In the late 1880’s Madame Brussels was a notorious brothel owner with several exclusive establishments or 'flash houses' from Bennett’s Lane, amongst the colourful underworld of opium dens, seamy hotels and jazz clubs, to the gentrified theatre district of Lonsdale and Exhibition Streets in Victorian Melbourne.
Newspaper reports of the time cloaked in the strictures of Victorian language provide insights into the dangers of these dimly lit laneways, of drunken soldiers 'acting out', vagrancy (solicitation) and assaults on women of 'ill repute' involving ‘quarrels over financial transactions’.*
In 1889, the Herald reported that police were being called nightly to some ‘terrible dens’ where they found "attached to these disreputable establishments ... large numbers of men and hoodlums, constituting a most dangerous element and responsible for the robberies and violent assaults on defenceless wayfarers". (Sarah Matthews, 'On the 'shick' in Little Lon', SLV 2020)
While the Prussian-born Madame Brussel’s influence within Melbourne’s internecine underworld was direct and far-reaching, her impact upon the emerging Bohmenian subculture and closely tethered literary and arts scene was more oblique.
Caroline Hodgson, aka Madame Brussels (1851-1908) Photo: The Age
Painters, writers, musicians and actors fresh from their journeying to Paris to enjoy the company of like-minded artists, to live amongst and learn from them and experience first-hand the great art of Europe, were attracted to the Bohemian counterculture of creativity and free-thought of Madame Brussels’ Melbourne in the early 1900’s, and regularly gathered, wrote and performed at its clubs and European styled cafes, most notably Fasoli’s restaurant at 108 Lonsdale Street.
Established in the 1850’s as a lodging house and wine shop under the name of Pension Suisse, Vincenzio Fasoli after many changes of ownership took over the notorious tenements to establish Fasoli’s.
Newspaper reports tell of Fasoli’s cosmopolitan patrons, “All races, creeds, professions and out-sized personalities meet here on common ground … The food is mostly Italian. You begin with hors d’oeuvres – salami, lentils, French beans, sardines, beetroot and potato salads: then comes a dish of well-prepared macaroni, risotto, or soup, ‘le plat du jour’ consists of roast beef, pork, chicken etc., with stuffed cabbages and quaintly prepared vegetables: for dessert there is fruit and pudding for the Philistines, but the Chosen prefer the excellent salads of endives, cheese and celery, or watercress. There is wine ad lib., red and white, and with the cheese a delicious cup of black coffee.” (Alison Vincent, ‘One Crumb at a Time’).
No doubt an adventurous departure from Melbourne’s stodgy English food tastes of the time.
Fasoli's: Sketch by Herbert Moore (1879-1966) Photo: The State Library of Victoria
Amongst the travelled artists of Melbourne’s Bohemian society was George Henry Frederick Bell. A student of the National Art School between 1896 and 1903, Bell studied under Frederick McCubbin and the painting master Bernard Hall, forming friendships with many artists including Hugh Ramsay, Norman MacGeorge and James Quinn – and where he also developed what was to be a lifelong dislike of Max Meldrum. (Victorian Artists' Society)
In 1906 Bell left for London and continued to paint in the tonal realist style taught by Hall, though slowly beginning to question the National Art School’s academic methods, including the insistence that works of art must have a purpose outside of merely representing the subject.
The Director of the National Gallery and art critic, J.S. MacDonald later commented that "Bell remained dissatisfied with what was being taught and so gave up for good the schools … and within his own studio began to work out the problems for himself”. ('Art in Australia', December 1921)
In 1907 Bell at the urging of George Lambert became a founding member of the Modern Society of Portrait Painters in London, where he exhibited until 1915. Later that year Bell joined the Chelsea Arts Club – a club popular with Australians, and here Bell both made and renewed friendships with artists including Fred Leist, George Coates, Dora Meeson and Will Dyson and his wife Ruby Lindsay.
George Henry Frederick Bell (1878-1966) Photo: The McCorry Collection
Such friendships aided Bell’s efforts to establish his reputation, and his success in exhibiting. Of particular importance was his acceptance at the 1908 Royal Academy, a recognition that elevated his standing in the London art world.
Declared medically unfit to enlist during World War I, Bell went on to become an official war artist in 1918 for the 4th Division of the Australian Imperial Force. Though Bell reached the Western Front too late to witness actual combat, although he was there for the signing of the Armistice. Hence, his lauded works document the aftermath of battle, illustrating ravaged landscapes and ruined buildings.
In December 1919 Bell returned to Australia, marrying Edith Hobbs, an English actress whom he had met in England in 1915, throwing himself into the Melbourne art scene, and later becoming a long-standing art critic for the Melbourne Herald’s, ‘Sun News Pictorial’ (1923 to 1950).
In February 1932, Bell and Arnold Shore opened the Bell-Shore Art School in Bourke Street, with the intention of teaching modern art with an emphasis on modelling through colour.
Later that year Bell formed the Contemporary Group of Melbourne, promoting the exhibition of modern art. This interest and a growing dissatisfaction with the stagnation of Australian art led to Bell’s return to Europe in 1934, where he spent the next sixteen months absorbing new approaches to painting.
George Bell, 'Toinette' (1934) Photo: The Art Gallery of NSW
When Bell returned to Melbourne again in late 1935, it was with an altered approach to his practice – influenced by the Post-Impressionists, like Cézanne - and a dedication to promoting modern art.
In 1937, Bell set about organising an exhibition of works of modern art by artists outside Australia, to be held at the National Gallery of Victoria between October and November. The relatively small group of fifty-two works was nonetheless an important collection, and included paintings by van Gogh and Picasso.
The Argus on 25 June 1937 heralded the upcoming exhibition,
"An exhibition of modern art will be held in the National Gallery in the near future. At a meeting yesterday of the Gallery trustees, the director of the National Gallery (Mr. J. S. MacDonald) was authorised to arrange for the exhibition. It was suggested that he might be assisted by a committee consisting of Sir John Longstaff and Messrs. George Bell, A. Colquhoun, and Percy Meldrum. Mr. MacDonald said that it would be possible to borrow a considerable number of paintings for such an exhibition from private collections."
George Bell in his studio Photo: Art & Collector
In 1938 Bell was influential in forming the Contemporary Art Society, of which he became president and Rupert Bunny vice president. However, in 1941 following internal conflicts among the members, principally about the onslaught on Modernism, Bell broke away to form the Melbourne Contemporary Artists Society, and in 1949 created the George Bell Group.
While Bell maintained a strong presence in the art community as a practicing artist, engaging in debates and firmly promoting modernism, he remains best known for his role as a teacher and establishment of forward-thinking studios. Bell taught for over four decades, being awarded an OBE and shaping the careers of many students, some of the most notable including Peter Purves-Smith, Russell Drysdale and Fred Williams. (Victorian Artists Society)
Just a city block from Melbourne's Bohemian origins at the Paris-end of Collins Street, Grosvenor Chambers purpose-built in 1888 to accommodate artist studios, housed Tom Roberts, Jane Sutherland, Arthur Streeton and Clara Southern, all members of the Heidelberg School, who produced some of their finest studio works behind this imposing Victorian facade.
Grosvenor Chambers at 9 Collins Street, Melbourne (1888) Photo: The State Library of Victoria
In 1951, Georges and Mirka Mora took an apartment in this humming building on their arrival from war-torn Europe, breathing new life into Melbourne’s artistic community.
Respected biographer Janine Burke describes Mirka Mora as “a stunningly attractive young woman. Her chic fashion sense, gamine hair style together with a radiant smile, mischievous manner, and genuine warmth and sympathy soon made her probably the most interesting woman in town.
Through Mirka and Georges’ growing intimacy with cultural figures such as John and Sunday Reed, Joy Hester, Ian and Dawn Sime, Charles and Barbara Blackman, John Perceval and Mary Boyd, as well as poet Barrett Reid, they found themselves at the centre of modernist discourse and artmaking. It inspired Mirka who, without any formal training, committed herself to painting.
Mirka Mora in 1954 Photo: The Age
In 1953, the Mora's apartment hosted the first meeting of the revived Contemporary Art Society. The Mirka Cafe opened (at 183) Exhibition Street the following year and the Balzac, a successful French bistro, was launched in 1956 to coincide with the wave of international tourism from the Olympic Games.
The phrase joie de vivre could have been invented for her. She seduced Melbourne with her naughty sense of humour - I believe she’d like that description – in the nicest possible way. (Janine Burke for the St Kilda Historical Society)
The artists of early Melbourne owe Madame Brussels a great debt, a pioneering woman of considerable charm and force and who no doubt provided more than we will ever know to the artistic and intellectual development of a modern Victorian city and its inhabitants. Hopefully, Melbourne's artists' studios can one day again flourish in pursuance of the ideals of the artists of our Bohemian past, for all their sins.
* Prostitution was only illegal in Victoria from 1907, though police often pursued brothel owners for 'keeping a disorderly house'.
Little Lonsdale Street from the Old Governor Bourke Hotel, corner Spring Street, Melbourne c1870 Photo: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW
Madame Brussels Photo: The State Library of Victoria
Andrew McIlroy is an artist and writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia