Tom Roberts
Humphrey McQueen

Pan Macmillan Australia. 1996.

by Alexander Seeton

Monumental monotony...

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.