Tom Roberts, NGA – Helping Define a National Visual Culture

Tom Roberts Rams 1

Detail, 1890, Tom Roberts, Shearing the Rams, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria on show at the National Gallery of Australia 4 December 2015 – 28 March, 2016

A stunning exhibition by renowned British born Australian artist Tom Roberts (1856-1931) will commence on December 4, 2015 at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). Recently revitalised their all-new international galleries will be opening on the same day as this show.

There is a new focus on Australian art at the NGA under Director Gerald Vaughan and this is now highlighted with all the Australian art collection having been moved to the Ground Floor, with all the International art moved upstairs.

In the future according to Martin Vaughan, the NGA will be focusing on producing exhibitions more regularly featuring Australian artists, because he believes it is time to ‘celebrate the country’s best at home’.

They will showcase some 133 of Tom Roberts finest works from both public and private collections, including 53 portraits as well as 53 landscapes in his naturalistic style.

The nucleus of art in Australia during Tom Robert’s lifetime shifted from European and British styles that had predominated since colonial settlement, to forging a uniquely ‘Australian’ identity, particularly with landscapes.

Roberts was instrumental in inspiring that change.

His themes are wide ranging, revealing the breadth and depth of his interest in both life and environments.

Tom Roberts Bourke StreetHe recorded many wonderful views of early Melbourne life, his Bourke Street west showing the city at a pivotal stage of its development.

By the sea, in the city or country, his paintings are today as appealing as they ever were, belying the fact that during his day he was considered a ‘radical’.

Sydneysiders loved him thumbing his nose at the ‘Melbourne Establishment’, who still clung to Europe and its ideas. They saw themselves as the avant-garde, embracing change.

They loved his works and were prepared to invest in his broader vision as inspiring nationalism was also a priority.

Opening Parliament Roberts

Tom Roberts, 1903, Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by HRH The Duke of Cornwall and York, later H.M. King George V, May 9, 1901.

Big Painting 1 Roberts

Detail: Tom Roberts, 1903, Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by HRH The Duke of Cornwall and York, later H.M. King George V, May 9, 1901.

They were at the time, masterminding the establishment of Federation (1901).

Tom Roberts was the artist who captured the Federation of Australia, which provides an extraordinary panorama of Australian politicians and society on 9 May 1901.

It contained portraits of 269 people, from the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall to the first Prime Minister of Australia Edmund Barton.

The painting which is three and a half by over five metres tall, had to be moved from Parliament House to go on show and it took a bevvy of people to complete the task.

Tom Roberts wrote to his son in later life about the ceremony;

‘I was able to see that immense gathering of people from all Australia, and from so many parts of the world. It was very solemn and great. The heads on the floor looked like a landscape stretching away.’

“We are very lucky to have this painting as a part of the exhibition, as this is the first time that the painting has left Parliament House since it was installed in 1988,” said Adam Worrall, NGA Assistant Director of Exhibitions and Collections Services.

Artist Thomas William Roberts (Tom) arrived in Melbourne at the age of 13. He began work as a city photographer by day so that he could study art at night.

He was 25 when he first returned to his homeland to study at the famed Royal Academy. Travelling to France and Spain during that time he also discovered the world of the impressionists and their palette of colours and techniques.

Returning to Melbourne in 1885, he became involved with artist colleagues Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams, founding the first of the artist camps that sprung up in the Australian outback at Box Hill.

Tom Roberts, Portrait of Louis Abrahams, courtesy National Gallery of Australia

Tom Roberts, Portrait of Louis Abrahams, courtesy National Gallery of Australia

Louis Abrahams remained his friend for life, and Tom Roberts portrait of his friend will also be on display, having only recently been acquired by the NGA.

The painting’s rapid, free brushwork displays the strong influence of modern French art to which he was exposed during the time he spent in the Parisian studios shortly before returning to Melbourne in 1885. European portrait painters who were most influential on Roberts’ development include Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903),’ said Dr Anna Gray, Curator of Tom Roberts.

Tom Roberts 1

Tom Roberts, 1887, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria

Tom Robert joined colleagues Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton at the Eaglemont camp where in 1889 they offered an exhibition of painted cedar cigar boxes, much to the dismay of those who wanted ‘conventional art’. They were reported as being sold to ‘mostly academics’.

Tom Roberts Rams 2

Detail, 1890, Tom Roberts, Shearing the Rams, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria on show at the National Gallery of Australia 4 December 2015 – 28 March, 2016

The artists also painted a great deal in and around the town of Heidelberg, depicting uniquely Australian subject matter working en plein air and they eventually became known as the ‘Heidelberg School’ of painters.

The dramatic isolation of the outback remained an important focus for decades, and following World War II, later renowned artists like Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale would be drawn back to the bush. This meant that European contemporary art movements like Cubism or Surrealism had only a ripple effect on our Australian contemporary artists.

Shearing the rams 1888 – 90 by Tom Roberts is an image I grew up with that I relate to absolutely. My grandfather was head gun shearer at Belltrees nearby to Scone at the turn of the 20th century.

I often assisted at shearing time during my own teenage years on my Uncle’s property nearby to Tamworth in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

My mother’s family were all entrenched in country life, which was a huge focus in the 50’s in Sydney, with the Royal Easter Show at Randwick always a highlight of the year.

Gerald Vaughan noted that Tom Roberts “… was a pretty blokey bloke, he liked camping out, he liked going out and painting shearers he could hang out with the shearers and talk to them… but he could also stay in the big house where the pastoralist was”, such was his confidence in himself and his abilities.

Many great events will be held to accompany the NGA Tom Roberts show, each event inspired by one of Tom Roberts’ portraits. Like most artists of his day and the previous generations, portraiture put bread and butter on the dinner table.

There will be a bush breakfast in the Sculpture Garden on 30 January and a three-course dinner and entertainment in Gandel Hall with exhibition curator Anna Gray on 19 February, 2016.

Plan your visit now.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015-11-29

Tom Roberts

Shearing the Rams

Tom Roberts, Shearing the Rams, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria on show at the National Gallery of Australia 4 December 2015 – 28 March, 2016

National Gallery of Australia

December 4, 2015 – March 28, 2016

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