Cristina Asquith Baker
AKA: Cristina Asquith Baker
Born: 1868 London, England
- Print Maker
The young Baker family arrived in Australia when Cristina was about 18 months old. Both her brother John and sister Wilhelmina were born in Australia. Her mother, Christina Gilbanks, originally came from Liverpool, and her father, a Presbyterian minister, William Asquith Baker came from London. Cristina was born on her mother's 18th birthday. Her brother John was registered born at Llanelly, and in a letter addressed by William, in the possession of Jean Morrison, Cristina's niece, it appears that he was in the Hopetoun Region of the Mallee prior to taking up his position with the church in the Seymour and Nagambie area. Cristina was eight years old when they moved to Seymour. In the twilight of her years she recalled those years with great fondness. They moved again four years later to the Clare Valley in South Australia. William died of Typhoid Fever whilst serving there. It was also during that time that Cristina lost the sight in one of her eyes. It happened very simply. She was shaking out her pinafore when the edge of it pierced her eye. She was never able to see out of it again except to distinguish light and dark. She was thirteen. Both Cristina and Wilhelmina were sent to the Presbyterian Ladies College in East Melbourne, auspiced by the church. Their mother moved back to Nagambie where her friends were and set up house in Nagambie taking in boarders, mainly bank people, as they were not allowed to stay in hotels.
Cristina had a love for drawing since early childhood and after leaving PLC she attended the Port Melbourne School of Art. Her grandparents in the meantime had arrived from England and were living in Albert Park. Her grandfather was a builder/architect and did quite well until the massive recession of the 1890s when he was forced to return to England. Cristina stayed with them until they left and
then stayed with a Dr McGibbon and his family in Fitzroy. The doctor had been in the Seymour region the same time as the Baker family and had become a family friend.
In 1888 she enrolled at the National Gallery School. She took drawing lessons from Fred McCubbin and learnt painting from Irish born George Frederick Folingsby, who at the time was director of the National Gallery of Victoria and head of the Art School. George died in 1891 and Bernard Hall took his place. Cristina and Hall did not get on. There were aspects of Hall's behaviour that were not appreciated by Cristina causing a rift resulting in Hall accusing her of not finishing her paintings. Cristina found the criticism unwarranted and walked out of the class and the Gallery school.
She joined the Melbourne Art School which had been established in 1892 by Emanuel Phillips Fox in partnership with Tudor St George Tucker. Cristina became a favourite student of Phillips Fox and was awarded a prize of a year's free study. In 1895 he painted Cristina as his main figure in his famous painting "The Art Students" (NSW Art Gallery). Other women included in the painting were Sara Levi, Violet Teague and Bertha Merrifield. Cristina and Phillips Fox remained close friends until his death in 1915. During her time at the Melbourne Art School she painted a work "Quiet of the Cottage". She exhibited for the first time with the Victorian Artists Society (VAS) in 1896 and again in 1898 when she included "Quiet of the Cottage". Julian Ashton selected this work to be shown in London along with other contemporary Australians later in 1898.
In 1904 it was accepted for hanging at the Paris Old Salon. Years later (1920) John Shirlow, in an article on Australian artists in "The Herald" referred to this work "The exquisite 'Quiet of the Cottage' is a somewhat low-toned picture showing a girl seated between two lights. Pictures of this character are difficult and success is rare." (The whereabouts of this painting is unknown.) At 30 years of age Christina had achieved the status of a recognised artist, asking ad receiving high prices for her works. She was registered with the Education Department as an art teacher and taught at "Fenton" a girls school in Balwyn, and travelled regularly to Benalla to teach art at a convent school.
After saving enough for a boat fare and an assumed living allowance she left for France at the turn of the century. She shared a studio with Ada Plante in Paris. Phillips Fox had a adjoining studio. In 1903 she studied under Jean Paul Laurens, Baschet and Gabriel Ferres at the famous Julian School in Paris. In 1905 she enrolled in the class of Charles Lasar, an American in Paris, and later that year the class went,to England. Both Ada and Cristina suffered deprivation whilst in France. Cristina had to survive on six pounds per month. They lived on a subsistence diet of a bread roll, cheese and coffee for lunch and rice for most of their other meals. At the end of 1905 she was back in Australia.
In 1906 she exhibited with the Victorian Artists Society (VAS) and was asking one hundred pounds and more for her works. Her abilities were well recognised. She was elected to the council of the VAS in 1909 and served with that body until she went back to England in 1912. She was also a member of the Woomballano Art Club (later the Women's Art Club and ultimately the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors). Cristina was part of the hanging committee. She was unable to attend a scheduled hanging session so the committee changed the date as they "were most anxious to have her valuable services."
In 1907 her exhibits in England were reported to be attracting favourable attention. In 1911 a new exhibition space was provided in the Melbourne Athenaeum. Over the next 30 years it became the most prestigious and desirous gallery for shows. The Yarra Sculptors had their inaugural exhibition there including works by Cristina. In April 1911 Cristina had her first solo exhibition there. Dr Felix Meyer purchased a work from that exhibition and he is now regarded as an authorative and discerning collector of that period. Later in 1911 Cristina held another solo exhibition of her works at her studio in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne informing the public and clients alike of "tuition given in painting and drawing".
In 1912 Cristina, accompanied by her mother, returned overseas.
They were closely bonded and never separated again. She again took a studio in Paris and again in the same building as Emanuel Phillips Fox. Fox had married Ethel Carrick in 1905 and they settled in Paris. The building housing the studios was destroyed by fire sometime in 1913. In October of that same year Cristina had a solo exhibition at the Baillie Gallery in Bond Street, London. "The Morning Post" commented, "Miss Baker exhibits a variety of work, flowers, portraits and landscapes, all of which show a real sense of beauty of her medium." Included in this exhibition was a painting "Nocturne". In 1914 she was invited to exhibit with the National Society of Portrait Painters. Her rose studies were much admired by the patrons and she was asked by a gallery proprietor to stay in England and concentrate on painting roses. Cristina declined the offer stating that landscapes were a part of her artistic life. Also that year her work "Spring Roses" was hung at the Royal Academy. This privately owned work is part of the "Completing the Picture" exhibition which is presently travelling Victorian Galleries then going on to Sydney and Adelaide concluding 6th December, 1992. Sometime during 1914 Cristina undertook lithography tuition and exhibited some coloured prints at a Miss Nicholls studio, one of them being the lithograph "The Star".
Meanwhile, back in Australia, Cristina's brother, John, had been quite ill and her mother was agitating to return home. His wife had died giving birth to their second daughter. Cristina was enjoying her popularity and was reticent to return, but the family took priority. The First World War had broken out as well and in due course they returned to Australia in the latter part of 1914. They spent the Christmas of 1914 with John's in-laws at Thoona, Victoria.
In October 1915 Cristina lost a dear friend and mentor when Emanuel Phillips Fox died at the age of fifty.
In 1916 she exhibited with the VAS and a lithograph titled "Nocturne" was included in the show. One wonders whether it was "The Star" that had been shown at Miss Nicholls studio in London retitled, or, whether she had done more lithographs of a nocturnal content. Cristina, along with Jessie Traill, must have been one of Australia's first woman lithographers after the colonial period.
Her services were in demand. Critiques were arranged and she addressed the Woomballano Art Club on the latest art trends in Paris and the "Cubist" movement. The greater part of her works had been left behind in England and, because of the war, she was unable to ship them home, till well after the war was over. This may explain why works exhibited in the shows of 1920 and '21 were executed in from earlier period, of which comment was made. However, the critics were impressed and John Shirlow, writing for 'The Herald' in October of 1920 commented "Cristina Asquith Baker has a strongly personal feminine note. Her works breathe the spirit of poetry and display a personality of a high order. There is no vulgar effort to demonstrate her cleverness. What a splendid charm pervades her work, a veritable spring song as exquisite as anything Mendelssohn ever wrote. This is the quality that sets the works of Cristina Asquith Baker in a class apart - different from that of any other woman in Australia." Alexander Colquhoun, also writing for 'The Herald', said, "Miss Baker has acquired a distinctive manner in painting characterised by a reserve, which in some cases almost amounts to severity, but is also remarkable for its sincerity and insight into the more subtle aspects of form and colour." In June 1925, she exhibited at Anthony Horden's gallery in Sydney. William Moore, art critic for 'The Daily Telegraph' commented, "Australia has produced a number of brilliant women painters, but few with such subtle in sights as Cristina Asquith Baker. It is her low-toned compositions that she is seen at her best."
During the 1920s her life took on another direction. She had lived in Carlisle Street in St Kilda with her mother and then moved to Bowen Crescent, Melbourne. The landlord of the Bowen Crescent house ultimately wanted to sell and offered the house to Cristina for fifty pounds deposit and very generous repayment terms. Her brother, John, lent her the deposit and of necessity she took in boarders. John at some later stage moved into the upstairs section with his two daughters. It was during this period that he and Cristina opened an Antique shop in Toorak Road, South Yarra. This resulted in Cristina's interests diversifying. She became actively involved in buying stock and John concentrated on the restoration aspects of the business. She frequented the Victoria Market to buy bric-a-brac and that is where her interest in hooked rugs became a reality. She was able to purchase the materials needed from the market. She also did tapestry work and her niece, Jean, still has in her possession a set of Victorian ladies and gents chairs covered in tapestry work done by her. One of her rugs is in the decorative arts section of the National Gallery in Canberra. Jim Alexander, in an exhibition of Cristina's works in 1986 had three of her rugs included. Jean Morrison still has one in her possession.
Cristina's mother was reputed to have been wonderful with the needle, as most women of that generation were, and, given the close relationship between mother and daughter, that ability and expertise must have had some influence. Cristina's mother died in 1931.
In 1933 Cristina exhibited at the Athenaeum. Blamire Young, writing for 'The Herald', wrote, "Her method is well suited to the painting of decorative roses. These studies have a flesh-like quality rivalling some of Renoir's nudes." Streeton disagreed, declaring, "The actual painting of the blooms of the roses requires more intense study to reveal their loveliness of form and colour." He obviously did not see what the gallery patrons in England had seen. Of her landscapes, Alexander Colquhoun from 'The Age', noted, "What might be described as a modified modern influence." In 1935 Cristina held her last exhibition at the Athenaeum. She was sixty years old. Streeton did not agree with her vision of her landscapes, criticising her for not revealing wider contrasts or differences in three varying aspects of nature in her pictures of 'Morning', 'Afternoon' and 'Evening'. He
never said anything positive about Cristina. He obviously had forgotten that once his own style had been considered very individual.
Cristina's sister, Mina, had arrived back in Australia from South Africa. She was not a well woman, and persuaded Cristina to live with her in Adelaide. For the next twelve years Cristina rarely painted and turned her energies to gardening. When Mina died she returned to Melbourne, (1947) moving in with Jean and her husband, Harvey.
Cristina resumed her former friendships including that of Ada Plante. Ada had been boarding with Lina Bryans but had to find alternative accommodation. Rental housing was not easy and finally Jock Frater found an old cottage at Research for her. It lacked all conveniences but she took it. She was at this stage rather frail and Cristina decided to move in with her both for company and support. Ada died in 1950. Cristina once again moved back in with Jean and Harvey at Surrey Hills. They built a studio for her and there she very contentedly spent the last days of her life with her brother John, being her constant companion; bit like Darby and Joan. Jean used to call them in for lunch then back they would go. Cristina painting and John usually reading. The family throughout remained closely bonded. Jean recalls her father frequently stating, "Crissy is too sensitive. Women artists of her generation are never recognised. You have to be a man." Cristina's quiet retort would be, "After I'm dead I might get a bit of recognition."
At the age of 83, on a camping trip to Alice Springs, she somehow managed to get herself lost. She spent the night in the open and decided she must keep walking to stay warm. It had rained and was rather cold. By dawn she had found a fence and decided to prop there to watch the sunrise. Two young trackers found her there and upon their approach she was quite convinced they were angels. They wanted to carry her but she adamantly insisted on watching the sunrise. She didn't want to go to hospital, but had to do so. Nothing was amiss. She was as fit as a trout.
She also regularly visited the property of her nephew (Jean's sister's son) in New South Wales for up to three months at a time gaining much pleasure from those country painting expeditions.
Jean describes Cristina as always having been quite sensitive, but having a great sense of humour. She was at the same time both strong-willed and physically strong. No task would daunt her. This plucky lady painted right up until her death in 1960.
Cristina Asquith Baker is represented at the Australian National Gallery (Prints & Decorative Arts Sections), National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of South Australia.
Source: Jean Morrison, Neice
Secondary source: Jim Alexander Exhibition Catalogue, 1986