The toast that Tom Roberts proposed to “Our National Defences” at the 1888 dinner of the Victorian Artists Society is early evidence of his fascination with military affairs. From 1915 to 1918, he slaved as an orderly at Wandsworth Military Hospital while his only child served as a military engineer.

Another strand of this connection was Roberts’s friendship with Major-General Edward Thomas Hutton (1848-1923) who commanded the New South Wales military forces from 1893 to 1896. In September 1894, he attended a private view of Roberts’s “The Golden Fleece” at the National Gallery, and, a year later, exhibited a page from his French sketch book at the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Artists, presided over by Roberts. Before Hutton’s departure on 5 March 1896, he commissioned Roberts to make three mementoes: one of the Artillery Battery manoeuvres at Campbelltown, and two panels of representative soldiers to match the one of himself that he donated to the artillery officers’ mess.

Hutton had made his reputation in Africa through his combat leadership of mounted rifles. In New South Wales, he combined the Cavalry and Mounted Infantry into a mounted brigade comprising regiments of Lancers and Rifles. His public addresses stressed the necessity of light-horse in defending the vastness of Australia.

The subject for the mounted rifleman was Robert Donald Fraser who had been born on 30 October 1873 near Inverell where his Scottish father had selected 300 hectares in the 1860s. As one of ten children, including seven sons, Robert needed to find employment off the property. When he joined the volunteers, he was paid by the day. In 1895, he passed the examinations to become permanent as Staff Colour Sergeant at Victoria Barracks. Roberts could have met Fraser in 1894-95 around Inverell where he painted “The Golden Fleece” and “Bailed Up”.

The Fraser portrait illustrated Hutton’s contention that the “Australian is a born horseman”:

With his long, lean muscular thighs he is more at home on a horse than on his feet, and is never seen to a greater advantage than when mounted and riding across bush or a difficult country … they are the beau ideal of Mounted Riflemen.

Roberts had already celebrated the type in “A Breakaway” (1891). The popularity of Adam Lindsay Gordon as poet-horseman and the success of A. B. Paterson’s “Man from Snowy River” (1895) led to the complaint that Australian poetry was “horses, horses, horses”.

The Fraser panel is not the portrait of a personality but of the type that Hutton had pictured. A photograph of Fraser reveals how much Roberts had done to make his subject look the “beau ideal”. Although presentable enough in real life, the downward cast of the eyes added an allure. Equally, the relaxed upright stance drew on illustrations of dashing officers – not sergeants - for the black-and-white press. A pencil sketch of the pose survives. (Several drawings often associated with the four Hutton commissions are from much later.)

Manhood was then under twin charges of moral and physical degeneration. In 1895, the trials of Oscar Wilde had produced a heterosexual panic that threw definitions of masculinity into turmoil. Military flashness became suspect as did the dandyism of the artist.

Roberts penciled instructions of the verso of the Fraser portrait: “Frame very Dark Oak or Walnut without any gold”. He wanted timber to contrast with the lighter tones of the oak panel and the browns of the uniform. He opposed a gilt border to ensure that his higher tones would not be overwhelmed. These instructions were indicative of the care that Roberts had taken in the application of a palette playing the fawn of fabrics against black boots and plumes.

“Sgt. Fraser” was one of suite of full-length portraits which Tom Roberts painted on small wooden panels in the 1890s. A few were commissioned, others were expressions of friendship. In preparation for his departure from Sydney late in 1900, Roberts offered twenty-three “Familiar Faces and Figures” for sale at five guineas each, but hoped that they would be bought as a group to make a statement 

Roberts looked both back to the memories of the bushrangers in “Bailed Up” (1895) and forward to the dawn of the Federation which culminated in the 250 portrait heads of “The Opening of the Federal Parliament”. Sgt Fraser played his part in this movement, serving in the Boer War from 1900 to 1902 when he probably acquired a parasitic infection which led to his death from pernicious anemia in 1907 while training at Aldershot