
There is a cutting through the vast hill of bright sandstone – the walls of rock run high up and are crowned by gums bronze green and they look quite small being so high up and behind is the deep blue azure heaven, where a crow sails along like a dot with its melancholy hopeless cry – long drawn. like the breath of a dying sheep. Yes right below me the men work, some with shovels, others drilling for a blast. I work on the W.Colour drying too quickly and the head ganger cries “Fire! Fire’s On” – All the men drop their tools and scatter and I nimbly skip off my perch and hide behind a big safe rock – A deep hush is everywhere then – “Holy Smoke” what a boom of thunder shakes the rock and me – It echoes through the hills and dies away mid the crashing of tons of rock. Some lumps fly hundreds of feet (sometimes) and fall and fly everywhere among the trees and then a thick cloud laden with fumes of the blasting powder – all at work once more – more drills.
A FATAL ERROR
Blasting was carried out in a set routine. Four holes were drilled in the shape of a square and charged with gunpowder. The top two were very deep, at over two metres. The lower two were about a metre deep. Then, a much shallower fifth hole was drilled in the centre of the square and packed with dynamite….this was known as the ‘pop hole’, meant to be fired last.
It was twenty six year old Edward Brown’s job to light the fuses. He was considered a competent and careful worker, but inexplicably made a fatal mistake. For some reason he lit two of the deep charges, but then the shallow ‘pop hole’, which exploded while he was stooping to light the remaining fuses.
Brown was killed instantly. He was found face down, a two hundred weight rock pinning one of his arms. Arthur Streeton was present when the man was carried out, and was profoundly affected by the sight. Describing the day in another letter to McCubbin he wrote;
The accident inspired one of Streeton’s most famous works, Fire’s On!. It was named for that warning call sounded before a blast in the tunnel. The harsh landscape dominates the painting, with human figures appearing as ant-like workers. Spillage from a dray leads the eye down to the human drama being played out.
Art critic Howard Ashton later wrote that Streeton, ‘…was born with a paint brush in his hand, just as a skylark is hatched with a song in its heart.’
The following, enlarged image shows detail from the painting, as Edward Brown’s body was being removed from the tunnel.
A CRITICAL SUCCESS FOR STREETON
In 1938 the painting was part of an exhibition at the National; Gallery. Lionel Lindsay interpreted it in this way;
‘….but the hero of this picture is not the poor fellow borne out by his mates, it is the Australian sunlight of a cloudless day, wide on the hillside.
Held down by the impenetrable blue of the sky, without chiaroscuro, and with only the crisp shadows of the sandstone to link his composition, Streeton has created a blaze of light on the broken hillside. By his gift of colour, by exactitude of values, and dexterity of touch, he has forced the yellows and bleached surfaces of earth upon a foil of warm-grey rocks, to yield a higher note of heat and light.’
Soon after completion the painting was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where it is still held.
Due to its steep gradient and problems with water seepage, the Glenbrook tunnel was anything but a success. In 1913 it was abandoned.
Another tragedy at the tunnel (in truth a military bungle and cover-up) occurred during World War II
There are now plans to clean up and re-open the site to visitors. It this comes to fruition I hope the whole story of the tunnel will be told.