Tom Roberts Bailed Up
Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday February 24, 1996
A revealing new biography argues that Australia's best-known painter was not as true blue as his paintings suggest.
Historian Humphrey McQueen pleads that he didn't set out to knock Tom Roberts off his perch as "the father of Australian landscape painting" and "one of Australia's greatest artists" in his mammoth new biography.
But in telling for the first time what he claims is "the whole story" of Roberts's
75-year life (1856-1931), including the sad
30-year decline at the end, he certainly shakes the perch.
Tom Roberts is widely admired in Australia as the painter of those national icons
Shearing the Rams, The Golden Fleece,
A break away! and Bailed Up. His paintings are reproduced on calendars, placemats, greeting cards, school project kits, and appropriated by filmmakers, advertisers, even Leunig cartoons.
"Roberts's place in Australian history and culture is up there with the half-dozen major figures, like Lawson and Paterson, who
perpetuate our image of what constitutes the genuine Australian legend," says McQueen.
"But," he adds, "few Australians realise that Roberts was born in England, came here at age 13, returned to England many times and spent 35 of his 75 years in England.
"People see Roberts as a Lawson-type struggler, praising the dignity of rural labour and the working classes, and one of them, but he wasn't at all.
"Roberts was a friend of the squattocracy, vain about his physical fitness and appearance, wore fine suits, a red satin-lined opera cape, and was one of the first in the colony to own a crush topper. He spoke fluent French, sailed saloon class to and from England, and spent much of his time painting portraits of bourgeois society and the establishment for regular income. Roberts was always the
businessman artist, heavily into self-promotion, hobnobbing with figures who mattered in Australian society, from landed gentry and businessmen and their wives, politicians, the law, to people in music, theatre, all the arts.
"Of his famous paintings, only a few were truly appreciated and sold when he painted them. Most critics said Bailed Up was a terrible
picture, and it didn't sell till 30 years later when a private citizen gave it to the Art Gallery of NSW. It's now one of their most popular pictures.
"Bourke Street took 33 years to sell. He'd forgotten about it when McCubbin's widow, who was minding it, sold it to the Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament for 20 guineas."
Roberts was a leading founder of the Heidelberg School, the group of late
19th-century painters who set out to develop a distinctly Australian style, responding to colour and light, and who became renowned for their blue-gold landscapes. Roberts acquired the mantle, "the father of Australian landscape painting", but McQueen disputes this title.
Further, says McQueen,"Roberts's icons appear to be spontaneous, realistic outback paintings, but he hired models to pose in the shearing sheds, on horseback and in various positions for the bushranger robbery, and built a platform to get the desired perspective on the Bailed Up stagecoach.
"Roberts was a quick sketcher but slow painter, and each composed icon took nine months to paint. Roberts never achieved real fame or wealth in his lifetime, relied on his two wives' inherited money to support his lifestyle and, for his last 30 years, was a failed, often depressed, artist who never lived up to the promise of his youth," concludes McQueen.
A major hazard of writing a biography is that the biographer either falls in love with his subject (dead or alive) and writes a hagiography, or starts to hate the subject, or, worse still, becomes bored and wonders if it's even worthwhile finishing the book. McQueen was determined not to write a hagiography, as Roberts's second wife had commissioned after his death - R.H. Croll's Tom Roberts: Father of Australian Landscape Painting (1935). He wanted to write a warts-and-all biography.
However, many will disagree with McQueen's somewhat unromantic way of looking at painters and paintings and feel he is too tough on Roberts.
"I don't think he's the greatest Australian painter; in fact, in terms of putting paint on canvas, I'd place him in Australia's second XI," says McQueen. "Roberts was competent, rarely inspired, and made out rather than triumphed. He had difficulty painting anything not in front of his eyes.
"But as a human being, Tom becomes a nicer person as he gets older. He loses much of his rougher ambition and ego, and the last third of the book is the often humbling story of Tom's long failure, and his attempts
to ... enjoy life nonetheless.
"Tom never loses his sense of humour about himself, whereas his friend Streeton, who does become rich and famous, develops into a truly pompous, unpleasant, money-grubbing person."
When McQueen finished the 784-page manuscript, after four years' writing and several years' previous research, "I really missed Tom. It was like losing a lover. Tom had occupied my every thought, my life was structured around him. A sort of death comes when you send the manuscript off. It took a few months of grieving to adjust to the loss."
McQueen's biography is very much a life-and-times book on Roberts, intertwining detailed English and Australian history as the restless Roberts travels between his native and adoptive homelands, searching for subjects to paint.
It's a story of early migration to Australia, the first waves of cultural exodus back to England, the reliance on family networks and friendships. It's also a study of male mateship a century ago. "Bulldog" Roberts was always a ladies' man, but his really close friendships were exclusively male: "Smike" Streeton, "The Prof" McCubbin, 'K' Conder, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, grazier Duncan Anderson and naval engineer S.W. Pring. The letters between Bulldog and his mates plus a trunkful of 200 family letters and assorted memorabilia, which McQueen gained access to four years ago through Roberts's descendants, helped him colour in the picture of the artist's life.
"When I read those family letters to and from Tom, his wives, his son and various relatives, I realised I had a very deep account of this artist's 30-year-long period of failure," says McQueen.
"I had to think - if Tom's not doing much art that is any good in these years, why does anyone need to know about it? Why don't I do what Virginia Spate's academic book on Roberts's paintings does - go up to 1903, then finish the rest of his life in one chapter, saying more or less that from hereon in, Roberts declined.
"Then I decided the story of his decline was very moving. I also thought, one standard remark about Australian artists is that they enjoy a heroic period in their late 20s and early 30s, then it all falls away. We've never seen a detailed account of what happens when the heroic period is over: how do artists spend the remainder of their lives and cope with failure?
"Roberts didn't do the cliche slide into alcohol and drugs. He liked drinking, but his painful gout probably saved him from the drink. He may well have plunged further into the whisky bottle, if it hadn't blown up into the gout."
It's often said an artist's work is a diary of his life, and this applies to Roberts.
Born in England, he grew up in Dorset and attended grammar school, studying Latin and French, till age 13 when his father, a newspaper editor, died. His widowed mother brought Tom, his brother and sister to Australia, and settled in Melbourne where she had relatives.
No drawings or paintings survive from those early years and according to McQueen, Roberts showed no early burning ambition to become an artist.
"In fact, Tom never displays any burning, compulsive passions about being an artist. At no point in his life does he indicate he'd rather paint than eat. He spends a lot of time indulging his gregarious nature and enjoying himself in his wandering travels, returning after months away with only two or three small pictures. "Roberts worked business hours in his neatly kept studios, opening the door at 3 pm to prospective clients and visitors.
"When he decided to study and become an artist in the first place, it was done more like a commercial career decision than a consuming passion.
"In his own account, Roberts advises his fellows to 'get the hang of your trade'. 'There is no occasion, dear boy, for an artist to be a boor. A man may be able to paint decently well and also know how to comport himself in good society. Besides, you don't usually sell your stuff to people who rent cottages at 17 and six a week: business, my dear boy, business.' "
(One should point out that in Roberts's day there was no plethora of commercial galleries and dealers to market art. Artists mostly sold from their studios or in group exhibitions in art society rooms.)
On the family's arrival in Melbourne in 1869, Roberts began working as an assistant in a photographic studio, composing settings for formal portraits. Those 10 or so years in the photographic studio are considered a strong early influence on Roberts's eye and sense of composition in his later paintings.
In 1871, Roberts began part-time classes at the Collingwood, then Carlton, schools of design and the National Gallery. Among his teachers were Louis Buvelot and Eugene von Guerard. McCubbin, a fellow pupil, remembered Roberts as "one of the most earnest draughtsmen in the school".
At 25, Roberts sailed to England to further his art. For the next four years, he studied at the Royal Academy School and travelled the galleries in Spain, France and Venice with fellow artists. He admired Velazquez and Monet for their art, Whistler for his art and skills at self-promotion. Roberts returned to Melbourne in 1885, full of confidence and energy to plunge into painting.
"It's now that Roberts starts his peak run in Australia, doing all his best work in an 18-year stretch from age 29 to age 47, when he returns to England again and virtually fizzles out," says McQueen.
Roberts was soon arranging weekend expeditions into the bush outside Melbourne to paint out of doors - en plein air. He helped set up an artists' camp at Box Hill and joined McCubbin and others there to paint, cook chops and make billy tea on the campfire, while the Prof waxed philosophical.
Later they rented a beach cottage at Mentone, where Roberts became friendly with 19-year-old art student Arthur Streeton, whom he nicknamed Smike. "Streeton's vanities and enthusiasms were irresistible to Roberts. Smike was an avid reader and lover of music. As with his art, Streeton was light, fire, air and energy," remarks McQueen.
The names Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton "would later become united as if the trio were a real estate partnership".
The articulate Roberts became a front member of the group of discontented Melbourne artists who tried to breathe new life into Victorian arts organisations. He continued a similar involvement in Sydney arts societies when he sailed north and became friends with 20-year-old Charles Conder, a dandy despite his disorderly Kings Cross studio. Roberts nicknamed him K.
Back in Melbourne, Roberts settled into a residential studio in Collins Street, complete with cane furniture, Arab rugs, gumtips and bullrushes standing in an Ali Baba jar, and resumed his mainstay: painting portraits.
Roberts issued patrons, artists, writers and musicians with invitations to afternoon tea, and to attract further attention Roberts would play the organ and McCubbin sang Schubert lieder. Conder came to stay, then moved into his own rooms. McQueen: "Conder was so broke, when his landlady offered to forego the rent if Conder shared her bed, he accepted. Sadly, this dalliance gave Conder syphilis, which killed him 20 years later, aged 41."
Roberts, Streeton, McCubbin and Conder saw themselves as pioneers of a new, distinctly Australian, school of art, part of the young country's search to define its identity. Instead of painting the landscape through English or European eyes, they painted their familiar, loved, sun-drenched landscape, with their impression of the effects of colour and light. Roberts said they tried "to get it down as truly as we could".
In 1889, they and three others held what has gone down as the most important art exhibition in Australia's history - the 9 x 5 Show, the first exhibition of local impressionist art, 182 paintings done on 9 x 5 inch cigar box lids.
The public and critics flocked to see it. Extremes in response were reported, notes McQueen, many failing to appreciate impressionism and thinking the paintings must surely be preliminary sketches for later works.
After the 9 x 5 Show, Roberts went bush and painted what would become his icons.
In the 1890 shearing season, he stayed at Brocklesby station in the Riverina, making some 80 preliminary drawings for Shearing the Rams.
McQueen: "Shearers' time was money and they weren't going to stop for this artist, so Roberts paid a shearer to model the various poses. After the shearing cut out, he paid two girls sixpence each to kick up dust to make the atmosphere hazy."
Roberts romanticised shearing somewhat, giving the shed a cathedral-like interior and the shearers no sign of sweat.
Roberts said of the work: "... being in the bush and feeling the delight and fascination of the great pastoral life and work, I have tried to express it. So, lying on piled-up wool bales, and hearing and seeing the troops come pattering into their pens, the quick running of the wool-carriers, the screwing of the presses, the rhythmic click of the shears, the whole lit warm with the reflection of Australia's sunlight, it seemed that I had there the best expression of my subject, a subject noble and worthy enough if I could express the meaning and spirit - of strong masculine labour, the patience of the animals whose year's growth is being stripped from them for man's use, and the great human interest of the whole scene."
While critics in The Age and Table Talk welcomed Shearing the Rams, the influential James Smith in The Argus opposed a proposal for the National Gallery to buy it, just because it was "true Australian shearing in the true Australian colour". Smith argued that subjects in art should be enobling, and "we do not go to an art gallery to see how sheep are shorn". Robert's painting, he said, would no more elevate the public spirit than an exact rendering of a Melbourne tram conductor.
Roberts responded angrily that Australia was a fit subject for the finest art, and two weeks later a pastoral company chief paid 350 guineas for the painting.
Roberts returned to the Riverina and set up a studio in the same, now deserted, woolshed to paint A break away! It shows a drover's vain attempt, in a drought-parched land, to head off a mob of sheep stampeding suicidally towards a dam.
"He paid a rouseabout to pose as the drover, which explains why the rider looks so stiff, not at all as if he is moving in rhythm with a racing steed," remarks McQueen. "Nonetheless, it is a dynamic picture with the sheep bounding through the dusty air, and I think it is Roberts's best work."
In 1891, Roberts and Streeton moved to Sydney, living and painting in a camp in Little Sirius Cove, near Mosman Bay. McQueen: "Wealthy businessmen set up the camp as a place to get away from it all, and it was far from humble. They had a billiard table, dining tent, and a manservant to cook and polish shoes."
Roberts visited his grazier friend Duncan Anderson at Newstead, Inverell, and painted another icon shearing picture, The Golden Fleece - Shearing at Newstead. The Sydney Morning Herald named it "the great picture of the year" and the Art Gallery of NSW bought it for 275 guineas.
Roberts had heard stories of stagecoaches being held up by bushrangers, and in 1895 returned to Inverell to paint Bailed Up. To McQueen, as a record of Australia's bushranging phase, Bailed Up is a flop. "The affray looks like a picnic party delayed by a broken spoke, rather than a matter of life and death. The bushrangers are agreeably casual, leaning forward in the saddle or chatting to the lady passenger while resting a leg on the step, as a horse tries to graze off the dirt."
To others, like Barry Pearce, curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW, Bailed Up is "the greatest Australian landscape ever painted and shows Roberts's genius at synthesis between paint and light".
Bailed Up failed to find a buyer for 30 years, the Age critic saying the hold-up looked far too tranquil and amiable. Roberts consoled himself that the subjects he was painting were propitious, and Australian artists "were getting the last touch of the old colonial ways" about which, in another 20 years, people would know nothing. His generation was taking the opportunity to record that life, so "different from any other country".
At age 40, after being renowned as a ladies' man and cynical about marriage, Roberts married Lillie Williamson, 36, whose family had settled in Tasmania.
"It is a strange marriage," remarks McQueen. "In all correspondence and records, Tom is never openly passionate or emotional with Lillie, and never shares any intimate outpourings or artists' angsts with her - not that Tom ever revealed himself in this way to anyone else we know about. Tom stays loyal to Lillie, but not faithful, and, as the years go by, he spends so much time away from Lillie, I often became quite cranky with him, and found myself saying, 'For heaven's sake Tom, you must write to Lillie more often, stay at home more often.' Tom's letters to Lillie are newsy lines about what he's doing, whereas Lillie's to Tom are warm, loving letters full of her feelings.
"Lillie probably regarded Tom, the dashing artist, as quite a catch, and was enormously grateful he'd married her, saving her from spinsterhood.
"Lillie was a good catch for Tom. Well educated, travelled, interested in art, she'd inherited a not-modest private income. Always the devoted wife, she never complains and seems to love him more and more." Two years after their marriage, Lillie gave birth to a son, Caleb, their only child.
On May 9, 1901, the Robertses attended the opening of the first Federal Parliament, in the Melbourne Exhibition Building, by the then Duke of York. Two weeks later Roberts was commissioned to paint the event, the contract requiring him to produce 140 recognisable faces.
"The big picture, with 250 heads in the end, took Roberts two years to complete, and probably burned him out," says McQueen. "It gave him an inflated idea of his own importance, as politicians called at his studio to pose for their portraits, royalty dropped in, and he became personal friends with Deakin. He thought fame and more commissions would now come his way in England, as he sailed off with Lillie and Caleb.
"Although Tom cut quite a figure in Australian society, the same didn't apply when he arrived in England, nor would he ever establish himself there as an artist, no matter how desperately hard he tried."
Streeton and Conder had already gone to Europe, and when Roberts's boat train arrived at Charing Cross at 11 pm, Smike was there to meet him. They sent their cab on ahead, so the two friends could walk through the streets of London.
Roberts took his enormous Parliament canvas to London to complete, and although he was well paid for the work, which was considered a good record of the historic event, it was no masterpiece.
"The obviousness of the subject in Roberts's big picture has meant that its place in the development of his painting has been considered clear-cut ... the turning point in his career, after which his brush would never again attain the interest of his bush images, or even the liveliness of his portraits," states McQueen.
"Roberts's shift from Australia's settings and its people left him with no subject to stretch his talents, whether on new themes or through the technical investigation required to render them.
"He travelled all over England and Europe, searching in vain for subjects to paint. He tried to hide his depression - in letters back to Australia, to Deakin, Pring, Anderson, McCubbin - saying he thought he was finding his way at last.
"Tom had enough money from the big picture to survive for two years, then Lillie's skills at home-making, gardening, picture-frame carving and gilding, plus her private income, virtually kept the family going."
Roberts never became a recluse, but continued his socialising, the Chelsea Arts Club being the focus for much carousing. Streeton and more Australian expatriates gathered there, burning gum leaves to remind them of home.
Other Australians' careers were prospering in Europe - Bunny, Lambert, Longstaff. Roberts wrote to Deakin pushing for a national portrait collection, suggesting he'd happily return to Australia to start painting, but Deakin lost the prime ministership and the idea drifted. A subject of one of his society portraits invited him to Italy, and he stayed for a year, producing nothing of note, says McQueen.
Did Roberts consider cutting his losses and returning to Australia? McQueen: "Firstly, that would have been a terrible admission of failure. Secondly, one could blame Lillie for continually handing over her money to Tom, instead of being tougher with him, and forcing him to take the difficult decision to go back."
World War I broke out and Roberts volunteered to work as a medical orderly in a military hospital. Caleb was now in the Royal Engineer Corps. "Four years of seeing terrible war injuries, and the courage of the men, humbled Tom and he no longer thought so much of his own importance or ambition," says McQueen. "Meanwhile, in Australia, Roberts had become a forgotten man, even presumed dead." In 1919, Roberts sailed back to Australia, alone, and began recapturing his old joie de vivre.
Roberts held an exhibition in Sydney, but Streeton, already back in Australia, was the star receiving attention. "Many critics and friends, however, were condemning Streeton for becoming a commercial artist. Streeton would come to your house and paint a view of the harbour from your front porch in four hours, and charge five guineas a square inch!" says McQueen.
"It is a mark of their friendship that Roberts told Streeton off for being so rude and unkind to people, and Streeton took it. Streeton always championed Roberts as an artist, then and after his death.
"My regret as a biographer is that I have 70 letters from Streeton to Roberts, but none of Roberts's letters to Streeton. I think Streeton destroyed them, possibly to protect Roberts from things he might have said about other women, or girleens as he called them. Streeton is very frank in his letters to Roberts, and in one mentions he thinks he's caught the pox."
Roberts returned to England in 1921, aged 65, and his first words to Lillie were: "I'm going back". In 1923 the Robertses sailed back to Australia for the last time, and settled in the Dandenongs. Caleb, his wife and child migrated soon afterwards. Roberts held an exhibition the next year and The Age noted how tame Roberts had become after 20 years in England; The Argus noted his tones were delicate, his colour scheme favouring greys.
In January 1928, Lillie died, aged 67, of a septic bowel. In August, Roberts, 72, married a 50-year-old spinster, Jean Boyes, from the Tasmanian landed classes. They had a happy three years together before Roberts, still painting to the end, died of cancer at age 75.
McQueen: "That aphorism about great men dying twice, the first time as men and the second as great, applied to Tom Roberts, but in reverse order. He had acquired a posthumous reputation before he died ... One might say that from 1904, reports of his being alive as an artist were exaggerated.
"Roberts's life merits attention because he had the fortune to paint moments of significance. His best-known images offer a snapshot of European Australia: migration in Coming South, bushranging in Bailed Up, the building of the cities in Bourke Street, the political economy of riding on the sheep's back in the trio of pastoral pictures Shearing the Rams, The Golden Fleece, A break away!; the creation of a continent-wide market in the Opening of Parliament.
"Tom's reputation is built on those seven paintings, and if you took them away from his life's output, he'd be regarded as a minor figure in Australian art."
Barry Pearce: "It is a fallacious way of assessing someone's talent to say 'Take away his seven icons and what have you got left?' Roberts is Australia's greatest painter and his icons are the consummation of his vision. There are many other, smaller-scale, quieter works of very high quality and clearly beyond McQueen's limited vision. McQueen obviously cannot look at a later Tom Roberts and see any of that intense poetry that is born out of the suffering after the failure of the Parliament picture."
As for the title "the father of Australian landscape painting", Roberts never made that claim about himself, indeed, described Buvelot thus. McCubbin, Streeton and others in the Heidelberg School were all variously described as "founders of Australian landscape painting".
When Roberts's widow published Croll's book with the title Father of Australian Landscape Painting, the mantle stuck.
McQueen: "When you look at Roberts's life work, there actually aren't all that many landscapes. The icon paintings are more subject pictures than strictly landscapes.
"Of Tom's 1,000 surviving pictures, 400 are portraits. Of the 600 left, it's only really in the last years of his life, after 1919, that he starts doing landscapes but they are no longer Heidelberg School. He paints Europeanised landscapes, cloudy grey Tasmanian landscapes, softer enclosed forests. The sun-drenched blue-golds have vanished from his palette."
But for Barry Pearce, "Roberts was not a failure; he was psychologically damaged and you have to look at the later works with a certain sympathy and grace. The quality of his vision is still there, but much more restrained."
Tom Roberts by Humphrey McQueen will be published by Macmillan Australia on March 8, rrp $60.
wedding plans (1896)
Lillie's one surviving letter from this time was written while she expected that her Tom was "dancing away at Government House". She had been rummaging through old letters from her 1886 tour of Europe and found "many references to you". She looked forward to being "together just our two selves". She promised to keep the nuptial dinner to immediate family as well as the parson and his wife. Other relations of Tom's would be invited to the tea, which Lillie thought "sufficient as they have never called to see me"; she added that she did not mean to be "disagreeable". After outlining the arrangements and costs she signed off: "My old dear, I should kiss you if you were here, to hide my merriment. My love dearest to you, your woman Lillie always."
Tom replied with a business letter, on which he paid insufficient postage. After discussing on which ship they should travel from Melbourne to Sydney, he itemised his expenses for the wedding and honeymoon:
Dear, we'll be doing an expensive fly around, it will mean rather a 'stony' time for a bit when we return.
Item. Swell clothes for the husband.
I couldn't do it well cheaper 10.10.00
Fares M to S 4.0.0
General Expenses 5.0.0
the ring 1.10.0
(Extract from Tom Roberts by Humphrey McQueen.)
dear strong love
At Christmas (shortly after their marriage) Lillie went south to her family, alone (leaving Tom in Sydney to go painting). Her ship did not dock until 2 am, making her fear that she would have to spend the night on board, which "nearly choked one with the stinks". But her sister and a driver had waited and took her home ... not getting to bed until almost 5 am. When she wrote to Tom on the night of Boxing Day her emotions were in flood.
My thoughts are full of you & I think what a delight it would be to have you with me ... I write this in the fading light & think of my dear one ... I felt when the boat moved off I could never leave you again & when you turned out of sight I turned to the little home, it was in a flood of sunshine & the tears made one hardly able to see. Then came the thought of your dear strong love & your last words & I sat down wrapped in them to enjoy the glorious evening ... Dear heart, life holds nothing better than to sit by your side & feel you are content with me. Good bye dearest,
Your loving woman
(From Tom Roberts by Humphrey McQueen.)
- August 
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