Tom Roberts: Bailed Up

Published January 14, 2016
Tom Roberts, 'Bailed Up' (1895, 1927)

Tom Robert’s Bailed Up has been described by historian, Patrick McCarthy, who has written a book on the painting, as “probably Australia’s best known work of art”. The chief competition for this imaginary title would be Roberts’s other popular masterpiece, Shearing the Rams (1890).
Few would dispute Roberts’s status as the pre-eminent Australian painter of the 19th century, but his career was a stop-start affair riddled with frustrations and disappointments. A true son of the colonial era, Roberts could never make up his mind about whether he was British or Australian. Born in Dorset in 1856, he came to Australia at the age of 13, and would return to England for two extended periods, from 1881-85, where he studied at the Royal Academy; and then from 1903-23, a long, unproductive stay that almost finished him as an artist.
Bailed Up dates from 1895, the end of the most brilliant decade in Roberts’s peripatetic career. As with the ground-breaking Allegro con brio, Bourke St. West (1885-6 & 1890), the work would prove almost impossible to sell. It was displayed in Sydney and Melbourne, at an asking price of £275. Roberts lowered the price to 70 guineas in 1900, but still found no takers.
He would revise the painting extensively in 1927 and finally sell it the following year to J.W.Maund, a solicitor and Trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW. The asking price was 500 guineas, but Maund got it down to 450. It had taken the picture 33 years to find a home.
Roberts considered the painting to be his “big gem”, but few agreed. He conceived the idea for the work while visiting his friend, Duncan Anderson, at Newstead sheep station near Inverell. In the bar of the Oxford Hotel, where Roberts stayed for three months, he met a man called ‘Silent’ Bob Bates, who drove coaches between Glen Innes and Inverell. Some time in the 1860s Bates had been held up by the bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt (AKA. Fred Ward), and described “the quiet way the whole thing took place.”
This was exactly what Roberts set out to capture. The hold-up unfolds in the most laconic fashion, in a blaze of sunshine. The leader of the bandits seems to be yarning with the passenger in the coach. There is hardly an iota of drama. Roberts’s biographer, Humphrey McQueen, suggests the artist was thinking of the flat, freize-like paintings of French master, Puvis de Chavannes, whom he admired inordinately.
Roberts’s mixture of naturalism and Symbolism wasn’t appreciated by the first viewers of the painting, who had grown accustomed to the ‘wild west’ fantasies of popular artists such as Frank Mahony. Like those movie-goers of today that expect Hollywood films to be all action and special effects, contemporary audiences were disappointed by the laid-back nature of the scene. Others simply complained that the horses weren’t drawn accurately.
By 1895 the great age of bushranging was over, having been laid to rest with Ned Kelly in 1880. Public opinion had turned against the felons, who were no longer viewed as local versions of Robin Hood. By bushranger standards, Captain Thunderbolt enjoyed a comparatively long career, plaguing the New England region for six and a half years, until he was shot by police at Uralla in 1870.
The fortunes of Bailed Up began to change when J.W.Maund loaned it to the Art Gallery of NSW in 1928, where it soon became a favourite with the public. Five years later Maund allowed the gallery to purchase the work. From this point its reputation blossomed until it achieved its present iconic status. In 1956, Bailed Up confirmed its true blue credentials when it became one of the few paintings to have actually fallen off the back of a truck, as it was being transported to Melbourne for an exhibition held during the Olympics.
Although it is now one of this nation’s most celebrated pictures, Bailed Up still has its detractors. In 1996 Humphrey McQueen, declared it to be “a flop” – no more than a piece of failed story-telling. He writes: “The affray looks like a picnic party delayed by a broken spoke rather than a matter of life or death.”
In the catalogue of the 1996 Roberts retrospective, Virginia Spate, who wrote a 1972 monograph on the artist, said that Bailed Up made her think “of the coloured illustrations in the ‘boys’ own’ books of masculine imperial adventure across the Empire.”
One suspects that if the painting had been a celebration of “masculine imperial adventure”, it would have been more successful when first exhibited. Instead it has grown in stature while more stereotyped views of the colonial era have been forgotten.
Curator, Barry Pearce, by contrast, has praised the modernity of the painting, especially its mastery of light, which he sees as “the most important subject of the work”.
“Light became paint, and paint became light,” writes Pearce, “and we cannot tell the difference between the two, whether it is in the radiance of the shirts and hats of the figures, or the straw-coloured grass and silvery tree-trunks of the midsummer landscape.”
Yet Bailed Up, for all its Impressionist tendencies, is not only a groundbreaking study in luminosity – there is certainly a story being told. It is the first painting to capture and celebrate a unique local trait: the cool, unflappable, she’ll-be-right spirit with which Australians like to believe they can meet every emergency. After all, it’s only a hold-up, it’s not the end of the world.
Bottom of picture, dead centre
Roberts chose a site half-way between Newstead and another station, Paradise, which looked like a good place for a robbery. With help from the Anderson family he built a three-and-a-half-metre-high platform in a tree on the slope beneath the road, from which he was able to get a horizontal view of the road. He called this arrangement “The Perch”, and returned to it day after day.
Grassy slope at the back
The grassy slope bathed in sunlight was a characteristic detail of Australian Impressionist landscape – informal, apparently artless in its arrangement of trees. In 1965 Fred Williams borrowed Roberts’s composition for his painting, My Garden, in which he analysed the way Roberts had dealt with one of his own preoccupations: How to set down a landscape without an obvious focal point.
The coach
Roberts has painted an accurate rendition of an eight-passenger Cobb & Co. coach. The company ran services from 1854 – 1924, from Victoria to far north Queensland. In its heyday, according to Patrick McCarthy, Cobb & Co. used 6,000 horses and carried 45,000 kilograms of goods daily. The coaches played a vital role in linking Australia’s scattered towns and homesteads.
The driver
The driver is ‘Silent’ Bob Bates, who told Roberts the original tale about the robbery. Roberts also painted a portrait of Bates, now in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW. It is one of many small oil sketches and drawings made as preparatory studies. The bushranger shown emptying the mailbags at the back of the coach is allegedly modelled on Bob’s eldest son, Charles Bates.
The fallen tree trunk
The bushrangers have blocked the road with the tree trunk that runs diagonally into the picture from the bottom left. It also works as a device to lead the viewer into the painting, along with the other fallen tree trunk in the right foreground. The eye is led up the slope to the top of the composition without every catching a glimpse of sky. The semi-circular composition suggests there is no escape from the bushrangers’ trap.
The female passenger
The model for the female passenger has been identified as Scottish-born Isabella Caldow, who had run two inns in the New England district with her husband, Andrew. It was during a last visit to Inverell, before relocating to Western Australia, that Mrs. Caldow posed for Roberts. Her son, William, remembered the episode, as it took place on his 21st birthday.
The rifle
The bushranger’s rifle left leaning against the coach is a Martini-Henry, which had become a popular firearm by 1895. However, it had not yet become available in Australia in the 1860s, the time in which the hold-up is set. This is a rare historical inaccuracy for the scrupulous Roberts, who strove for authenticity in every detail.
The trees
As a testimony to the artist’s love of detail, Patrick McCarthy has identified two kinds of eucalypt – manna or ribbon gums, and red stringybark; and six grass trees (Xanthorrhoea). He has even gone so far as to name the six varieties of native grass that grow at the site, and were presumably there in Roberts’s day.