Tom Roberts (1856 – 1931)

With a presence that has been strongly felt within the Australian arts community, Thomas William Roberts came to be highly regarded as one of the chief instigators behind furthering the standard of art in Australia. As a painter, draughtsman and pioneer of plein air impressionism Roberts played a key role in marking a significant point in the history of Australian art acting as the founder of the artists’ camps at Box Hill and Heidelberg.

Constituting a new trend in art that for the first time, broke dramatically with European traditions, Tom Roberts and his fellow colleagues of the Heidelberg School dedicated themselves to painting the bush, using their art to typify the hardworking Australian lifestyle. As a reflection of the artist’s success Roberts’ work showed an idealised view of everyday working life that many ordinary Australians could identify with. Consequently, Roberts came to be considered as the man responsible for capturing the essence of Australia through his art.

Born in Dorchester, England in 1856, Roberts arrived in Australia on June 22 1869 settling in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. During this time he worked as a photographer’s assistant and regularly contributed illustrations to Melbourne’s periodicals and newspapers. While Roberts performed these jobs during the day, he attended art classes by night at the Melbourne National Gallery School and the Collingwood branch of the Mechanics’ School of Design. Guided under the instruction of such accomplished tutors as Thomas Clark and Louis Buvelot Roberts was encouraged to paint plein air which served to fuel his lifelong passion for the practice. Studying under Buvelot at the Gallery School Roberts also came to be introduced to other prominent members of the Australian arts community, many of whom went on to become prominent artists, most notably Frederick McCubbin.

In 1881 Roberts returned to England. Meeting John Russell on the ship, the two established what was soon to become a lifelong friendship that was based on a mutual passion for the arts. After his arrival back in London, Roberts went on to draw for the London Graphic, and attended classes at the prestigious Royal Academy School for three years of full-time art study. At the time this was a great feat for Roberts, as he was the first major Australian-based painter to be selected to study at the renowned institution. As Roberts’ studies at the Royal Academy introduced him to the emergence of Impressionism in Europe, he also came to be particularly familiar with the work of brilliant painters Whistler and Bastien Lepage and the literary genius of Robert Louis Stevenson. The work of these prominent artistic figures went on to become dominant influences in Roberts’ work.

Inspired by Stevenson’s book Travels With a Donkey Tom Roberts and John Russell planned a walking tour through Spain with Dr. Will Maloney and Russell’s architect cousin, Sydney. S.Russell. Landing in Bordeaux in 1883, the group hired a donkey and proceeded to Irun then southwards towards Granada. Here they met with the Spanish artists Barrau and Casus who taught the budding artisans about the modern art revolution that was taking place in Paris at the time such as that constituted by the Barbizon School. This walking tour proved to be greatly beneficial in broadening the cultural interests of the men.

Having completed his art studies in London, Roberts returned to Melbourne in 1885 to establish, in company with Frederick Mccubbin, John Russell and Louis Abrahams, the first of the innovative artists camps at Box Hill. Going on to be accommodated by other prominent members of the Australian arts community such as Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton, Box Hill became the scene of much social and artistic activity.

As the artists from the Box Hill painting camp became increasingly dedicated to painting the bush, they soon developed a preoccupation with using their art to capture the essence of the Australian landscape in a way that did not follow familiar European traditions but instead conveyed an original, and quintessentially Australian feel. As a result of this, as well as creating works that represented life at the camps, Roberts embarked on a series of rural genre landscapes and portraits that effectively typified the hardworking Australian lifestyle.

Taking a passionate interest the theme of the value of ordinary working Australian people, Roberts visited a number of sheep stations in search of material for his paintings. Travelling to Brocklesby Station situated near Corowa, NSW, it was here that Roberts made a number of sketches that were later used to create one of his most famous paintings, The Shearing of the Rams in 1890. As it depicted the hardworking activities of the wool industry, that had been Australia’s first export industry and a staple of rural life, this work of Roberts reflected a strong theme that many Australians could relate to. Accordingly, The Shearing of the Rams went on to become one of the most iconic images in the history of Australian art despite the fact that it was initially criticised by critics for not fitting in with the expectations of what should constitute ‘high art’ during that time.

Following the success of the Box Hill painting colonies, and the eventual break up of the Heidelberg School, Roberts , with the help of Arthur Streeton, went on to establish another artist’s camp at Sirius Grove in Sydney Harbour between 1891 and 1896. Here, under very strained circumstances, the two artists worked for five years.

In 1896, Roberts married Elizabeth (Lillie) Williamson. In 1901 he received a £2000 commission from an art publishing firm to paint a large representation of the opening of the first Federal Parliament. Not finishing the work until 1903, the picture was named The Big Picture and was a project that proved to have devastating effects on Roberts’ artistic development. As the work took a great deal of time and energy away from the artist, it served to highlight the end of his most creative period.

After completion of The Big Picture, Roberts and his wife travelled again to Europe in 1903 where they stayed for twenty years spending time in Holland, Italy and England. Spending a majority of the time of World War 1 in England, Roberts served with the RAMC, assisting at the Wandsworth Military Hospital. Gaining only a modest reputation in London, the artist returned to Australia in 1923 to live permanently. Roberts and his wife settled at ‘Talisman’ their small cottage on half an acre in Kallista, a suburb just outside of Melbourne. Living here, Roberts enjoyed a particularly productive and happy period in his life and the artist stayed here until he died in 1931.

Throughout his career Roberts devoted a great amount of time and energy to campaigning for the cause of Australian art and promoting the innovative art of his Heidelberg colleagues. Acting as the founder and the first president of New South Wales Society of Artists , he used his prominent position to actively fight the cause of artist versus amateur.

In 1967 Roberts’ painting, Coming South was sold for $20,000 by Col. Aubrey Gibson and presented to the National Gallery of Victoria.

Today the work of Tom Roberts can be found in all major Australian State Galleries and Regional Galleries.

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