Tom Roberts
Allegro con brio, Bourke Street west
(1885-86 and 1890)
cat. 64

Allegro con brio 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 Roberts’s painting.

A 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.

The 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.

Art 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 Austrian’s streetscapes.

Roberts’s 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.

The 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.

Urban 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.

Even 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.

Five 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 catalogue.

Unable 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.