TOM ROBERTS - ALLEGRO CON BRIO
Allegro con brio, Bourke Street west
(1885-86 and 1890)
is the musical term for “lively with fire”, appropriate to this
high-keyed, searing streetscape. Allegro con brio was also Beethoven’s marking for the first
movement of his Eroica
symphony, a work which Roberts and his confreres heard as asserting the
value of art over commerce and politics. Yet those forces inhabit
third of the canvas depicts buildings, with verandahs as prominent as
the advertising on the walls. Although Marvellous Melbourne had become
one of the world’s great metropolises, Roberts disparaged its
architecture as “expensive vulgarity”, wrapped in styles as borrowed
as the capital that built them.
small scale of this work for so large a subject suggests that it was a
draft for a larger and more sharply delineated work which Roberts had
hoped to send to the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London. Had
he done so, it could have been engraved for sale as prints. For both
purposes, he would have had to have supplied the detailing and varnish
demanded by the Academic standards to which he subscribed.
historical judgements must not be imposed on Roberts’s aesthetic. The
word “impression” was then synonymous with sketch, and in the
Melbourne of the 1880s was associated with the “Nocturnes” of J. A.
M. Whistler more than the Impressionism of Monet. A more likely source
was some now neglected artist such as the Austrian, Franz Richard
Untermeyer (1838-1902), one of whose Italian scenes had entered the
National Gallery in Melbourne in 1875, the year Roberts commenced his
studies there. Three more Untermeyers went on sale just before Roberts
commenced his canvas, which a contemporary critic compared with the
attraction to depicting the western end of Bourke street is almost out
of sight in his painting, the General Post Office, its extensions
appearing in the girder to the far right.
The building was a cynosure for Melburnians because a succession
of flags above the clock tower signaled the progress of the overseas
mails, indicating when the steamer had been sighted off Albany (WA)
through to the completion of sorting. The Post Office corner was a hub
of commerce, not only for business correspondence, but for its savings
bank and money orders. Allegro con
brio expressed the reach of the Imperial bourgeoisie, albeit
portrayed from the perspective of a self-employed painter enjoying the
elevation of a first-floor window.
line of cabs down the middle of Bourke Street and the stables to the
left added to the bustle. The cabs gave way to the laying of track for
the cable trams that ran from August 1887. Staid as those vehicles now
appear, late in 1885 their drivers were a point of social disturbance,
striking for unionised wage-rates and shorter hours.
subjects were less popular than bush scenes because cities were seen as
a site for crime, revolt and sickness. Moreover, late Victorian
art-lovers preferred paintings that told a story with a moral.
Painterliness was a secondary concern. Allegro
con brio would have perplexed viewers through its lack of narrative
focus. At best, it offered a tableau
vivant for which they could supply their own tale of letters and
packets. Story-telling was made harder because three-quarters of the 150
figures were dabs or smudges, as if blurred by the long exposures then
needed by photography. Nonetheless, Roberts detailed street life in the
shoe-shine man on the south-east corner.
more abstruse would have been the notion that the subject was the glare
and scorching northerly wind, against which women carry parasols and
which the word “ICE” on the cart in the dead center promises relief.
days before Roberts first exhibited Allegro
on 3 December 1890, he posed three women so he could paint their bright
frocks over a black cab until then in the lower left corner. His use of
models underlined that he could not rely on recollected experience, let
alone his imagination. This brightening of the bottom left corner
altered the chromatic balance of the whole, leaving open the possibility
that he added the white bars to the cab roofs and inserted the French
flag as a visual accent. That tricolour also drew attention to the
canvas-maker at that address who advertised in the Artists Society
to find a buyer, Roberts handed the canvas in 1903 to Fred McCubbin,
whose widow sold it to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library in 1920
for 20 guineas, which she forwarded to Roberts in London.