“A” Battery Field Artillery
The story behind a painting by Tom Roberts

Tom Roberts inscribed “Sydney” on his 1896 oil painting “A” Battery Field Artillery, New South Wales - but where in Sydney? My 1996 biography repeated the standard view that the scene was Mosman, on Sydney’s lower North shore, because artists at their well-known camp at Sirius Cove would have been in contact with the Artillery Battery and School at Middle Head. Only after being invited to write the entry on Roberts’s portrait Sergeant Robert Fraser for the Australian War Memorial’s recent book, Artists in action, did I undertake further research that enabled me to discover that Roberts’s artillery scene had in fact been set many kilometres inland.

“A” Battery was one of the quartet of military images commissioned late in 1895 by the retiring commander of the New South Wales Defence Forces, Major-General Edward T. Hutton. The other three consisted of two panels of representative soldiers (Sergeant Fraser was one and the other depicted an infantryman) as well as a portrait of Hutton himself.

Two days before Hutton departed Sydney on 5 March 1896, the Daily Telegraph published a report WHICH reveals the location of “A” Battery:

Mr Tom Roberts, artist, has just completed for Major-General Hutton three oil paintings  … Those who know the General’s particular weakness for “A” Battery B.D.F.A. [Brigade Division Field Artillery] will not be surprised to learn that one of the pictures shows Colonel H. P. Airey, D.S.O., and his men in action. The scene is laid near Campbelltown, and represents one position in the attack upon Sugar Loaf hill – a phase of one of the tactical schemes carried out during the recent mounted camp at Campbelltown. The battery has just been brought into action on the top of a hill, while in the blue distance lie the plains of Menangle.

With the site now identified as being Sugar Loaf Hill, on the southwestern outskirts of Sydney, other questions arise. For what eventualities was “A” Battery training? What was the status of “A” Battery in the artillery force that made Hutton favour it? Why did Hutton pick Roberts to paint this memento? How did Roberts create his image?

1.       Fixing the enemy
The colonial defence services had three tasks: first, to protect the colonies from raiders; secondly, to support the empire wherever it was challenged; thirdly, to uphold the existing social order. For so long as art historians assumed that the “A” Battery painting was set above Mosman Bay, the military purposes behind the training on show seemed obvious; to wit, to repel a landing associated with a naval incursion by France or Russia.

However, although Hutton’s 1894 mobilisation plan for the Port Jackson district included preparations to counter a landing party in the Middle Head Section, he allocated no role to the Field Artillery. Instead, he instructed the local commander to keep his infantry together and to establish machine-guns “at the rocky point on the Eastern side of Hunter’s Beach”.

The second expectation was imperial service, which Hutton’s career exemplified. Thus, every exercise in Australia had potential value for ACTION across the globe.

The third requirement was to maintain the Queen’s Peace. Between preparing to ward off invaders and awaiting the call of empire, the military had been active against striking unionists when the Parkes government dispatched artillery units to the northern coal fields from mid-September 1888. Under Hutton, “A” Battery conducted its annual instructional march to Newcastle, an exercise which promised relief to the fixed batteries at Broken Bay and Newcastle and action against civil disturbance throughout the Hunter Valley. While Roberts was painting around Inverell, in New South Wales, in 1893–94, volunteer troopers, engaged as special constables, guarded the pastoralists during the final surge of the “Shearers’ Insurrection”, as the Press headlined the workers’ resistance to non-union labour and rate-cuts. That strife had impressed itself on Hutton during his travels inland.

2.       Why “A” Battery?
The NSW Artillery had two components: on one side were the fixed batteries guarding the bays and harbours. The other branch was the field artillery, split between “A” battery, with its permanent troops, and the volunteers of “B” & “C” batteries.

At the end of Hutton’s tenure as commander, he declined to take responsibility for the state of harbour defences or for an inventory of their equipment because he had not been able to get rid of senior staff whom he deemed “notorious instances”: “it is impossible that the Artillery service can be in a satisfactory condition so long as the present officers remain at its heart”. In light of these remarks, it is not surprising that Hutton commissioned pictures of a trooper and a sergeant, rather than his officers, or anyone from the fixed artillery. In Hutton’s eye, an “excellent spirit exists in ‘A’ Battery. It has made very great progress in acquiring a knowledge of its duties since 1893.”

A 1892 Royal Commission had found that the Field Artillery was considerably under-strength, that its guns “almost obsolete”, and that “practical training in battle-firing … has apparently never been given”. Because “A” Battery cost of £7,000 per annum, the report advocated its replacement with three partially paid ones.

Field Artillery held a pivotal place in the manoeuvring for Federation. During Hutton’s push for a Defence Council, he lobbied to integrate the several colonial batteries and to standardise their ordnance, believing that re-organisation to be the most valuable contribution to action anywhere in the empire. However, neither London nor the local Federationists wanted to an immediate amalgamation of the field units, for fear of removing the impetus that overcoming their dispersal provided for Federation.

At Hutton’s initial review of his forces in July 1893, he had stressed that only a week-long camp would remedy the “want of experience” of his staff. The government had cut the £30,000 allocated for the nine-day Easter camps from the defence appropriations. This economy drive had been underwritten by the Royal Commissioners’ comment about such training:

From the evidence given it seems there is a little too much entertaining and what may almost be called luxurious living in camp, which is quite out of place in modern soldiering – pianos in mess tents, with, in some cases, wooden floors and carpets in officers’ tents.

The Regiments held dinners by turns, with parties every night to entertain their non-military friends.

THREE years elapsed before Hutton could achieve even a four-day camp, held over the Australia Day weekend in 1896. All the mounted forces would attend, except No. 4 Company from Tenterfield–Inverell (owing to the expense of transporting them and their horses). The troops established camp on Friday 24 January, when the shade temperature stood at 112.5° Fahrenheit, and did not fall much despite a strong southerly after 9 pm. Some detachments delayed their movement until after sundown, not arriving until midnight. Four or five troopers were hospitalised with heat apoplexy. In a reminder of the incompetence against which Hutton laboured, the officers’ mess tent collapsed just after they rose from table.

Old habits died hard. While addressing his men, Hutton had to order an officer smoking to fall to the rear. “This sort of thing gives men a clear idea they are not there for pleasure merely”, claimed the Daily Telegraph. That an officer thought his amusement played any part in a military exercise indicates that three years had not been long enough to disabuse the well-connected of their lackadaisical ways.

3.       Why Roberts?
Roberts’s interest in military matters had began well before his commissions from Hutton. He had proposed the toast “Our National Defences” at the November 1888 dinner of the Victorian Artists Society. The pair might have met first in late 1893, when Hutton was on one of his inland inspection tours and Roberts was painting around Inverell, which had a half-company of Mounted Rifles. Or they could have been introduced in Sydney at one of the society shivoos to which Roberts was addicted, possibly through his friend and oft-times premier, Sir Henry Parkes. In September 1894, Mrs Hutton attended a private view of Roberts’s “The Golden Fleece”. A year later, the major general lent his European sketchbook to the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Artists, over which Roberts presided.

So it was that in July 1895, Hutton wrote inviting Roberts to “communicate with me as to painting a couple of small military pictures for me”.

4.       The artist at work
Because Roberts did not return to Sydney from a boating trip to Foster until Friday 24 January, he missed the start of the mounted camp where he was to be Hutton’s guest. A capable horseman, Roberts would have enjoyed the early morning ride (returning for breakfast by 9 am) on Monday 27 January that Hutton and his headquarters staff made to inspect the site for the manoeuvres scheduled for that afternoon.

As the force was still equipped with poor saddles, Hutton forbade jumping over fences:

Gaps had been left in fences, and by this means the artillery was able to get over the ground in remarkably quick time, though some of the gullies they crossed appeared uncrossable at first blush, and some of the hills which they mounted seemed too steep for climbing.

Notwithstanding these triumphs over nature, the officers’ lunch, and hence the afternoon proceedings, were delayed for half an hour because the supply cart could not get through until Hutton informed its drivers that they would “have” to.

Once the officers had been fed, the games began with the objective of “dislodging a company from Sugarloaf Hill, a high conical hill east of the main road and then occupy the bridge over the Nepean”. To this end, “A” Battery, with its four guns, “mounted a tall hill overlooking the bridge, and opened fire”. This was the event that Roberts depicted.

The vice-regal party arrived the next day to view a picnic version of the previous day’s exercise. This time, the objective was to drive out a force which had invaded Menangle. The field battery “took up a commanding position, from which it opened a well-directed fire”. Roberts could have used this reprise to do more sketching, as well as to get himself invited to a ball at Government House on 14 April. 

Roberts had access to plenty of advice around the camp and throughout February. Although he made on-the-spot notes – which must now be presumed lost – he would have worked up the canvas for “A” Battery either at his city studio, or at Victoria Barracks, where he did the other three souvenir wooden panels. After approving the artistry of the artillery scene, the Daily Telegraph congratulated Roberts on what was “more important from a military standpoint, the details are accurate … Among the figures in the foreground is a back view of Colonel [H. P.] Airey – in a most characteristic pose – who is in the act of receiving a message from a mounted orderly who has ridden up.”

Roberts’s artillerymen appear more vigorous than the bushrangers in his “Bailed Up” (1895), because he repeated a device from Shearing the Rams (1890). On that occasion, he had illustrated the work process by rendering it as a division of labour, showing the shearers at different stages of their work. The sequencing gave a sense of the whole cycle. When he applied this method to “A” Battery, he had the first gun ready to shoot, the second being loaded, a third discharging smoke, and the fourth also being primed. In this way, the steps through which each crew had to move were shown along the line of guns. This method allowed the two-dimensional panel to suggest the fourth dimension of time, in the manner of the proto-cinematic effects of Eadweard Muybridge’s consecutive photography. The repetition thus overcame the confining of the visual arts to a single moment, whereas poetry could tell stories. Roberts heightened the narrative impact by including the excitement of a horseman reigning in with a communiqué.

Hutton took three of the four paintings commissioned by Hutton home: “A” Battery, Sergeant Fraser, and the infantryman. He donated the fourth, a portrait of himself to the field artillery officers’ smoking room at Victoria Barracks. “A” Battery returned to Australia in 1952 when the Australian War Memorial purchased it; the pair of portrait panels have also been acquired.

See also: Articles in Australian History section