While Australians were campaigning for their first Federal elections, the painter Tom Roberts was selling up to join the exodus of creative spirits out of the new Commonwealth. Almost by chance, Roberts attended the inauguration of the Parliament in the Melbourne Exhibition Building on 9 May, where he thought that ‘the heads on the floor looked like a landscape stretching away’.[1] A few days later, a commercial syndicate commissioned him to make an oil painting of the event with some 250 identifiable faces, including that of George Reid, even though he had been too ill to attend. Throughout the next two years, Roberts replaced his bird’s eye view with a collection of miniatures as every member and Senator spent hours in his studio.[2]

Roberts wrote details about many of his sitters into an exercise book, documenting physical characteristics, reporting reminiscences or gossip, and attaching his own judgements of their appearance, personalities and talents. His notes bring the official painting to life, and offer pointers about the workings of the early Commonwealth.

Roberts recorded the age, height, weight and hat size of fifty-four of the 111 parliamentarians. In forty-seven cases, those numbers were almost the only information he collected about them. The impetus to acquire such details was part of the intersection - indeed collision - between ethnographers, phrenologists and anthropologists associated with his friend, Professor Baldwin Spencer. During the 1890s, Roberts had made two portrait sequences, one of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders, and the other of ‘Familiar Faces and Figures’, that is, of men about Sydney.[3] Roberts had drawn his own version of phrenology from a career in face-making. It was his trade to notice that W. G. Spence’s head had ‘a good deal more height about the eyes than the average’. From attention to physiognomies, he concluded that M. D. McEachran had ‘the best business and mercantile head of all the members, square and solid looking’. John Quick, a barrister, did not look ‘of that type’, but ‘square and nobbly’. Tom Playford always presented ‘the quiet look of a sane strong man, and a market gardener’.

The tallest of the 54 was Playford at 6’2” and the shortest Senator Millen at 5’5”. Twenty-four stood between 5’10” and 6’2”, and the other 30 were between 5’5” and 5’9 1/2”. Despite King O’Malley’s wearing the largest hat, his head measured only 7 1/8, smaller than those of Kingston and Braddon, both at 7 3/8. Playford topped Roberts’s scales at 18 stone after Sir John Forrest had declined to be weighed, admitting to ‘18 stone but fears something near 20’.[4]

It is not known how much clothing was included, or whether the height was in stocking feet. Even if reliable statistics were available for the entire parliament, the mismatch of two Queensland Labour members, both aged 39, is a caution against wondering whether the Free Traders were the ‘Mr Fats’ of the Worker and Bulletin cartoonists. Andrew Fisher at 5’10 ½” was 11st 7lb while Senator Anderson Dawson was an inch taller but weighed 9stone 3lb. Roberts’s first impression of Dawson was ‘of a waster, but found him wasting – looks like consumptive’. The blind Labour Senator Gregor McGregor was 5’8” and 16 stone.

The stature of the parliamentarians had its parallel in one of the drives for Federation, namely, the simultaneous concern of the Imperial authorities with the physical condition of the British population, and its fitness for war. This matter would contribute to the ANZAC legend when journalists contrasted the warrior Australasians with the weedy English. On the Australian side, the fear had been that the convict stain or the sub-tropics had caused the Race to degenerate.

Of more immediate interest, the High Commissionership to London kept the lobbies buzzing: ‘There are several very keen about this, especially Sir Langton Bonython, Sir Malcolm McEacharn and B. R. Wise of NSW’. On 1902, Roberts heard that Forrest was the most likely appointee but, when Forrest came by that afternoon ‘for some touches’, he declared that ‘nothing on the matter at all had passed between him and Barton’. At mention of McEachran, one of the labour men snapped: ‘We’ll block him from that’. McEachran told Wise: ‘You can’t get this Wise. You’re not a member of parliament’. The post was not filled until Sir George Reid went in 1910.

In identifying W. G. Spence as a ‘labour man’, Roberts added ‘of course he is a reader’. Charles McDonald not only was a reader but had ‘some interest in artistic movement in Queensland … And is the one member who has interested himself in having our painting materials “free”.’ McGregor’s mother-in-law read to him, ‘sometimes five hours a day’. Roberts found that, beyond the ranks of working-class autodidacts, Sir Thomas Ewing favoured ‘hard reading and philosophers’, Braddon did not like Kipling, and O’Connor was ready to discuss ‘the Bacon-Shakespeare cipher’. The breadth of Roberts’s own reading was apparent in his description of West Australian Senator Matheson’s looking ‘as if he were one of the “Patterne” family’, from George Meredith’s The Egoist; Matheson, the descendent of an assassinated British prime minister, succeeded to a baronetcy.

MPs continued their previous endeavours, including union action. The explanation that W. G. Spence gave of his tactics in industrial disputes has pertinence for how he operated in caucus and the House.

He himself arrives early, always to watch the movement of other members. [Because]the raising of the voice raises the temper, the table must be a narrow one. If the first comer be a definite minded man with his ideas already set’, [Spence] ‘meets him in his earnest manner and talking of anything but the real thing until the man thinks Spence is not worth bothering about too much after all, and so on, trying to get the measure of each member. On beginning business, he tries always to start a lead, coming back always to it, beginning with the unimportant items and on insensibly to the chief and difficult question, never contradicting or putting the square-headed man with opposition and so keeping the argument to his own line and to an agreement made. His opponents may later on think of weighty points they might have made - but it is too late.

Queensland Senator Tom Glassey, who had organised for the Labour Party, parted with it once he ’found it impossible to write a letter or speak with an opponent without charges of disloyalty from them’. South Australian Senator Hugh de Largie was then one of those happy to see Glassey depart. For de Largie, it was a ‘principle of the Labour party is that no member shall take office; a fighting party must be free from responsibility. If a member leaves then they pot him on every opportunity.

After news broke on 15 May 1902 of the resignation of the Governor General, Lord Hopetoun, Victoria’s Barrett (Labour party)

‘said "we were staggered, and the papers were all going for retrenchment, what could we do?” Thinks if the case had been better or differently put in the representatives the result of the proposal to increase the Gov.-Gen.'s salary from £10,000 to £18,000 would have been different’.

Later that day, Senator O’Connor told Roberts

the govt knew nothing at all of Lord Hopetoun's cables or his intention until yesterday. They would have liked him to have done it differently. The effect on people generally is remarkable and seems to be that Australia has treated a man who is its welcome head and guest very shabbily. The proposal for increase of salary in the house seemed to be put half-heartedly, for it was known not to have a chance. And it came at the very worst moment, in the midst of a terrible drought and the greatest anxiety in the Eastern States; a time of all round economy and retrenchment.

Roberts recalled that Lord Beauchamp, the NSW Govenor, had considered ‘it was a pity so wealthy a man as the Earl of Hopetoun should be the first Gov. Gen for it would make a great difficulty for the men following him in the office’. One member to suffer a personal loss by the departure was the Reverend Ronald who was ‘born in the same year and near the same place as Lord Hopetoun who would invite him to Gov House to “have a bowl of a pipe”.’

No sooner had the Victorian Governor, Lord Brassey, been mentioned in a cable as a successor, than Dr Carty Salmon, Victorian MHR, and one other member

called a caucus of themselves in the House and having appointed one chairman the other proposed and carried resolutions. Then rang Deakin up. He smelling something, asked how many at the meeting? For answer, they two cheered into the receiver but the wily Alfred suggested a similarity in the voices. However it was gravely given out and taken by and published in the press as a protest against Lord Brassey for G G.’.

The vacancy was filled by Hallam, Lord Tennyson, then in South Australia.

Vice-Regal repersentatives were not alone in having their ambitions tossed on the sea of democracy. Sir Thomas Ewing had ‘a quiet grin for those new members who jump up on every occasion to try to make themselves known and necessary to their party and those who by the necessary dividing ministers among the States can have no chance by any change of ministry’. E. L Batchelor, who had been a minister of crown in SA, ‘like many others finds the leveling that goes on in the House of Representatives. Family connections and social positions having nothing to do with a man's acceptance’. Someone said Quick’s ‘reputation in the State is not carried into the House or if carried at all had declined’. Dugald Thomson, a free trade member from NSW, was landed with a ‘good deal of the tariff work … by the opposition. Good steady judgement I hear – a coming man – Should think on very reliable’. Roberts heard that the Queenslander, Charles McDonald Q  20.1.02,  ‘has a great knowledge of forms of procedure. learnt on behalf of an for use of Labour party. The Chairman of Committees Way??? neatly gags and uses him by making him acting chairman’.[5] Based on experience as South Australian Agent-General, Playford said the new king was ‘a first rate and business chairman of committees’.

Reputations could be as fleeting as prospect for advancement. Senator Ewing was the ‘first to speak strongly of another member. Matheson had made a common platform with him and another, and then disclaimed the connection’. ‘members speaking of Victorian MP, Ronald as a Presbyterian minister. ‘find him out of place in the House. I found him interesting and with a broad sympathy’. O’Connor, widely called ‘Dead Eye Dick’, was ‘the best liked man in the parliament. Several men call him the ablest. However, he said he wasn’t impressed of all men’s speaking well for the newspapers are dominant’. He had ‘great respect for McDonald of great ability and absolutely straight and to be relied on’. The government whip, Conroy, was ‘very intimate’ with the opposition whip, Sydney Smith, and ‘says he is a born manager of a party, thought him a certainty for the next ministry. Heard him speaking that evening on the Postal Bill, shockingly badly, as Conroy admitted to me. [Smith] was very pleasant and interesting with a shrewd judgment’.

Roberts frequently altered his opinion on further acquaintance. Victorian Labour men, John Barrett and Frank Tudor, at first seemed dull but soon proved bright. Similarly, John Quick, ‘had very little talk and sat with his gloves on’, but outside the studio proved companionable. Roberts appreciated that ‘the sitting in every case seemed to make the subject inclined to be friendly; there’s a marked difference in the house of men who have or have not yet sat’. Allan McLean, however, suffered from ‘a dullness of perception as to the exact tenor of a gesture’. Roberts thought Dobson ‘made a poor start - but found he was making up his speech on the tariff’. Glassey ‘came up with a sort of nervous consciousness’ because sitting for his portrait discomfited him, since he had ‘never allowed anyone to dictate what he should wear or should eat. Never wore formal dress at their functions. Was the first man to spit on my floor’. Roberts recorded personalities both warm and abrasive. Hume Cook, for example, was

of a critical turn of mind - was the first to say of another on the canvas “I can't stand him”. He has been put in a mild kind of Coventry for having given a lecture on members and the house and given comparisons between the ability of the different State sections and individual characteristics such as that two members have been under treatment for the liquor habit.

Senator Dawson was one who had left ‘a stream of whiskey fumes’ in Roberts’s studio. Tasmanian convert to the Labour Party, King O’Malley, who worked up his ideas into

aphorisms and alliterations, very frankly wonders that the press reports dull stodgy stuff and misses some of the best put together and smartest sayings in the House. Talk very clean and frank - talk only getting high coloured if he calls up with two or three of his chums from the Labour Party.

O’Malley extended his form of address ‘Brother so & so’ to Janet, Lady Clarke as ‘Sister Clarke’. Roberts reckoned her as ‘one of the best women of Australia and her sex’. 

New South Wales Protectionist Member of the House of Representative, Sir Thomas Ewing was free with ‘good natured enough criticisms of many other members’. He revealed his own humour by telling NSW Senator “Colonel” John Neild that the Duchess of York ‘had inquired through O’Connor particulars of that very fine soldierly man in uniform amongst the members, she had been much struck by his noble appearance. This done in a confidential way. It was all swallowed’. The engineer, James Styles, thought ‘curly hair mixed up with a good deal of self-conceit in men’.

Roberts’s diary was concerned with men rather than measures. Nonetheless, he gathered a few statements of principle. West Australian Senator Norman Ewing ‘was the first to ask what my religion might be. Privately he belonged to no Church and had none, but politically strongly Protestant, fearing the power of the Roman machine’. One of those whom Ewing might have feared was O’Connor, although he had opposed Cardinal Moran’s entry into politics, which earned him his Eminence’s respect. Glassey believed ‘that all bad government is through bad legislation and the cure to work the parliamentary machine to legislate well’. Spence favoured ‘women voting. He gave me the soundest and most philosophical reasons I have read. His chief idea seemed that in universal voting everyone including the worst should be represented. As the bad was the fault of society, society should hear the result of it’.

Towards the end of 1902, Roberts found that, while his own work was improving, he was getting

very little interest from the sitters .... All the members seemed fagged and spiritless. There's no cheeriness about them at the House. And so I rarely care to go in for a chat. Kingston full of energy still and Deakin ready for 5 minutes chaff, which still includes the serious answer to a question I may make him. My friend Conroy is getting shaken by the journeys to and from Sydney but still ready with panaceas for everything and everybody, having the only true and perfect remedy at hand.

To escape these tribulations, the prime minister and O’Connor went to the High Court and several other members did not seek re-election.

The touchiness between the Commonwealth MPs and their host, the Victorian Parliament, showed up in an anecdote passed on by the NSW Protectionist W. B. S. Sawers, whom Roberts described as possessing a ‘quiet idea of all the men about’. When the Victorian Premier, Alexander Peacock, came into the dining room where he

had been accustomed to lunch  … his laughter naturally constantly drew attention to him; two labour member also naturally had some objection and following the next cachinnation broke two plates on the floor, the smashing of the next two after an other outburst seemed to suggest something to the laugher and there was only one slight attack afterwards followed by smashing a cheese plate. The premier complained to the Prime Minister that he would not visit the place again until the members had apologised. Hughes, the member, is deaf, and with his hand up to his ear asked “What? What? See him damned first”. Sawers says he couldn’t have done the plate breaking for fifty sovereigns but didn’t seem sorry that some one else had done it.

.In the light of this incident, the right of reply should go to one of Peacock’s Ministers, William McCulloch, who told Roberts that, whenever he left his Ararat property to ‘come to town, says to himself - what a foolish old man you are to bother about politics’.

[1] Roberts papers, Mitchell Library MSA2481/3, p. 3.
[2] Humphrey McQueen, Tom Roberts, Macmillan, Sydney, 1996, pp. 463-80.
[3] Humphrey McQueen, ‘An Association of Natives’, in Tim Bonyhady and Andrew Sayers (eds), Heads of the People, A Portrait of Colonial Australia, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2000, pp. 96-115.
[4] During the 1891 Convention, the Sydney newspapers had reported that the average height of delegates at 6” and their weight at 14 stone.
[5] McDonald became Chairman of Committees and  Speaker.