REVIEW

Anne Gray's new children's book, The Lost Girl, is an engaging story of a long-lost girl in a paintings, and the kids who help her get back

A detail from Frederick McCubbin's Lost.

A detail from Frederick McCubbin's Lost.

What do senior curators of Australian art do when they retire? They write children's books, of course.

Anne Gray was the Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia for many years and the curator of numerous "blockbuster" exhibitions including those devoted to the art of Tom Roberts, John Constable, George Lambert, Frederick McCubbin and Sydney Long. She is also the author of many scholarly books, catalogues and of scores of articles, many of which have appeared in high profile international art journals.

Her latest venture is a curious and engaging children's story about Clara, a girl who got lost in a McCubbin painting almost 140 years ago, and the two children from today's world, Will and Maddie, who help her to find her way home.

A good book review that engages with a work of fiction should not spoil the plot by relating in detail what happens. It suffices to say that the three children make their way through a number of Australian paintings (that frequently are subsumed by the general category of 'Australian impressionism') and in the end they all live happily ever after.

The interesting strategy adopted in the book is to feature high-quality reproductions of the paintings involved, together with crisp details of the background bush.

Bonamy Press in Perth is better known for publishing art books and catalogues than children's literature, and the art works are juxtaposed with lively illustrations of the modern-day protagonists drawn by Tony Flowers.

We have a constant dialogue established throughout the book between a cartoon-like depiction of the children and the 19th century landscapes.

The arty nerd would recognise that McCubbin's famous painting Lost, 1886, in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, was probably based on a contemporary cause celebre, where a young girl, Clara Crosbie, had strayed into the bush near Yellingbo in the Yarra Valley in May 1885 and was lost for three weeks before being found safe and sound.

Her enterprising father leased her to Maximilian Kreitmayer waxworks where she would recount her ordeal of being lost in the bush to the curious hordes in Melbourne and Sydney.

Dr Gray's book sets out to seduce the young arty reader with the magic of Australian landscape painting of the 1880s, previously referred to as the Heidelberg School.

To slightly deflate the myth that Dr Gray has become a children's book writer, she is presently working as a guest curator at the National Gallery of Victoria on a major, yet to be announced, blockbuster exhibition.

This story A children's story, riffing off a lost girl painting first appeared on The Canberra Times.