Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Boreham on Frederick McCubbin’s Painting, ‘The Pioneer’

Every Australian has reverently raised his hat at some time or other to Mr. McCubbin's great picture ‘The Pioneer.’ [pictured—click to magnify] It holds a place of honour in the Melbourne Art Gallery, and copies of it have found their way into every home in the Commonwealth. I speak of it as a picture; but it is really three pictures in one frame.

The first of the set represents the pioneer on pilgrimage. There stands the wagon! The horses are turned out to forage for food among the scrub. The man himself is making a fire under a giant blue-gum. And, in the very foreground, sits the sad young wife, her chin resting heavily upon her hand, and her elbow supported by her knee. Her dark eyes are eloquent with unspeakable wistfulness, and her countenance is clouded with something very like regret. Her face is turned from her husband lest he should read the secret of her sorrow, and see that her heart is breaking. She is overwhelmed by the vastness and loneliness of these great Australian solitudes; and her soul, like a homing bird, has flown back to those sweet English fields and fond familiar faces that seem such an eternity away across the wilds and the waters. The pioneer's wife!

The centre picture—the largest of the trio—shows us the freshly built home in the depths of the bush. The little house can just be seen through a rift in the forest. In the foreground is the pioneer. He is clearing his selection, and rests for a moment on a tree that he has felled. His axe is beside him, and the chips are all about. Before him stands his wife, with a little child in her arms. The soft baby-arm lies caressingly about her shoulders.

In the third picture we can see, through the trees, a town in the distance. In the immediate foreground is the pioneer. He alone figures in all three pictures. He is kneeling this time beside a rude wooden cross. It marks the spot among the trees where he sadly laid her to rest.

The pioneer! It is by such sacrifices that these broad Australian lands of ours have been consecrated. Oh, the brave, brave women of our Australian bush! We have heard, even in Tasmania, of their losing their reason through sheer loneliness; and too often they have sunk into their graves with only a man to act as nurse and doctor and minister and grave-digger all in one…

Yes; there is a world of pathos and significance in that solitary grave in the lonely bush. And he who can catch that mystical meaning has read one of life's deepest and profoundest secrets. He is not very far from the kingdom of God!...

I used to think that the finest thing on earth was self-sacrifice. It was a great mistake. This picture of ‘The Pioneer’ reminds me that there is a form of sacrifice compared with which self-sacrifice is a very tame affair. The point is that the sacrifice of one who is dearer than life itself is manifestly a greater sacrifice than self-sacrifice. It is such a sacrifice that Mr. McCubbin has painted. It is by such sacrifice that our Australian scrub has been sanctified. It is made as sacred as a shrine, and its sands more precious than gold. We take off the shoes from off our feet, for the place whereon we stand is holy ground.

F W Boreham, ‘The Pioneer’, Mountains in the Mist (London: Charles H Kelly, 1914), 75-77, 80.

Image: ‘The Pioneer’, 1904 (For more information about this picture see this link).