Pan Macmillan Australia. 1996.
by Alexander Seeton
In 1901, "the father of Australian landscape painting", Tom
Roberts, depicted Federal Parliament. This large, momentous work, for
all its detail, was hardly an overwhelming success. The many years it
took the painter to complete the work, coupled with the fractured
composition and an ambitious attention to copious amounts of material,
have made Opening of Parliament one of the painter's more
ambiguous efforts. Much of this same criticism has been levelled at
Humphrey McQueen's new book, Tom Roberts. Perhaps the most
noticeable problem with McQueen's legacy (all 725 pages, excluding a
bountiful bibliography and index) is the title. Surely a book titled Tom
Roberts would have a little more about the man himself. McQueen,
more a social historian (with past books such as Social Sketches of
Australia, 1888- 1975) has been so thorough in his research of the
"times" that Roberts the "artist" seems to get lost
in a cosmos of sociological information. The book should be more
correctly titled Tom Roberts; The Man and His Times.
As a reference book for art students, one would be hard pressed to find
a detailed critical analysis of any of Roberts' images, let alone his
famous paintings. What valuable information comes to light are facts
that any Australian art history buff worth their grain of salt tends to
know; that in fact Roberts the artist gave a far greater contribution to
Australian portraiture than to Australian landscape painting.
While Arthur Streeton would whip off a landscape within a week, Roberts
would take years to finish the large pastoral scenes, such as Shearing
the Rams, or A Break Away! This fact would continually frustrate the
painter who was obsessed with being remembered in the history books.
Portraiture was his medium, which, though providing a good income (for
the hours it took to finish a landscape would render the rewards
useless) did not place him at the forefront of rural narrative painting.
On the other hand McQueen's book paints a vivid picture of the
Australian political & social climate. Roberts is placed in this
context so strongly that he would seem to have been subject to every
whim and shift in Australian history. Roberts' interests in poetry,
novels and music is expounded on at large, turning poor old Tom into a
sentimental bloke and an ideal husband, rather than a sufferer of black
depressions and the maker of many an enemy.
All of the biographical details are there, from Robert's birth in Dorset
in 1856, his immigration to Australia in 1869 at the age of thirteen, to
his death on the 14th September 1931. But one has to dig deep within
this book to turn them up, which, once tasted, do not quench McQueen's
rather dry business-like style. It is only in the closing chapters,
however, that he attempts a form assessment on Robert's works. Even this
comes in the form of an apology or justification for the amount of
effort McQueen has just subjected the reader to:
"Tom Roberts' life merits attention because he had the fortune to
paint moments of significance".
Now he tells us? On page 706! One would hope that there is a little more
to it than that. But in all honesty, McQueen would seem to be right.
Take out Roberts' seven best known images: Coming South, Bailed up,
Bourke St, Shearing the Rams, A Break Away!, Shearing At Newstead and
Opening of Parliament, and the remaining output does nothing for
Roberts as an artist. Even today, a good Roberts is hard to come by.
Between 1988 and 1994, the Art Auction Records lists only 55 paintings
by Roberts which have been offered up for sale, many more than once.
Tom Roberts is good solid resource, albeit hard to actually
reference. It is not light reading - it is a marathon- but the effects
are interestingly rewarding.