An English Painter who was Australian

The Hungarian Connections of Rupert C. W. Bunny (1864-1947)

“The painter travels here and spends the summer in my house, because he likes Hungary, her music and what he has heard of her pustas and their sweet tunes.” This was the title of an article published in 1890 in Magyar Bazár, edited by Janka Wohl, about an ‘English’ painter on his approaching visit to Hungary. Its author, a friend of the painter, was the writer Zsigmond Justh. In the summer many contemporary notabilities from Paris and Pest would gather at the Justh estate in Békés County.

When I came across Rupert Bunny’s painting Women on the Beach (c. 1894) in the storeroom of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2012, I immediately started investigating the Australian painter’s Hungarian connections. I was mostly fascinated by the geographical distance. How could a young man born in a suburb of Melbourne get to a distant mansion on the Hungarian Great Plain at the end of the 19th century? Zsigmond Justh’s Parisian Diary written in 1888 was the key. It arguably portrays a very realistic cross-section of social life, as well as the social, literary and art issues of Paris in the 1880s.

When Rupert Charles Wulsten Bunny arrived in London in 1884 at the age of 21 he was one of the young men who left Australia to be involved in the arts close to the progressive artistic movements in Europe. Initially he prepared to attend the Royal Academy and studied in the art school of Calderon, who was under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. He moved to Paris in 1886, where he soon rented a studio in the legendary street of artists, Rue Notre Dame des Champs. By January 1888 Justh had been to the French capital on many occasions. He went from salon to salon attending luncheons, afternoon teas and soirées to discuss current matters concerning literature, the arts, politics and personal life. That was how he met both Bunny and his Scottish friend, Cary-Elwes. They got a liking to each other, so much so that the three young men were inseparable from then on and the studio of the two “English painters” became a second home for Justh. The triumph of Symbolism in Paris can be traced both in Bunny’s painting of the time and Justh’s literary imagery.

As Justh’s guest, Bunny travelled to Budapest and Szentetornya already the following year and they visited Tátrafüred (today Smokovec, Slovakia) in 1890. However, life did not give them much time. Justh’s early death in 1894 brought Bunny even closer to the members of the Hungarian colony.

His career slowly got underway. In 1894 he gained a mention honorable for his painting Tritons and in 1903 his first solo exhibition was held. He was appointed a sociétaire of the Salon d’Automne in 1904. He opened his own studio and his main works summarising his Paris style were painted at that time. Having spent five decades in Paris, he returned to Melbourne where by his old age he had become the ideal for a new, young generation of painters.