An Expert Looked Closer At A 100-Year-Old Masterpiece – And Found It Was Hiding An Astounding Secret

A man is creeping through a gallery in an Australian museum, a flashlight illuminating his path through the quiet space. There’s no one around but him. Suddenly, he stops. Something has caught his eye in one of the paintings. And when he figures out what it is, the truth will come to shock the art world.

The room that the man was exploring is in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, Australia. And the picture that he was examining is one of Australia’s most acclaimed works. It has been in the NGV since 1906, having been left to the museum by a charity founded by Alfred Felton, a pharmaceutical executive.

The man lurking around was not a thief – in fact, he wasn’t up to anything nefarious at all. He was Michael Varcoe-Cocks, who works in the museum as its head of conservation. An expert in paintings from the second half of the 19th century, he knows a lot about the works on display. But even he couldn’t have predicted what he would find.

The picture that had caught Varcoe-Cocks’ eye was The Pioneer. This work had been painted in 1904 by the Australian artist Frederick McCubbin. It’s a piece in three panels – a triptych – which is considered to be one of the great Australian paintings. The NGV itself describes The Pioneer as a “masterpiece.”

Varcoe-Cocks is doubtless familiar with The Pioneer, and he’s likely run his eye over it many times. But in the dark gallery, his flashlight caught a detail that he’d never noticed before. Stunned, Varcoe-Cocks developed a theory about what he was seeing, which if it turned out to be right would have stunning implications for Australian art.

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The artist, McCubbin, started life in Melbourne. He had a series of ordinary jobs, including working alongside his father, a baker, and as an attorney’s clerk. For a while, he even painted coaches. But art was his abiding passion, and he found time to study at the NGV’s School of Design.

At the age of 25, McCubbin made his first sale, and he started to gain more notice as a painter. He scooped several prizes, and with that encouragement, by the middle of the 1880s he had begun the work that would make his name: depicting the Australian bush. Towards the end of the decade, he headed up the school where he had learned to paint.

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As the century turned, McCubbin felt the pull of the bush. By 1901 its attractive qualities were just too much, and the painter took his family to live in Mount Macedon, near Melbourne. The town lies halfway up the mountain of the same name, and there he started to explore the different colors that the wilderness of the Macedon Ranges had to offer.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Australia had enjoyed an infusion of European artists, who had shared their knowledge of the “plein air” style of painting. They sparked the development of an Australian version of Impressionism, which tried to encapsulate the life of the country, the bush, and the weather that it enjoyed.

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The Australian Impressionists focused on tones that seemed native to Australia. They painted the barren, waterless soil, the forests of eucalyptus trees, and sand. As Australia federated into one nation at the turn of the century, they became sirens of nationalism, capturing a life that was disappearing as times changed.

Mount Macedon proved a perfect environment for McCubbin to do great work. Inspired by the bush, he created The Pioneer in 1904. It wasn’t the only work based on the bushscape that the artist would paint. He carried on working until he started to wane around the start of World War I.

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McCubbin created The Pioneer as a triptych, which showed the life and times of a family of settlers. It depicted in its three panels the changes that their life had undergone in the Victorian bush. Despite his reputation as an Impressionist, McCubbin paints the family with an almost photographic realism.

In the left panel, the viewer can see the settler and his spouse newly arrived on their land. They have a “selection” of land that Australian settlers of the 1860s were permitted to make in some of the colonies. In this case, it seems to be a patch of uncleared forested land, painted in muted, fall tones.

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The settler is kindling a fire in the background of the picture, near to where he has parked the wagon that brought them to the selection. His wife sits mired in reflection in the foreground. Frankly, she does not look too happy to be there! Perhaps she is just thinking about the hard work that lies ahead for both of them.

In the middle panel, we can understand that time has passed because there is a third member of the family. The woman is cradling an infant. The man is sitting on a log, which he must have cut, along with many others, leaving a clearing for agricultural use. Through the gap in the trees caused by his cutting, we can see the family’s home.

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In the right panel, we see that the clock has again been ticking. Now through the much larger gap in the trees, we can spy a large city. In the foreground, a growing man is on his knees by a grave. Perhaps he is the infant, now grown into a strapping young fellow. Whose grave it is, we do not know, but neither the settler or his wife can be seen.

One thing of note is that at first no one wanted to buy The Pioneer. You might think that’s quite shocking for such an acclaimed work. But one of McCubbin’s friends had a solution: make the city that is visible in the last panel resemble Melbourne. Once McCubbin had done that, the painting was bought.

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The work in three pieces is acclaimed as a masterpiece. Having been painted only a few years after the nation had formed in the Federation, it could be seen as showing pride in the legacy of the pioneer Australians. After all, they had battled to reduce settlements in the bush, and to build the thriving cities that even then were visible on Australia’s coast.

Even so, it’s possible to see a different story in The Pioneer. The settler woman in the first panel does not seem happy about her prospects. Perhaps the other side of pioneering life is visible: it’s hard. And in the final frame, the settler finds a lonely grave, and perhaps his son will soon leave his childhood home for the city. It’s a theme McCubbin returned to in On the Wallaby Track.

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Whatever McCubbin’s true intention, the painting sits in the NGV, where it’s much loved by visitors. And when Michael Varcoe-Cocks was walking through the deserted gallery room, checking that everything was okay, he found something stunning. It was the fall of 2020, and the museum was closed to the public.

Varcoe-Cocks explained to Australian TV morning show Sunrise what he was doing wandering around in the darkness. He said, “I was doing the rounds during lockdown, walking around with a [flashlight] checking all of the paintings and I came past the very famous The Pioneer.” What happened next set in train a series of events that would rock the Australian art world.

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The beam of the conservation expert’s flashlight strayed over something that caught his eye. As he described it to Sunrise, “I noticed a form in the texture that didn’t relate to that final composition.” And the form that he couldn’t recognize immediately sparked his curiosity. What was he looking at?

It turned out that Varcoe-Cocks had access to X-rays of the painting that had been made back in 2013. And looking closely, he could see that there was something apparent in The Pioneer which he hadn’t noticed before. But he had no idea what the form his light had revealed was.

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The now visible outline nagged at Varcoe-Cocks. He’d seen it somewhere before, but where? Then he remembered. In the scrapbook that the artist had kept, there was a photo, small and colorless, of the painting Found. This featured a bushman who has hold of a little child. The art expert could have sworn that he was seeing that image in The Pioneer.

Varcoe-Cocks told Sunrise, “I could see this big form of a bushman holding a little child, a limp figure, who has just been found in the bush.” Thus the head of conservation realized that underneath The Pioneer lay another masterpiece by McCubbin, lost for a century in a cloak of paint.

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So the next stage was for Varcoe-Cocks to confirm what he now believed. He told Melbourne newspaper the Herald Sun, “I digitally overlaid this to that. It was a perfect match.” He reflected on his joy at resolving the enigma, “It’s always a remarkable and wonderful thing to solve an otherwise unsolved mystery.”

But even though Varcoe-Cocks might be delighted to have resolved the mystery of Found, the painting will have to remain lost. It can’t be taken out of The Pioneer because McCubbin created his masterpiece right on top of it. One of the benefits of oil paints is that they can be layered to change or hide details. Oh well.

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McCubbin is by no means alone in using the ability to layer paints to create new works on top of old ones. Pablo Picasso did exactly the same when he found that he didn’t have the money to buy new canvases. Indeed, it was discovered in 2020 that Picasso’s much-loved Cubist Still Life from 1922 covered an earlier still image in the neo-classical style.

The Australian painter too loved to layer paint. He’d make underpaintings with a lot of detail, and then place paint on top, or rub it off, until he felt a work was completed. McCubbin’s work heavily features what are known as pentimenti, remnants of earlier painting, as he created and reworked images.

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Vascoe-Cocks noted to the Herald Sun what a lucky chance it had been that he’d made the discovery. He said, “If I wasn’t walking through in the dark, with a [flashlight], on my own, I probably wouldn’t have had time to focus on it, make the connection and revisit the X-ray and to rediscover this little photo in a scrapbook we had in storage.”

It’s not the normal method for finding pentimenti. Experts usually uncover them with high-tech, such as infrared reflectography. With infrared technology, light with long wavelengths is shone on paintings. Because the light passes through the surface layer, it can illuminate what lies beneath. Using more wavelengths of light allows more of the underlying to be discovered.

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Technology was at the forefront in 2007, when NGV art scientist Raye Collins went to work on another painting. This time it was one displayed in the town of Ballarat, not far from Melbourne. And the painter was again McCubbin. The work that Collins was exploring was his The Letter.

Collins had been X-raying the painting, just in the hope of uncovering some of McCubbin’s earlier work on it. The Letter shows a lady walking by a river, gazing at a letter that she has in her hands, perhaps from a lover. But to Collins’ surprise, underneath lay a still image.

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The still image is thought to be something McCubbin painted as a student. Collins told Australian newspaper The Courier-Mail, “We were very surprised to find this still [painting] underneath. It’s very significant; it helps us build this whole story about the painting, and the painting also tells us a lot about the National Gallery School.”

The X-ray revealed what might be two bowls and a basket, with what is clearly a flower, all hidden by The Letter. Collins told The Courier-Mail, “This is good new information that really adds to people’s understanding. What is really interesting is that it’s completely different (from the visible painting).”

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McCubbin’s pentimenti were again exposed in 2015 when the Australian Synchrotron, which produces extremely bright light, shone on his The North Wind. Underneath the arid scene depicted in the 1888 masterpiece lies a different landscape, this time lush and green. It’s thought McCubbin may have made the change to reflect the imagined hardships of the settlers.

As for The Pioneer, Varcoe-Cocks would not say whether he believed that his discovery would add to the monetary value of the painting. The work is worth millions of dollars already, you see. But the art expert considered that its value had increased in other ways, telling Sunrise that it “culturally ha[d] many more layers to it.”

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It’s not that Found was worthless in its own right. In 1893 McCubbin showed it at the Victorian Artists’ Society Exhibition. There it received praise from those attending. But none of the people who liked it would pay what McCubbin was asking for. So it seems that he decided to put the canvas to new use. Oh well.

Varcoe-Cocks certainly believes that that’s what happened. He told Sky News that McCubbin hadn’t wanted to put the canvas to waste. So he painted The Pioneer on it. He said, “It became one idea; it merged into this really major epic sort of work of The Pioneer.”

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The revelation of McCubbin’s lost painting did more than just help explain what had happened to Found. As Varcoe-Cocks explained to the Herald Sun, “I started to realize the implications of what Foundactually was. It was the origin of The Pioneer.” And now the head of conservation at the NGV will never look at McCubbin’s work the same again.

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