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Roberts, Thomas William (Tom) (1856–1931)

by Helen Topliss

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Thomas William Roberts (1856-1931), by unknown photographer, 1920-25

Thomas William Roberts (1856-1931), by unknown photographer, 1920-25

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H96.222/8

Thomas William (Tom) Roberts (1856-1931), artist, was born on 9 March 1856 at Dorchester, Dorset, England, elder son of Richard Roberts, journalist, and his wife Matilda Agnes Cela, née Evans. Tom was educated at Dorchester Grammar School. After her husband's death Matilda and her three children migrated in 1869 to Melbourne where they lived at Collingwood. The first years were difficult for a poor family and Tom helped his mother to sew satchels after work. He soon became interested in art and studied at the Collingwood and Carlton artisans' schools of design in 1873; at the latter Louis Buvelot and Eugen von Guerard awarded him a prize for a landscape. In 1874 he joined the National Gallery School where he attended Thomas Clark's classes in design. Though the school listed his occupation as photographer, his responsibilities at Stewart's, photographers in Bourke Street, were confined to arranging backdrops and studio sets and sometimes posing the sitters for portraits.

Roberts was one of the first painters to recognize the special character of the Australian landscape; Studley Park, Kew, was close to where he lived (in Johnston Street) and he introduced his friend Fred McCubbin to the native flora there. Encouraged by Clark and his other teachers, Roberts resolved to gain further experience in London, and the Victorian Academy of Arts helped by providing him with a bursary. Already ambitious to paint subject pictures, he had attended anatomy classes at the University of Melbourne. Roberts was the first major Australian painter to be selected to study at the Royal Academy of Arts which he attended from 1881 to 1884, benefiting especially from tuition in anatomy and perspective. To help make ends meet he contributed illustrations to the Graphic.

In London he was especially influenced by a variety of regional groups who eventually formed the nucleus of the New English Arts Club in 1886; these artists from centres such as Newlyn and Glasgow rejected the strictly historicizing Academy style. Other strong influences were Whistler and the popular plein air painters such as Bastien Lepage and his British followers. Roberts toured Spain in 1883 with the future Labor politician Dr William Maloney and fellow artist John Peter Russell. Although he spent only a few weeks in Spain it was a joyous and formative experience which encouraged his naturalistic bent. Two Spanish painters he met in Granada, Lorreano Barrau and Ramon Casas, emphasized certain popular notions of Impressionism and plein air principles. In 1884 Roberts continued his pursuit of momentary effects in small studies of the seascape and several figure studies painted during a holiday at Venice—small exercises in a Whistlerian mode.

He returned to Melbourne in 1885 at precisely the right moment to instigate a new school of painting based on plein air practice which, in Australia as elsewhere, was allied to notions of nationalism and regionalism. Roberts's Melbourne colleagues immediately benefited from his experience; Arthur Streeton, for one, later claimed that 'Bulldog's' example was crucial. His sense of mission and enthusiasm were important in a period when painters and writers were seeking local self-definition. His dedication put him in the forefront of the group of painters which became known as the Heidelberg school.

The first camp was set up at Box Hill in 1886 at Housten's Paddock, scene of 'The Artists' Camp' and 'A Summer Morning Tiff'. 'We went to the bush', said Roberts, 'and, as was always our ambition, tried to get it down as truly as we could'. Early in 1887, painting at the seaside outer suburbs, Beaumaris and Mentone, Roberts first met Streeton and recorded the long hot summer in key pictures such as 'Mentone' and 'The Sunny South'. Charles Conder joined them from Sydney in 1888. In 1889 they established a hilltop camp at Eaglemont with sweeping views of the Yarra valley.

In August that year Roberts, Streeton and Conder arranged their 9 x 5 (inches) Exhibition of Impressions (with a few contributions also by four others including McCubbin) which further defined the Heidelberg movement in the public mind. The 182 small panels, of which Roberts contributed 62, were all painted on cigar-box lids and uniformly framed in flat wide lengths of kauri wood. Roberts had brought home a few 9 x 5 impressions painted in London; the first item in the catalogue was one of his Thames-side studies. The staging of the exhibition mirrored the artists' desire to display their artistic practice in an Aesthetic and Bohemian framework. The decorations of Liberty silks and the red silk background on which they were hung, as well as the elegant flower arrangements, were consonant with Roberts's practice at his studio in Grosvenor Chambers, at the fashionable 'Paris' end of Collins Street. At social and artistic soirées there, patrons could see his latest work in a setting decked out with chinoiserie, bric-a-brac, drapes, and with the addition of musical performances which were an important part of the mise en scène. Streeton claimed that Roberts was the first to bring bunches of gum tips into town.

The catalogue of the Impressions Exhibition had quoted Gérôme: 'When you draw, form is the important thing; but in painting the first thing to look for is the general impression of colour'. It continued: 'An effect is only momentary … Two half hours are never alike'. The Ruskinite James Smith condemned four-fifths of the exhibits as 'a pain to the eye'. When Roberts showed 'Shearing the Rams' in 1890, Smith found the painting too naturalistic: 'art should be of all times, not of one time, of all places, not of one place'. Roberts countered: 'by making art the perfect expression of one time and one place, it becomes for all time and of all places'.

Roberts and his colleagues had a few discriminating supporters and patrons, but the public was unimpressed and the National Gallery gave no encouragement. In 1891, with Melbourne falling into deep economic depression, Roberts followed Streeton to Sydney where the National Art Gallery of New South Wales had a positive policy of acquiring Australian pictures. In October Roberts established a camp at Sirius Cove, Mosman Bay, where Streeton and A. H. Fullwood joined him.

As part of his urge to develop a national art, since 1889 Roberts had been investigating the possibilities of painting historical subject-pictures, describing the experience of 'strong masculine labour'. Drawing on the basic tenets of naturalism, he developed an aim to record historical processes, especially agricultural and pastoral methods which were fast disappearing. For three years in a row he visited Brocklesby station in the Riverina where he painted 'Shearing the Rams', which came to be considered the definitive image of an emerging national identity. In the earlier 1890s he travelled widely from Sydney in search of subject-matter—riding long distances, living hard—notably to the property of his friend Duncan Anderson near Inverell. The paintings 'Shearing at Newstead: The Golden Fleece' (1894) and 'Bailed up' (1895-1927) were major consequences.

Roberts was a reader: his love for the English romantic poets is reflected in the titles of some of his paintings. In particular he read the works of his Dorset elder Thomas Hardy with whom he had had a childhood association. Far from the Madding Crowd was a favourite book and he had an early ambition to illustrate Hardy's novels. The influence can be traced directly: in Hardy's use of the word 'impression' and in his poetic, melancholic twilight scenes; his depiction of shearers at work; his contrasts of city and country, of a vanishing way of life, and his artist's assumption of the task of historical recorder; and in his interest in a regional, provincial culture. Later, in England, Roberts returned several times to Dorset.

In Sydney Roberts fell naturally into close touch with J. F. Archibald of the Bulletin whom he had met on board ship in 1885, 'Breaker Morant', 'Banjo' Paterson and many other writers and journalists at his Pitt Street studio. He was a member of the Dawn to Dusk Club. His democratic, nationalist tendencies were reinforced. In this period Roberts attempted every area of representation; his portraits of literary, artistic and political figures are as important as his landscape and subject pictures. More than half his paintings between 1885 and 1900 were portraits, a means of earning a living that he much preferred to teaching (to which he succumbed from 1896). He would much rather have painted more historical subjects, but they were time-consuming, expensive in materials and difficult to sell. Some of his portraits are 'official' and impersonal; those of friends and intimates more often demonstrate his talent and intelligence, and many of women and girls show great flair. The number of distinguished public figures he painted, however, such as Sir Henry Parkes, Major General Hutton, Alfred Hill and Marshall-Hall, led him eventually to develop an interest in a historical portrait-record of Australian types: in 1900 he exhibited a series of twenty-three informal panel-portraits, much influenced by Whistler. And, mainly on his trip north in 1892 to Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands, he painted Aborigines as individuals rather than types.

Through his close friend S. W. Pring, Roberts met again a former art-student Elizabeth (Lillie) Williamson and married her on 30 April 1896 at St Hilary's Church, East Kew, Melbourne. They settled at Balmain, Sydney, and had one son Caleb, born in 1898.

Roberts was a born leader and mentor to younger painters. Russell had been distraught when Roberts left for home in 1885. Conder affectionately addressed him as 'friend, philosopher and guide'. It is not known to what extent Roberts took the lead in 1886 in forming the Australian Artists' Association as a body of professional painters in opposition to the Victorian Academy of Arts, and in forming the Victorian Artists' Association in 1888, but he was a committee-member of both bodies. He was also secretary of the literature and art section at the 1889 Melbourne meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. Then in Sydney he was founding chairman (1895-97) of the Society of Artists. He was the one artist articulate and bold enough to duel, vigorously and stylishly, with James Smith and others in the Argus. He worked assiduously to promote the status of the artist and of art as a profession, demanding respect rather than patronage. Largely through his eminent portrait-sitters, he gained an entrée to Sydney society where he felt he was representing his profession and gaining recognition for it. There was more than a touch of flamboyance, however, in his top hat and red satin-lined cloak and, remembering his rise from poverty and hardship, he was no doubt well satisfied by his social prominence. But, as J. S. MacDonald later said, 'he convinced by his arguments, he convinced by his painting … he convinced by his presence'.

At the close of the century Roberts had decided to leave Australia because of the bad economic conditions and lack of patronage—'there seemed so little in front of us'. However, when in 1901 he was invited to attend the opening of the Commonwealth Parliament in Melbourne, he was commissioned to paint the official picture. His 'Minute Book' reflects his excitement. Roberts was to paint 250 figures for which he was offered more than one thousand guineas and expenses. The work took two and a half years but it gave him financial security. In 1903 he embarked for England to complete the 'Big Picture' (1570 sq. feet, 518 cm x 305 cm). He had 'longed and longed' to return to England, but he did not receive the patronage he expected despite his contacts with Royalty while painting the picture, and, uncertain of the direction his art should follow, he entered a 'black period' for several years. Although Roberts had considered the commission to be the peak of his career, the need to represent accurately so many figures and the importance he placed on the task sapped his energy and weakened his eyesight.

Portraits were again his bread and butter; one was 'hung on the line' at the Royal Academy in 1910, but he barely made ends meet during sixteen years in London. Lillie Roberts became well known for her handsome carved frames. Tom corresponded with Prime Minister Alfred Deakin with whom, as a sitter, he had immediately struck up a warm friendship—Deakin was 'ever ready for five minutes' chaff'—and in 1910 he unavailingly offered his services in establishing a national portrait gallery. In 1913 Roberts held an exhibition of alpine landscapes, but his confidence had been lacking and his hopes disappointed. He had organized an Australian artist group based on the Chelsea Arts Club and was often nostalgic for the 'Sunny South'.

During World War I, understating his age (59), he enlisted in 1915 with several other Australian artists as an orderly, undertaking menial tasks, at the 3rd London General Hospital, Wandsworth; he became corporal, then sergeant, in charge of the dental department, and remembered the hospital with great affection. He returned to Australia in December 1919, stayed for a year and held exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney whose success encouraged him to return finally early in 1923.

Roberts and his wife settled at Kallista in the Dandenongs in a small cottage they named Talisman. He was particularly fond of the countryside there and returned to painting small formal landscapes in a low-key tonal Impressionism which he had rediscovered in a small panel painted in 1914 at Lake Como. Lillie Roberts died in 1928 and on 27 August he married her childhood friend Jean Irving Boyes at Illawarra, Tasmania. His last work 'Ring a Ring a Roses' was a nostalgic reprise of a landscape painted at Cremorne, Sydney, in the early 1890s. He died at Talisman on 14 September 1931 and was cremated. His wife and son by his first marriage survived him.

Roberts was a slim 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm), brown-eyed, brown-bearded, prematurely balding; he retained his English accent. He was direct, definite and straightforward in manner, loved an argument and relating anecdotes, in his younger days was often the life of a party. (Sir) Frederic Eggleston, a friend of the 1920s, recalled: 'He was a great talker, full of fun and whims and wisdom, but he was no egotist … He would not permit the silent listener. Every moment brought the call for active comradeship, participation in the passing of life and the enjoyment of beauty. He could not have lived without this active interchange of affection and friendship'.

In the first third of the century his reputation, such as it was, slumped. The contrast with Sir Arthur Streeton is striking; Roberts was offered no honour. In his earlier Melbourne days he had been outspoken and suffered many 'nasty knocks' from critics and art-officialdom. The trustees of the National Gallery did not purchase one of his works until 1920—a portrait painted in London. R. H. Croll's Tom Roberts: Father of Australian Landscape Painting (1935), which included many reminiscences by associates, began his return to fame. In more recent years it has been recognized that Roberts was at least as distinguished a painter as Streeton, in the wider sense a much more significant figure, and heroic in his claims for art and as a patriot.

His readiness to absorb major current influences and his energy in disseminating them made him one of the prime movers in the development of a national movement in painting. A portrait of him by Conder is in a private collection and a self-portrait is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Spate, Tom Roberts (Melb, 1972)
  • H. Topliss, Tom Roberts, 1856-1931: A Catalogue Raisonne (Melb, 1985), and for bibliography
  • Tom Roberts papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen Topliss, 'Roberts, Thomas William (Tom) (1856–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roberts-thomas-william-tom-8229/text14405, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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