Sydney Morning Herald Column

Tom Roberts

Published December 10, 2015
Tom Roberts, 'Shearing the rams' (1888-90)

After a winter or two of discontent the National Gallery of Australia is once again open for business. It’s not that one hasn’t been able to visit this renowned institution, it’s just that nobody seemed to be doing so. With a scandal over looted Indian art, and a James Turrell show that ran for no less than seven months, the NGA was hardly an irresistible proposition.
New director, Gerard Vaughan, didn’t rush to make his mark, but after exactly one year he has unveiled a new-look museum. The Australian art collection has been moved downstairs, and the international art upstairs. The summer blockbuster is devoted to our very own Tom Roberts.
This may not sound compelling, but seeing is believing. I wasn’t convinced we needed another Roberts retrospective a little more than ten years after the previous effort, which toured the country from 1996-97. However, the new show is so well constructed I have to admit it’s always a pleasure to see work by a great artist, and nobody in 19th century Australian art has more claim to our esteem than Roberts.
As for the rehang, the Australian collection is still a work-in-progress, with both good and problematic bits. Full points for a room with paintings by Fred Williams, John Brack and Ian Fairweather, but it’s a mistake to hang urban Aboriginal art in the midst of the early colonial works. It insults the colonial artists and makes the indigenous ones look pretentious and foolish – a triumph of noble political intentions over historical common sense.
The real triumph is the upstairs rehang. Designer, Daryl West-Moore, has stripped out the false walls and panels, lightened the floors and replaced the lights. A dingy labyrinth has been reborn as a spacious, modern exhibition area. I know these galleries well, but had to keep reorienting myself, because they have a completely different feel. Col Madigan’s architecture, so often derided, suddenly looks beautiful. It’s a shame Col didn’t live to see the day.
The collection is similarly reconfigured, with Brancusi’s Birds in Space retrieved from the basement and given a new prominence. Pollock’s Blue Poles is deftly displayed in the midst of an impressive modern American collection. David Hockney’s A Bigger Grand Canyon, which has been disparaged almost as much as the building itself, is given a chance to flourish in a new setting.
The rehang will generate plenty of comment, but it’s Tom Roberts (1856-1931) that provides the NGA’s best chance of healthy attendances over the holiday season. This is an unashamedly nationalistic show at a time when Australian identity is being contested on the streets, yet Roberts was no Aussie chauvinist.
Curator Anna Gray quotes Roberts on the inhabitants of Far North Queensland: “never wanting in the kindness to a stranger which is so characteristic of the Australian.”
These lines reveal Roberts’s understanding of the Australian values he celebrated in his most famous paintings. It also tells us that he saw himself as an outsider, a detached observer. It’s “the Australian”, not “we Australians”.
Roberts came to this country in 1869, at the age of 13, and always spoke with an English accent. He would spend half his life in Australia and the other half in England, without ever being certain where he belonged. As an ambitious artist Roberts believed he had to be in London, but his attachment to Australia was heartfelt. When he returned in 1923, after 20 years away, he felt “as if he had gone to heaven”.
History has made Roberts’s choice for him. In England he struggled for acceptance, and fell into a long, fallow period. In Australia, he enjoyed a successful career as a portraitist, and hatched grand schemes for Australian history paintings. If it took him decades to sell those works now viewed as national icons, this proves he was ahead of his time.
Roberts produced more outstanding works than any other Australian artist of the late 19th century, yet never enjoyed the success he craved. He was the natural leader of the group of local Impressionists we call the Heidelberg school. He was an innovator within a cultural milieu that took its cue from the conservative salons of London and Paris.
Roberts was a quick learner, for whom no lesson went to waste. During his 1881-85 stay in London he attended the Royal Academy schools and followed academic routines many students found hopelessly old-fashioned. In later years he would put that training to good use in paintings such as Shearing the rams (1888-90), which translates the figures from classical statuary into the brawny workers of the shearing shed.
On the same trip, in 1883, he took a famous walking tour through Spain, where he met two art students, Casas and Barreau, who described the new movement known as Impressionism. Roberts would bring the gospel to Australia, where he fired the enthusiasm of his friends, Fred McCubbin, Louis Abrahams, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder. It was a strangely distorted view, that saw the arch-academic, Jean-Léon Gérome, as a high priest of plein air painting. Nevertheless, the main tenets came through clearly: the idea of making light the chief subject of a picture, and the need to record one’s impressions in a quick, spontaneous manner.

Roberts admired the work of Whistler, and would introduce his friends to the twilight world of the “nocturne”. His own best effort in this genre, ‘Evening, when the quiet east flushes faintly at the sun’s last look’ (c.1887) is deservedly given a wall to itself in the NGA show.
Roberts was also the first Australian to paint a great urban picture: Allegro con brio, Bourke Street west (c.1885-86/1890). It may be the most misunderstood painting in the history of Australian art. Nobody at the time could see why an artist would choose to paint a dusty, busy street rather than a landscape.
However, it is the great “national” paintings for which Roberts will always be remembered. Shearing the rams celebrates the heroism of rural labour; Bailed up (1895/1927) shows a stagecoach being held up by a bushranger in the most laconic fashion; A break away! (1891) is an action study, depicting a runaway flock of sheep. Each of these paintings repays a long, detailed analysis, but this column is not the place.
Tom Roberts, 'A break away!' (1891)
Tom Roberts, ‘A break away!’ (1891)

Roberts’s work as a portraitist and his fascination with nationalist themes led to his engagement to paint the Opening of the first Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. the Duke of Cornwall and York (Later H.M. King George V), May 9 1901 (1903). He thought this project, which he dubbed the ‘Big Picture’, would make his fortune and his reputation, but it very nearly finished him as an artist. He would spend months tripping around England trying to paint individual portraits of those dignitaries that had attended the ceremony.
The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (later H.M. King George V) at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne on 9 May 1901. (Painting by Tom Roberts, 1903)
The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (later H.M. King George V) at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne on 9 May 1901. (Painting by Tom Roberts, 1903)

It was an impossible, invidious task, with none of the expected acclaim. One of the highlights of the current show is to see the Big Picture exhibited in the context of the artists’s life’s work. This is the first time Parliament House has allowed the work to travel, albeit just down the road to the NGA. In a new setting it seems much larger than I remembered, and much better.
The Big Picture stands like a massive screen in the second-last room. Behind it one enters the final gallery, containing works Roberts made during a 20 year sojourn in England, and his final years in Australia. Most of them are modest paintings done for pleasure, not glory. With increasing age and financial security, (largely because his wife, Lillie, inherited money), Roberts seems to have laid his massive ambitions to rest. In the 1920s it was his younger protégé, Arthur Streeton, who had become Australia’s most renowned artist, with a series of blue-and-gold landscapes that tapped a deep vein of national sentiment.
Roberts was almost forgotten in these last years. It would not be until the late 1940s that his work began to attract new attention. Since that point there has been no turning back, and he has never looked better than he does in this retrospective. For much of his career Roberts may have felt that he’d been misinterpreted or neglected, but here the record is finally set straight.
Tom Roberts
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Until 28 March 2016
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 12th December, 2015