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Roberts, Bertram Ainslie (1911–1993)

by Mitchell Rolls

This article was published online in 2017

Bertram Ainslie Roberts (1911–1993), commercial artist, advertising executive, and surrealist painter, was born on 12 March 1911 in London, elder of two children of Harold Roberts, public companies clerk, and his wife Rose Ernestine, née Dougall. His father, a theosophist, was Welsh and his mother was Scottish. After migrating to South Australia in 1922 the family lived briefly at a one thousand-acre (405 ha) property near Ardrossan before settling in Adelaide. Ainslie attended (1923–26) Westbourne Park Primary School, where he gained his qualifying certificate as both dux of the school and the top State student.

In February 1927 Roberts began work as an office boy with London & Lancashire Insurance Co. The next year he commenced night classes at the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts. Resigning from the insurance company in 1929, he became a self-employed commercial artist and a part-time advertising manager for a cinema complex. On 27 February 1937 at the Methodist Church, Malvern, Adelaide, he married South Australian-born Melva Jean (Judy) Andrewartha, a schoolteacher.

Roberts started an advertising agency with Keith Webb, an advertising-space salesman in 1937. The next year, with Maurice McClelland, they formed Webb Roberts McClelland Pty Ltd, which later established itself as the largest advertising agency in South Australia. In World War II he served part time (1942–45) as a corporal in local infantry and artillery units of the Volunteer Defence Corps.

Returning to advertising work after the war, Roberts also established a photographic salon. Overworked and exhausted, he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1950. While convalescing in Alice Springs, he fell in love with the central Australian landscape and, wearied by the demands and drudgery of commercial art, he resolved to commence painting on his return to Adelaide and to withdraw from the advertising business. In 1952 he met the anthropologist Charles Mountford, with whom he shared a keen interest in photography. The ensuing friendship altered the course of Roberts’s life; together they made a number of journeys to Aboriginal art sites, including several trips to Central Australia.

In 1959 Mountford sought Roberts’s interest in illustrating a book he was planning based on Aboriginal myths. Finding the proposed line drawings too restricting, Roberts turned to paint instead. The resulting twenty-one paintings were exhibited in October 1963 at the Osborne Art Gallery, Adelaide, and sold out in two days. The publishing manager of Rigby Ltd, Ian Mudie, subsequently commissioned The Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Myths in Paintings (1965), the first in a series of nine books, which included The Dawn of Time (1969) and The First Sunrise (1971). By 1988 the first book had been reprinted eighteen times, with more than a million copies sold. Throughout the series, the formula remained the same: Roberts’s surrealist paintings interspersed with line drawings illustrating Mountford’s simplified, popularised, and radically contracted versions of Aboriginal myths. Beginning with the fifth book, Dreamtime Heritage (1975), and for the remainder of the series, Roberts’s wife, Judy, wrote the text based on Mountford’s notes. Stripped of all cultural specificities, the myths supposedly represented a uniform pan-Aboriginal culture. The dedication in most of the series was ‘To the Brown People, who handed down these Dreamtime Myths.’

Reflecting beliefs commonly held in the 1960s (but even then often repudiated), Roberts believed that Aboriginal mythologies encapsulated a primitive way of perceiving the world that existed at ‘the very dawn of time, when all men were of one race’ (Roberts and Roberts 1975, 15). Western rationality had alienated modern minds from these unifying myths. Roberts believed that he was helping to bridge the gap between two cultures, and he professed great respect for Aboriginal people, which undoubtedly he did feel, but his portrayal of them was cast in romanticised primitivism.

During Roberts’s lifetime his paintings were purchased by private collectors but not by major public galleries. His most recognisable artwork is his line drawing of the Aboriginal elder Gwoja Tjungurrayi (better known as ‘One Pound Jimmy’) that appears in the prefatory pages of some of the Dreamtime series of books. In 1988 the Royal Australian Mint used this image without permission on its two-dollar coin. Following legal representation, Roberts received a small amount of compensation in 1989. Appointed AM in June 1993, Roberts died on 28 August at Blackwood, South Australia, survived by his wife and son.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Hulley, Charles E. Ainslie Roberts and the Dreamtime. Melbourne: J. M. Dent Pty Ltd, 1988
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, S66287
  • Roberts, Ainslie, and Melva Jean Roberts. Dreamtime Heritage: Australian Aboriginal Myths in Paintings. Adelaide: Rigby, 1975
  • Rolls, Mitchell. ‘Painting the Dreaming White.’ ACH: Journal of the History of Culture in Australia, no. 24 (2006): 3–28

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mitchell Rolls, 'Roberts, Bertram Ainslie (1911–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roberts-bertram-ainslie-17326/text29073, published online 2017, accessed online 10 December 2018.

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