An association of natives

The native white population of Australia will be a race different from their progenitors, and not unlike the aboriginal natives. There is a similarity in the tall, elastic slender person, the free and graceful carriage, the wild quick eye.
Thomas McCombie, 1845.

… in another hundred years the average Australian will be a tall coarse, strong-jawed, greedy, pushing, talented man, excelling in swimming and horsemanship … In five hundred years … the breed will be wholly extinct.
Marcus Clarke, 1884.

Tom Roberts (1856-1931) has been lauded as ‘the father of Australian landscape painting’, yet he could be praised as the parent of Australian portraiture. Forty per cent of his 780 recorded images were portraits in several media - ink, oil, pastel, plaster, pencil - and across every decade of his career. Most were commissions, the bread and butter, even jam, for a professional: ‘Portraits pay … my boy’, he joshed his friends. Hence, most were one-offs. As early as 1887 he was mocking such work with ‘a pathetic ditty re “High Art”, [which] moved his hearers deeply’.

I’ve painted kids in every pose,
A’kissing their mammie or smelling a rose,
I’ve painted ‘em in the nurse’s lap,
And in the cradle sucking pap.

Nonetheless, two of his finest oils were portraits, ‘Madame Pfund’ and ‘Edward Ogilvie’.[1]

Roberts hoped to lift his face-making towards High Art. After the 1830s, photography freed portrait-makers from the duty of producing likenesses. Mobile though the status of portraiture became within the hierarchy of genres throughout the nineteenth century, it remained beneath biblical, mythological and historical subjects, and even below landscapes on the scale of moral values that pervaded most aesthetic judgements. Portraiture’s prospects were linked to a long-standing assumption that the face mirrored the soul. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890 relied on the wish to read character and intellect there. From the late eighteenth century, quasi-scientific methods had been added to this moralising. Phrenology and craniology, followed after 1869 by eugenics with Francis Galton’s ‘composite portraits’ drawn from criminals, consumptives and the walls of London’s National Portrait Gallery. Roberts’s description of a Torres Strait islander as ‘of the Jewish type, and having a fine, strongly marked face’ descended from such stereotyping. Portraiture could thereby be advanced through science, the faith of nineteenth-century believers in progress.[2]

That great favorite of Roberts, the English Michelangelo, George Frederick Watts (1817-1904), dignified his portraits by making them part of an historical project of living immortals from his Hall of Fame, twelve examples being displayed at the Melbourne’s 1888 Exhibition. Emulating Watts, Roberts combined his 1892 portraits of Cardinal Moran, Sir Henry Parkes and Mr Justice Windeyer under the rubric ‘Church, State, Law’, arranging them as a triptych, a device with religious associations from folding altar pieces.[3]

Historical awareness grew in Australia from the centenary of Cook’s 1770 voyage, to be revived by the centenary of European settlement in 1888 and sustained through the federal sentiments that culminated in the Commonwealth in 1901. This celebratory nostalgia extended to portraiture so that thirty years after the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1856, the National Gallery of Victoria talked of adding a separate room for a Portrait Gallery of colonial worthies. Melbourne’s Centennial Exhibition in 1888-89 included an Australian Portrait Gallery of thirty-one faces with local associations, including de Quiros and Cook, the lot on sale for £7450, but no benefactor endowed the coming nation. The office block erected in the 1870s for the New South Wales Lands Department bore forty life-size statues of explorers and cabinet ministers. Roberts encouraged the establishment of a national portrait collection to promote portraiture, supplement his income and contribute to Australian self-awareness.[4]

This essay treats two portrait sequences which Roberts produced during the 1890s: the twenty-three wooden panels that he brought together in 1900 as ‘Familiar Faces and Figures’, and ten heads of Aborigines and Islanders completed between 1889 and 1895, eight of which he catalogued as a ‘Series of Aboriginal Studies and Types’. Roberts included both groups among the 113 items at a sale conducted between 14 and 27 November 1900 at the Society of Artists rooms in Pitt street, Sydney.

Contrasting assumptions and sensibilities operated behind these studies of celebrities and Aborigines. To depict the newsworthy was a staple for black-and-white work in the illustrated weeklies. To seek out Aborigines as a subject for fine art was remarkable but not unique, and far from new. Another difference between the Aboriginal heads and the fashionable set is that Roberts had envisaged the former as a series from the start whereas his compilation of ‘Familiar Faces and Figures’ was more an after thought to enhance the appeal of these informal studies, a phrase to catch a purse. By 1895, he had recognised their association by hanging some as a group on his studio wall, but the idea of exhibiting them as a set came later. What did the figures and faces have in common? Not all were familiar in Sydney while others had left the country by 1900. Moreover, the series had no defining beginning or end, as would have been the case had he decided on all the members of Sydney’s Dawn and Dusk Club, as Sir Godfrey Kneller (1649-1723) had done when portraying fellow members of London’s Kitcat Club early in the eighteenth century.[5]

The coming race
Roberts hoped to sell ‘Familiar Faces and Figures’ as a group for 100 guineas but if no patron appeared he would let them go at 5 guineas a piece. Roberts could not afford to hold on to them as set if only a few found buyers. Once he had decided to return to England he needed all the money he could make to support his wife and two-year old son, and to speed his travels through a clearance sale. The Bulletin reviewer praised Roberts as ‘an old dog for the local Art road’ in his pricing pictures to sell. Roberts nonetheless wanted the panels kept together since ‘the interest of such a collection, if broken up, would be to a great extent lost, especially when one considers how interesting such a group would be to us now, of similar types of, say fifty years ago’. Here, his hope for a portrait gallery combined with belief that oil paint offered entry into dimensions of personality not obtainable through photography. The further stipulation that ‘Separate purchasers are subject to the permission of the originals’, suggests that that the people portrayed had some prior claim to purchase.[6]

Individual purchasers were asked ‘to forgo their right in the event of the collection being sold as a whole’, a provision which proved unnecessary. Those that did not sell at the exhibition went to auction on 3 December. The failure to sell the set is not surprising since no taker could be found for ‘Allegro con brio’ at 35 guineas, ‘Bailed Up’ for 70 or ‘In a corner of the Macintyre’ for 20. Sydney music dealer, J. C. W. Nicholson (1837-1907), bought the panels connected with music to hang in his George street rooms, the centre of the city’s musical life, where they were to be seen at least as late as 1920. Roberts had placed his oil portrait of the singer Florence Schmidt in Nicholson’s window in 1897 to solicit other commissions. Just after Nicholson’s 1900 panel purchases, he commissioned a full-length portrait of himself from Roberts.[7]

Throughout the 1890s, Roberts had made some 130 portraits in a multitude of shapes, sizes and media, two-thirds of his output in that decade. The ‘Familiar Faces and Figures’ were oil on wooden panels, varying in size, with widths ranging from 34.1cm down to 25.4, and heights of between 63.2cm and 58.5. The 9x5s of 1889 were probably cigar-box lids. These larger panels were also often cedar, and might have been supports around which to wrap bolts of cloth, but more likely had been intended for doors.

Discussion of the set is difficult because we do not have a complete list of who was included. In 1985, Helen Topliss’s Catalogue Raisonne identified twenty-six portraits on wooden panels of the appropriate sizes and shape. The sale catalogue that Roberts himself produced refers to the set as a whole, while a newspaper review provided only twelve names.[8]

Despite Roberts’s renown for ‘his wondrously tender manner with women’, he seems not to have included women in his ‘Familiar Faces and Figures’. Two possible exceptions were ‘Ada Furlong’, an artist’s model, and the actress Frances Ross, both of whom he depicted full-length on wood panels of the appropriate dimensions. In 1896, he portrayed his sister Alice in oil on a 60.3x29cm cedar panel. These women might have been among the half not named, or perhaps he deemed it indecorous to place the fair sex in the public domain, the more so under the rubric of familiarity.[9]

The quip ‘stupid as a painter’ never applied to Australia’s visual artists in the 1880s and 1890s. Music and literature nourished their creativity. Their socialising with poets and composers, actors and journalists extended further than has become the case since the institutionalisation of art practices in colleges, dealerships and museums. On Roberts’s return to Melbourne in 1885, he had become prominent in the Buonarotti Club, named in honour of Michelangelo for bringing together the visual arts, literature and music. In like mood, two months after Roberts’s 1900 sale, he attended a farewell dinner for the poet Will Ogilvie. Seated among the writers were other painters, cartoonists and a photographer. One of the four toasts that night was to ‘The Allied Arts’. Music enriched Roberts’s art-making. His portrayal of Bourke street west is called Allegro con brio, the marking that Beethoven gave to the opening movement of his Eroica symphony, a work which Roberts’s circle took as proclaiming the nobility of art over commerce and politics.[10]  

From the available evidence, the portrait set included theatre managers, journalists, fellow artists, musicians and public officials.

Six were associated with the stage. Perhaps the first panel was done in 1892 of Dr John McDonagh (18???-), the medico to Sydney’s theatrical profession and to Roberts. Robert Brough (1857-1906) was the English-born actor-manager in partnership with Dion Boucicault (1859-1929) for whom Roberts had worked on an art drop in February 1890, and who returned to England in 1895 after splitting with Brough. The Brough-Boucicault company had specialised in serious drama, notably Oscar Wilde, attracting the social elites to their opening nights. George Selth Coppin (1819-1906), was a Melbourne man of all parts, politician, publican and peculator, whose productions pandered to the taste for spectacle and novelty. Charles Clark (18 -  ), the son of Roberts’s drawing master, Thomas Clark, quit the Baptist ministry for the stage, and was related by marriage to Roberts’s friend, the painter-musician, Mme Goode. Arthur H. Adams (1872-1936) moved from New Zealand by 1898, having written the libretto for Alfred Hill’s cantata, Hinemoa, to become Company Secretary for the theatrical firm, J. C. Williamson.

Three portraits came from the dress circle of journalism. Between 1873 and 1885, Andrew Garran (1825-1901), was the second editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, which the Bulletin called the ‘Garranny Herald’. His successor, from 1886 to 1903, was the Reverend William Curnow (1832-1903) who ‘loved music and was a frequent theatre-goer’. Walter John Brient (1856-1940) edited Daily Telegraph throughout the 1890s, was a trustee of the Public Library and a member of Savage Club.[11]

Two were visual artists. ‘Hop’, Livingston Hopkins (1846-1927), was a transitional figure between journalism and the visual arts with his thousands of black-and-white illustrations for the Bulletin after his arrival from the USA in 1882. He mixed with the Roberts crowd at the Balmoral camp. ‘Smike’ was one of the five portraits that ‘Bulldog’ made of his friend Arthur Streeton (1867-1943).[12]

Comradeship and art overlapped in ‘Duncan Anderson playing the Cornet’ which was one of the few to show someone performing. Anderson, who owned a station outside Inverell where Roberts painted ‘The Golden Fleece’ and ‘Bailed up’ in the mid-1890s, became one of his closest friends, was addicted to playing Abendslied from Wagner’s Tannhauser. Even if this example had been included in the exhibition, it would not have been for sale.[13]

Five were professional musicians. G. Rivers Allpress (18??-1918) was a violinist who had taught Alfred Hill in New Zealand before conducting operas in Sydney in 1891. Alfred Hill (1870-1960) is shown with a snippet of his cantata score, Hinemoa, which premiered in Australia in July 1897; the panel is dated October 1897, coinciding with his marriage on 6 October, and so might have been a present. Henri Kowalski (1841-1916) was a pianist and composer, whose Cantata was said to have sounded as The Messiah would have done had it been reorchestrated by Offenbach. George Marshall-Hall (1862-1915) became Professor of Music at the University of Melbourne in 1890, where he promoted Beethoven and Wagner as the ideal of creative personalities, wrote lush poetry, dedicated a symphony to Streeton and aspired to the integration of the arts. Students commissioned Roberts to make a standard oil portrait of Marshall-Hall after his 1900 dismissal from the University. Johann Secundus Kruse (1859-1927), leader of the Joachim Quartet, returned to Australia in July 1895 when this sketch portrait must have been done, although Roberts might have heard him perform in Melbourne ten years earlier.[14]

Roberts extended these panel portraits past the artistic domain. In 1896, he depicted an infantry man and Sgt Fraser, possibly commissioned as a parting gifts to the commander of New South Wales Military Forces, General E. T. H. Hutton, the subject of another panel.

Of the public figures named, E. E. Gray (1869-1933) was a member of the committee of the New South Wales Library. Bernhard Wise (1858-1916) was a patron of the arts, member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, and trustee of the Art Gallery. Hon. John Douglas (1828-1904), erstwhile Premier of Queensland, had been Government Resident on Torres Strait during Roberts’s visit and hence a link to the Aboriginal series. The portrait of a gubernatorial secretary, Arthur Howard Galton (1852-1921), was probably done as a consequence of Roberts’s 1896 commission to paint Viscount Hampdon, New South Wales governor from 1895 to 1899.

Put together, the three editors, a vice-regal officer, a political go-between and a military commander suggest that Roberts honoured subjects who could advance his career. In 1911, he received a commission for a formal portrait of General Hutton.

After laying a mauve wash on the background of the earliest panel, that of Dr McDonagh, Roberts accepted the wood grain as part of his composition. Henceforth, the effectiveness of his method relied on a contrast of dark suits against the brown of the board, with a touch of white at the throat, soft tones of the face and hands, set off by gleams from polished leather shoes.

The Marshall-Hall portrait paid homage to J. McN.Whistler’s 1884 portrayal of the Spanish violin virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), a work which Roberts had admired in London in 1885, calling it ‘the finest painting he had seen by any living man’. Whistler had drawn on Velazquez’s 1630s portrait of the actor, Pablo de Valladolid, which Edouard Manet (1832-83) described as ‘peut-etre le plus etonnant morceau de peinture qu’on ait jamais fait … Le fond disparait: c’est de l’air qui entoure le bonhomme’. Whistler praised Velazquez for making ‘his people live within their frames, and stand upon their legs’. The legs in the Velasquez cast shadows and thus positioned the actor in relation to the floor. In one sense, all of Roberts’s panels descend from the Velazquez-Manet-Whistler manner of handling space, but most lack the daring of Manet’s ‘Le Fifre’ (1866) suspended in thin air, although Alfred Hill could be about to levitate, while Brough and Marshall-Hall appear to be holding themselves off the floor by pressing their fists into their sides. By contrast, Dr McDonagh and Boucicault lean on their canes, Coppin is seated, and several impinge on the edges of the panels and thus appear grounded.[15] 

In 1887, Roberts had made another of his portraits of handsome young white women, this time entitled ‘An Australian Native’, an assertion of the vitality of the coming Australian race. The flowering of artistic talent among the native-born in his ‘Familiar Faces’ further rebutted the British condescension that the colonial bloodline, with its convict taint, would deteriorate, morally and physically. Roberts’s pride in his adopted land was as evident in these sketch portraits as in his depictions of the heroic or the historical.[16]

A passing race
The historical impulse behind the Aboriginal series was different because the settlers saw themselves as the coming race and the Aborigines as the passing race. Roberts’s attitude was not so clear cut because he appreciated that aspects of the pioneers were also disappearing, which stimulated his depiction of bushrangers. Nonetheless, any Aborigine who qualified as a familiar figure around Sydney in the 1890s was likely to be begging on the streets, ‘A curiosity in her own country’, as Phil May had titled his drawing for the Bulletin in 1888.[17]

Roberts shared the view that the Aborigines were doomed. In 1925, a journalist reported his saying: ‘I painted one in the Riverina, and several in Queensland. I thought they would be an interesting record of a passing race’. This reasoning almost certainly had applied thirty years earlier. If it is unfair to judge Roberts by the standards of the most enlightened attitudes of today, it is appropriate to put him against the more enlightened of the 1890s. Apart from the portraits themselves, the prime record of his outlook is the four-part essay he published about his 1892 voyage to the Torres Strait, where he swung between dismissal of fringe-dwellers and a close observation of customs and characters. In 1895, he quipped that he was so bored in Inverell that he was organising a supper in aid of a mission to deceased Aborigines. The butt of that remark was the parsons rather than their converts. In London, in 1911, he devised a tableau of Australian history to celebrate the coronation of George V, in which the British entered Australia as masterful but kindly wooers. As the natives, suspecting these strange newcomers, prepare to resent their intrusion, the Commander soothes their fears … At last Australia knows her own. It is for them that she has waited so long, and at their touch she lives.

Roberts was a True Briton, as passionate about Imperial prowess as he was when rejoicing in the sanity of English art. This attachment to race superiority, however, did not lead him to favor progress as represented by industry or urbanisation. The Pastoral remained his ideal of Englishness.[18]

As the conviction spread that Australia’s original inhabitants were disappearing so did the itch to record their ways of living. Robert Brough Smyth (1878), Lorimer Fison and A. W. Howitt (1880) and Edward Curr (1886-7) published substantial compilations. The impetus came not from respect or remorse but from race-aggrandisement. These Social Darwinians (better called Biological Spencerians) determined to gather evidence of  ‘the intellectual and material progress of man’, for which the Australians could stand as the earliest stage. The inaugural meeting in 1888 of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science included an Anthropology Section. Roberts was probably aware of its deliberations because he became secretary to the Art and Literature Section of the 1890 Congress. That year, the Royal Society of Victoria announced an Anthropology Section. In September 1892, Dr Alex Carroll in Sydney foreshadowed his establishment of an Anthropological Society to determine the origins of the indigenes. When Roberts reached Murray island he read A. C. Haddon’s documentation of local legends. At that time, J. C. Fawcett in Townsville was forming an Aborigine Association for the ‘collection, compilation, and preservation of all matter dealing with the origin, history, customs and dialects of the Australian race’ across the continent.[19]

The 1888 Centennial Exhibition in Melbourne had included Northern Territory displays where Roberts saw Aboriginal art in the Fine Arts Section. He redecorated his studio in 1891 with ‘spears, clubs, boomerangs’ as part of an array of exotic items –‘ reeds and bulrushes … bits of old armour, swords, guns, pistols, scimitars, bows, arrows, spears’. This refit represented a move away from the silks and flowers of aestheticism towards manliness more than his new stuffage acknowledged native creativity. He collected stone implements in the 1920s which he passed along to his dealer, W. H. Gill. In a 1923 public lecture, Roberts said that ‘in the beginning of art in Australia, black fellows did some marvellous drawings of animals and other objects, just as good in many respects as the work done by modern artists’. We do not know how early he had formed that opinion which was in opposition to the assumption that the cave-paintings and carvings were the work of earlier occupiers, or of Asian and Melanesian sojourners, but it is likely that he had reached this judgement around the time he was painting the Aboriginal heads. Advanced as Roberts’s views were for 1923, they remained a long way from Margaret Preston’s demand that white Australian painters learn techniques from indigenous artists.[20]

To locate Roberts’s depiction of Aborigines within this climate of opinion, we must acknowledge the diversity of settler opinions, methods and aims regarding Aborigines. For instance, some missionaries studied traditional practices the better to erase them. Roberts was never more than an interested layman. Hence, his images should not be overladen with ideas to which his output was peripheral. His effort went into putting paint on canvas. Moreover, most of the evidence about Roberts’s attitudes towards Aborigines is circumstantial. Baldwin Spencer became a friend shortly after arriving as Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne in 1887, purchasing a 9x5 impression in 1889. In 1900, he commissioned Roberts to paint Howitt’s portrait. We can suppose that Roberts picked up ideas from conversations with Spencer, but we have little evidence of what Roberts read, which lectures he attended or what he made of such sources.

The notion of a passing race had two opposed starting points that carried over to the anthropological debate. The first saw the native as ‘an animate fossil’, effectively extinct even before contact with the whites. At the extreme end, this position denied Aborigines membership of the human species. The second recognised a culture with its own achievements in social organisation but one unable to withstand the pressures of progress. Howitt and Spencer were closer to the second position, as was Roberts.[21]

Central to these disputes was a drift from ethnography, as the collecting of curiosities, towards anthropology as an explanation for social development, though the line was far from clear-cut. Roberts’s contacts and sources tended to the anthropological end but his practices were mostly ethnographic, painting heads as scientists collected skulls. His keenest contribution was as an author to which he brought a painter’s eye for detail and a flair for narrative. His published accounts of festivities, clothing, social and marriage customs balanced empathy with objectivity.

The 1890s also witnessed the move from armchair research towards fieldtrips. Howitt had relied on replies to questionaries for much of his information. The Elder expedition roamed Central Australia in 1891-2, followed by the 1894 Horn expedition with Spencer among its scientists. Both parties took lots of photographs of the natives. Roberts’s travels, especially his voyage north, broke from the painting of natives in studio poses. However, where Spencer went in search of uncontaminated primitivism as proof of the ascent of man from superstition through religion to science, Roberts painted no tribal people but stayed in settled districts, or ventured into a zone of cultural and genetic turbulence around Cape York, where the champions of White Australia saw not a dying race but its mongrelisation. Roberts’s interest in Aborigines brought him into contact with peoples along all the eastern seaboard so that his understanding of Aborigines drew on a range of physical and social types at various stages of contact. By contrast, the attitudes of most settlers relied on one or more individuals from a localised group.

The expressions ‘dying’, ‘doomed’ and ‘passing’ avoided the realities of slaughter and destruction. The mainland areas where Roberts painted Aborigines had all been battlefields. His squatter hosts were the beneficiaries of dispersals, to use the polite term for mass murder. West of Duncan Anderson’s Newstead station, Major Nunn had, in 1838, mounted the extermination campaign known as the Myall Creek massacre. One of Roberts’s subjects, Peanahgo, met his first white man, Edward Ogilvie of Yulgilbah, just after a run of reprisals along the Clarence River in 1841. A few months later, Ogilvie encountered Aborigines calling out: 

Begone, begone, and take away your horses; why do you come hither among the mountains to disturb us? Return to your houses in the valley, you have the river and the open country, an you ought to be content, and leave the mountains to the black people. Go back – keep the plains, and leave us the hills. Go, go, begone …

During the 1900 exhibition, two of these portraits acquired a topical value because they had been done around the Clarence River district where Jimmy Governor had murdered seven whites, for which he was then on trial in Sydney. Skirmishes continued along the Gulf of Carpentaria after Roberts’s sojourn in 1892.[22]

Late in 1889, while working on ‘Shearing the Rams’ in the Riverina, Roberts had begun his Aboriginal sequence with ‘Gubby Wellington’, identified by Roberts as ‘the last Black of the Murray River Tribe’. That this work was not included in the 1900 group suggests that it had sold, though its whereabouts remain unknown; the black-and-white in the exhibition catalogue tells us only how inadequate those illustrations could be. Despite mention in 1890 of Roberts’s preparing a series of Aboriginal studies from the Riverina, only two are recorded, the other being ‘Charlie Turner’. News of the latter’s purchase by the Art Gallery of New South Wales while Roberts was in North Queensland should have stimulated him to do more of them but he was a lotos-eater ‘in this land of idleness’.[23]

None of the portraits that Roberts made of Murray (Mer) Islanders has been traced. The three he listed on his 1900 sales sheet were a ‘Murray Island Young Woman’, a ‘Murray Islander’ and ‘A young married man’. The inclusion of ‘married’ is tantalising but inconclusive for identification. Although Roberts reported attending the marriage ceremony of the daughter, of the ’mamoose’, or headman, Harry (c. 1844-1911), it can be no more than speculation that the young woman whom he painted was that bride, Siau (c.1870-95). Making that connection less likely is that Roberts’s travelogue did not connect the groom, Kudub, [24] with his other subject:

a good-looking young-man, quite a swell, of slender build and well-proportioned, the face of the strongly-marked Jewish type so noticeable here. His hair is a mass of wonderfully closely-woven fuzz, rising straight from the forehead to about four inches, then gradually decreasing in thickness as it follows the contour of the head down to the neck. To the ear is hung a red double hibiscus, folded cigarette-like in a spiked green leaf. In the hair above the forehead is a small white five-petalled flower, and with the hair behind the right temple is woven a dozen feathers, making a rosette of a black centre of the hair itself; then coming the fluffy white of the feathers, the red tips stand out free, at even intervals all round. The septum of his nose, like that of all the men, is pierced for the pencil-like piece of white shell; that has gone out of fashion, and he doesn’t seem to like to wear it, and the matter is not pressed.[25]

Roberts’s other male model was Dao, ‘an elderly man’, born in the late 1830s. Dao was also ‘of the Jewish type, and having a fine, strongly-marked face and half-sad, half-wild expression, the nose pierced, and the lobe of the ear torn and hanging in strips’. Watching the head progress, the locals became enthralled as the meaning of the different parts gets clearer … when a high-light on the bronzey nose goes in the applause rises; the crowd follows each touch of the brush, and when there comes in a tuft of white hair, characteristic of the subject, there is a roar.

The liveliness of Roberts’s word pictures heightens our sense of loss that neither canvas has been found. The three images to survive from Murray Island are of outsiders: ‘Amehnam’, a Woolna man from slightly to the east of Darwin; the untitled turbaned man who could have blown in from anywhere between Zanzibar and Manila; and ‘Dick Rotumah’, a Polynesian surnamed for his birthplace but married to a Mer woman.[26]

Portraits of individual Aborigines at once bestowed the dignity of oil paint and further colonised the subject, just as ‘King Billy’ tags had imposed a monarchical order on a pre-class society. This conquest extended to the paintings’ titles, which were either generic, such as a Lubra, or Europeanised as in ‘Gubby Wellington’. Roberts avoided the term ‘gin’, using lubra twice and young woman once. Perhaps that distinction was for cataloguing purposes - or was lubra confined to Aborigines, while young woman referred to Islanders? Of the eight Aboriginal heads shown in 1900 only two were identified by an Aboriginal name, Peanahgo [Billipimbah], also given as Billy Millera, and Amehnam. Yet for the Argus, Roberts had noted Cook’s remark that the northern Aborigines always began an encounter by mentioning their names, and Roberts had identified his old man as Dau. Despite these impositions and forgettings, Roberts perceived personalities as well as types, alert to the alternating shyness and vanity of his sitters.[27]

The kind of individualism that grew up with capitalism treated self as another possession to find one expression in portraiture. This mentality was inimical to Aboriginal understanding of the self as tied to the group and to land that was country, not a commodity. Moreover, Aborigines were less accustomed to see their own faces reflected, while their pictorial story-telling did not include likenesses. Such want of familiarity with one’s own appearance was behind one subject’s remark on seeing Roberts’s portrait of him: ‘Is it a dog?’ Nonetheless, the Aborigines’ way of understanding themselves in no way eliminated differences of personality and temperament. Roberts avoided stereotypes, bringing to some of his studies of the blacks the sympathy that he achieved with his white sitters, though he never escaped the conventions of portraiture for either.[28]

Other artists went beyond portraiture in their treatment of Aboriginal subjects.  Julian Ashton’s ‘“Gib it Bacca, Boss”’ (1893) was exceptional for its critical realism of the demoralisation of handouts; Arthur Loureiro’s ‘Son of the Soil’ (1893), commemorating an elder in a ring-barked landscape, was criticised for showing ‘more intellectual feeling than the Australian aborigine usually possesses’; Ugo Catani’s portrayal of young woman, a critic remarked, was so allegorical that it deserved to be called ‘Australia Felix’. Oscar Fristrom produced sequences of Aboriginal heads with so much grandeur that they seem sculptural. B. E. Minns came closest to Roberts with a suite of heads of male elders from Bermagui on the New South Wales South Coast, in ways remote from his later black-and-white caricatures.[29]

Images of native girls were sought after as pornography. The surveyor who organised supplies for the Horn Expedition wanted ‘dusky venuses’ from Spencer’s photographs. The pointed bare breasts of Roberts’s ‘Young Lubra, Cape York’ would have satisfied this demand. Roberts had complained of the difficulty of obtaining female nude models from white girls in Melbourne. Haddon observed that, in the Western Torres Strait, women ‘would never voluntarily expose their breast to white man’s gaze; if caught exposed she would immediately cover her chest or turn round’, though he acknowledged that different standards could apply in ‘the relations of the girls to men of other nationalities when tempted by gain’. A reviewer commented about another painter’s effort that it was ‘scarcely imaginable that one tribe will raid another for the possession of such … extreme ugliness’, a prejudice popularised by J. Brunton Stephens’s 1873 poem ‘A Black Gin’.[30]

Of the surviving examples of Roberts’s depictions, ‘Charlie Turner’, offers the richest field for speculation. The handling is less formal than in the run of commissioned European heads, almost as if it had never been attached to a body. The eyes are the locus to any reading. Turned upwards, they recall the images of Christian saints’ gazing towards heaven, and thus provide the subject with a spiritual dimension to lift the native from the realm of the brute. Their supplication suggests martyrdom. A contemporary newspaper commented ‘that its value will grow year by year with the gradual disappearance from our midst of the original possessor of the soil’. Its status rose much sooner when it went to the Chicago Exposition in 1893 and to London in 1898. In 1900, he priced the other ‘Aboriginal heads and types’ at between five and ten guineas, so that a canvas for which he had asked twenty guineas in 1895 was marked down to eight. Roberts would later lament that, even at those rates, no patron was interested.[31]

No sooner had Roberts failed to sell either of these sets of portraits than a private syndicate commissioned him to paint some 250 recognisable faces from the Opening of the First Federal Parliament. Roberts welcomed the fee and the opportunity to hover about the Higher Circles, here, and at the hub of Empire. But he also snuck portraits of half-a-dozen mates among the dignitaries. If his bias remained less than offensively Imperial, his years in Australia were tempering him democratic.

[1] Quoted George Taylor, “Those were the days”, Tyrell’s, Sydney, 1918, p. 100; Australian Life (Tit-Bits), 9 June 1887, p. 2; quoted R. H. Croll, Tom Roberts, Melbourne, 1935, p. 47; Helen Topliss, Tom Roberts, A Catalogue Raisonee, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985; Helen Topliss, ‘Tom Roberts’ Aboriginal Portraits’, Ian & Tamsin Donaldson (eds), Seeing the First Australians, George Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1985, pp. 110-136.
[2] Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, Macmillan, London, 1883, pp. 8-19 & 340-63; Memories of my life, Methuen, London, 1908, pp. 259-63; Argus, 19 November 1892, p. 4.
[3] The Bulletin (10 September 1892, p. 5) proposed rechristening the trio ‘The World, the Flesh and the Devil’ but found it impossible to decide which was which.
[4] Argus, 3 September 1886, p. 10; Centennial International Exhibition, Official Record, 1888-89, Executive Commissioners, Melbourne, 1890, p. 219; Humphrey McQueen, Tom Roberts, Macmillan, Sydney, 1996, pp. 552-3, 567, 633 & 678.
[5] Geoffrey Dutton, White on Black, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1974.
[6] Bulletin, 8 September 1900, ‘Red page’.
[7] Sun (Sydney), 4 July 1920, p. 5; Australasian Musical Times and Magazine of Art, 6 November 1897, pp. 30 & 32.
[8] Catalogue in ML MS 4586 1x(2); Sydney Morning Herald, 14 November 1900, p. 5.
[9] John Peter Russell to Roberts, 24 [September] 1884, ML MS A2480; Australian Life (Tit-Bits), 3 March 1887, p. 14, cf. 13 October 1887, p. 14.
[10] John Meredith, Breaker’s Mate, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, 1996, p. 84.
[11]  M. J. B. Kenny, Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 8, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1981, p. 178.
[12] Nancy Underhill, ‘The Profile in Nineteeth Century Portraiture and Tom Roberts’ Smike Streeton Age 24: A friendship portrait’, Australian Journal of Art, IV, 1985, pp. 65-84.
[13] McQueen, op. cit., pp. 378 and 527.
[14] John Mansfield Thompson, A Distant Music, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1980, p. 17; R. R. Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth, Angus & Robertson, 1958, p. 86; Roberts to S. W. Pring, 15 August 1895, ML MS 1367/2/233-5; Bulletin, 24 August 1895, p. 8.

Roberts’s portraits of fellow artistic types extended beyond these panels. He could have doubled the number of males had he included those he depicted on canvas or paper, and added as many more again had he included the women.


[15] Roberts to Anning Bell, 5 October 1885, ML MS A2480/69; Manet, 1832-1883, Editions de la Reunion des musees nationaux, Paris, 1983, p. 231 - ‘perhaps the most astonishing piece of painting ever created. … The background disappears; it is air that surrounds the fellow’; J. A. M. Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, William Heinemann, London, 1890, p. 158.

[16] Humphrey McQueen, ‘Quite a Special Juice’, Temper Democratic, Wakefield, Kent Town, 1998, pp. 165-7.
[17] R. H. Croll, Tom Roberts, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1935, p. 38.
[18] Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 6 June 1926, (failure to mention the ones he had done around the Clarence could be the result of faulty shorthand or fading memory.) Roberts to Pring, [?] April 1895, ML MS 1367/2/44; British-Australasian, 11 May, p. 13, 18 May, p. 25, and 1 June 1911, p. 15.
[19] J. J. Wild, ‘Outlines of Anthropology’, Proceedings Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Sydney, 1889, p. 443; D. J. Mulvaney, ‘The Australian Aborigines, 1606-1929: Opinion and Fieldwork’, J. J. Eastwood and F. B. Smith (eds), Historical Studies, Selected Articles, First Series, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1967 edition, pp. 31-56; Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1968, pp. 108ff.; A. Carroll, ‘The Black races of Australia’, Sydney Quarterly Magazine, September 1892, pp. 213-6; A. C. Haddon, ‘The Ethnography of the Western Tribe of Torres Straits’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, XIX, 1890, pp. 297-440; ‘Legends from Torres Straits’, Folk-Lore, 1 (1 & 2), March & June 1890, pp. 47-81 & 172-96; see also P. Bolger, ‘Anthropology and History in Australia: the Place of A. C. Haddon’, Journal of Australian Studies, 2, November 1977, pp. 102-6; Argus, 3 December 1892, p. 11.
[20]Andrew Sayers, Aboriginal artists of the nineteenth century, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994, pp. 81-5; Table Talk, 17 July 1891, p. 16; Roberts to Gill, 26 July 1925, ML MSS 285/10/53; Bendigo Advertiser, 27 November 1923, p. 6; Mulvaney, Historical Studies, op. cit., pp. 24-5; A. Carroll, ‘The Carved and Painted Rocks of Australia’, Centennial Magazine, 1, 1888, pp. 53ff., 89ff., & 187ff.; Margaret Preston,  Art in Australia, March 1925, 3rd Series, 11, no pagination; cf. Mark Twain, Following the Equator, American Publishing Company, New York, 1897, pp. 218-9.
[21] Mulvaney, Historical Studies, op. cit., p. 37.
[22] Poignant Regalia, 19th Century Aboriginal Images and Breastplates, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Sydney, 1993, p. 21; quoted George Farwell, Squatter’s Castle, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1973, pp. 135 & 163-77; Report of the Government Resident at Thursday Island for 1892-3, Government Printer, Brisbane, 1894, p. 5; Roger Milliss, Waterloo Creek, McPhee-Grible, Ringwood, 1992.
[23] Argus, 19 November 1892, p. 4.
[24] Dr Anna Shnukal, Honorary Research Fellow, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, University of Queensland, supplied all the biographical information in a letter to the author, 1 March 2000.
[25] Roberts’s description of these adornments conforms with Haddon’s 1888 report on local customs. Cf. Argus, 19 November 1892, p. 4, and 3 December 1892, p. 11, with Haddon, Anthropological Institute, op. cit., pp. 368-70.
[26] Report of the Government Resident, op. cit., p. 2; Shnukal letter.
[27] D. J. Mulvaney, ‘The Ascent of Aboriginal Man: Howitt as Anthropologist’, Mary Howitt Walker, Come wind, come weather, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1971, pp. 309-310; D. J. Mulvaney, ‘Australasian Anthropology and ANZAAS’, Roy MacLeod (ed.), The Commonwealth of science, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988, p. 200.
[28] Roberts to Pring, 8 December 1894, ML MS 1367/2/2; C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Oxford University Press, London, 1962.
[29] Table Talk, 28 April 1893, p. 4; 8 August 1892, p. 3; Maynard, ‘Projections of Melancholy’, Donaldson, op. cit., pp. 92-109.
[30] Mulvaney, So Much That is New, op. cit., p. 121; Haddon, Anthropological Institute, op. cit., p. 337; Antipodean, 1894, 2, p. 81.
[31] Sydney Morning Herald, 2 September 1892, p. 2; Sydney Mail, 30 September 1931, p. 10.

The depiction of Aborigines persists as a problem for official European culture. The Classic head cropped from a full length photographic study for Walkabout magazine in September 1936 of a Walbiri man, Djungarai, known to whites as ‘One Pound Jimmy’, was used in designing the bas-relief doors on the New South Wales State Library, and, trimmed, as the Aborigine on 8 1/2d stamp as part of a definitive series of Royal Heads in 1950-51. Between 1948 and 1999, Aboriginal art and artefacts were illustrated on thirty-three stamps, but only two named Aborigines were seen. The first was Albert Namitjira in 1968 followed by Truganini in 1975 as one of six for International Women’s Year. M. E. McGuire, ‘Whiteman’s Walkabout’, Meanjin,  52 (3), Spring 1993, pp. 517-21; David J. Jones, A source of inspiration & delight: the buildings of the State Library of New South Wales since 1826, Library Council of New South Wales, Sydney, 1988, pp. 88-90; Humphrey McQueen, ‘The Australian stamp: image, design and ideology’, Arena, 84, 1988, pp. 91-3; Australian Philatelist, Spring 1989, p. 14. Reverend David Unaipon is on the $50 note.

See also: Articles on Aborigines