Thursday, December 03, 2015

A Painter of the Australian Psyche

“By making art the perfect expression of one time and one place,
it becomes for all time and of all places.”
Tom Roberts

Australia for the most part is a country of immigrants and one of the world’s most urbanized countries. Most of the country’s inhabitants live of its coastal fringe but eventually come to identify with the rural ‘outback’ traits of egalitarianism, self-sufficiency, mate ship and a larrikin disregard for authority.

The late 19th Century painter Thomas William "Tom" Roberts, an immigrant himself, came to embody these traits in his best known works of rural Australia whilst earning his bread and butter as portraitist.

As he is reported to have said "It was in Australia that I gained my first impressions of the beauty of the world, and it was the Bush that taught me.

Roberts was 13 when he arrived in Australia with his mother and siblings after his father’s death in 1869. They settled in the Victorian capital city, Melbourne. At the age of 15 Roberts had found work as a photographer’s assistant and was enrolled at the Collingwood School of Design. Three years later he was studying at the School of Painting at the National Gallery School.

When he was 25 Roberts returned to England, the land of his birth, to study at the Royal Academy of Arts for three years. This was followed by a year traveling to Spain, Venice and Paris where he studied for a brief time at the Academie Julian.

After his return to Melbourne in 1885 Roberts returned to painting in plein air in the bush surrounding the city. He was soon traveling further afield and in 1888 he was in the back blocks of New South Wales and working on his arguably best known painting Shearing the Rams. (you can see it here)  

About which the National Gallery of Victoria has written “In Roberts’s composition there is a greater variety of characters and the pose and placement of each of the figures has been carefully orchestrated to create a composition of great visual unity and harmony. This reflects Roberts’s interest in expressing the meaning and spirit of his subject – rather than merely describing it.

Over the next six years Roberts painted subsequent works that reflected his interest in the ‘outback’ including A Break Away (see above) and Bailed Up (see below) as well as moving to Sydney. Where Helen Topliss states in an article for the Australian Dictionary of Biographythe National Art Gallery of New South Wales had a positive policy of acquiring Australian pictures.

Topliss goes on to state “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.

The commission to paint the official opening of the Commonwealth Parliament in Melbourne in 1901 saw Roberts financially secure for a couple of years. But in 1903 he returned to England where stayed for the next 20 odd years.

Upon his return to Australia Roberts’ settled in outer Melbourne town of Kallista adjacent to the Sherbrook Forrest and concentrated his work on his beloved Australian bush.

About his work Roberts is reported to have said “It seems to me that one of the best ideas spoken to an artist is, ‘paint what you love and love what you paint’ and on that I have worked; on so it came that being in the bush and feeling the delight and fascination of the great pastoral life and work, I have tried to express it.”

The retrospective exhibition Tom Roberts is on show at the Australia National Gallery until the 28th of March next year.

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