Francis (Frank) McComas was one of the foremost watercolourists working in North America during the early decades of the twentieth century. Much of his career has been well documented in the United States publications, most recently in Scott A. Schields’s, Artists at Continent’s End: The Monterey Peninsula Art Colony, 1875-1907 , University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006.
Despite his success overseas, McComas was Australian by birth and undertook his early training in Sydney at the end of the nineteenth century. Watercolour was not well regarded as a medium in Australia before the First World War and according to art historian Jean Campbell, writing in Australian Watercolour Painters , McComas seems to have been a watercolourist well ahead of his time: “In his handling of watercolour McComas was, in Australia at least, well in advance of his time. The breadth, fluency, and bold yet subtle contrast of his colour and tone are still exciting today” (Campbell, 1981).
Francis James McComas was born at Fingal, Tasmania on 1 October 1874. His Tasmanian-born mother Julia McComas (née Davies) came from a newspaper family that owned the [Hobart] Mercury newspaper, while his Irish-born father was Richard Newton McComas. Expressing an early desire to become an artist, McComas and his parents moved to Sydney when he was sixteen (c.1891) and he enrolled at Sydney Technical College. It is not known what he was studying but it must have been art related as he was soon employed by the commercial art firm John Sands Ltd.
McComas’s exhibiting career began in March 1895 when two of his works were chosen for the autumn exhibition of the Society of Artists (SoA), in Sydney, NSW. His oil entry ( Sketch, Kensington priced £1.11.6) was positively commented on by the Daily Telegraph critic (13 March 1896, p. 6). Over the following years he regularly exhibited his work at the spring and autumn exhibitions of the SoA. Up to October 1897 his exhibits were a mix of oil and watercolour landscapes that seem to have been painted around Sydney.
While in Sydney, McComas studied under the distinguished art teacher Julian R. Ashton. Ashton was a pioneer of the plein air approach to landscape painting and he often encouraged his pupils to paint the picturesque Hawkesbury River district to the north-west of the city.
An early highlight of his career was when two of his works ( Hot and Dusty Highway, Richmond, NSW and The Rain Cloud ) were shown at the Exhibition of Australian Art at the Grafton Gallery in west London, England, UK. For the August 1898 spring exhibition of the SoA McComas exhibited an impressive twelve watercolours. Images included views of the Hawkesbury and Sydney harbour. One of these exhibits was listed in the catalogue as being owned by the black and white artist D. H. Souter – a leading member of the SoA. The public support of such a respected member of the Sydney art community suggested that McComas was an artist with promise.
The 1890s was a time that saw many professional artists leave Australia for further training and inspiration in Europe. With the intention of studying in Paris, McComas left Australia in late 1898. He travelled first to the United States via Samoa and Hawaii. Upon arrival in San Francisco he decided to visit Monterey on the Californian coast where he painted and made many new friends. In February 1899 he opened a show of his watercolours in San Francisco which included scenes of Australia, Samoa, Hawaii and California. The show was well received in the local press.
Distracted from the original purpose of his journey, McComas stayed in Monterey until early 1900 before leaving for Chicago – where he had an exhibition – and then travelled on to Europe. He studied for a few months at the Academie Julian in Paris, and while there decided that he would return to Monterey. From this time McComas can be thought of as an American artist as that was his principal home for the rest of his life. Over the following years he regularly exhibited his watercolours to critical acclaim in the United States of America and London. Following his move overseas, McComas dropped the use of his nickname Frank; he justified the change in an article in Australia: “In America I keep my full name of Francis. There’s a great deal in a name… Frank is familiar; Francis is dignified. It pays a painter to appear dignified to his patrons. Dignity raises prices; familiarity lowers them” (McComas quoted in the Bulletin , 11 May 1905).
In 1905 McComas returned to Australia with the intention to visit his family and friends. His notoriety in the USA had been noticed by many in Australia, and at a Sydney dinner hosted by D. H. Souter celebrating his visit many distinguished guests came to see him. Notable diners at the May 1905 event included Julian R. Ashton, William Lister Lister (president of the Royal Art Society), and the former Australian prime minister Edmund Barton. McComas’s vitriolic views about the state of Australian art were reported in the Bulletin :
I just came over to see my family; going back now. America’s been very good to me; the people couldn’t be kinder. Australia’s just as good, but not for a painter who wants to live by his painting. If you burn half the pictures in N.S.W. National Gallery, hang half the trustees in front of the building, and make the other half buy good pictures instead of sheer downright rubbish, things may change. I hope they will (McComas quoted in the Bulletin , 11 May 1905).
It is not known if McComas ever returned to Australia. Despite this, his career continued to be noticed in Australia as he was the subject of an illustrated profile in the seventh number of Art in Australia in 1919.