TOM ROBERTS - WRITING THE NEXT BIOGRAPHY
for the next life story of Tom Roberts (but not by me)
at this point in time, can we know about a man? It seemed to me that
this question could be answered only by studying a specific case.
Sartre, The Family Idiot
(1971), p. ix.
divert us as we travel because they require so little concentration,
which is perhaps a warning that they may not be up to much either as
history or as criticism, offering instead a smooth passage around the
perils of analysis. In The Black
Swan of Trespass, I mocked the standard assumption in life stories
by prefacing the chapter on Margaret Preston with a quotation from
Disraeli: ‘Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life
without theory’; my index entry for that page is: ‘biography, sent
have made three book-length assaults on the conventions of biography.
The first was in The Black Swan of
Trespass, the emergence of Modernist painting in Australia to 1945
(1979). My second exploration of Sartre’s ‘universal singular’
came in Suburbs of the Sacred
(1988) where the artist Keith Looby provided the ‘specific case’ for
a consideration of Transforming
Australian beliefs and values. The third was Tom Roberts (1996), which ran to over 700 pages, despite my having
once asserted that seventy pages were excessive for most lives. This
paper will circle around that book rather than the person or painter::
comments on social ensembles, principally class structures and
cohorts of professionals, that operate between society and an
individual, and between history and biography;
proposes that the structure of the text should match the
introduces books published since 1995 that have added to the store of
information on Roberts;
outlines some of what we will need in order to start on a new
life of Roberts;
reflects on how the qualities of fiction should enrich
meaning of life
When Marx described human beings as the ‘ensemble of the social relations’, he was at the beginning of the wisdom that he put into practice in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. That investigation of the rise of Napoleon III provided concepts valuable for writing the history of other times and places, but not a matrix for every life. Criticising Marxists, Sartre observed that, although Paul Valery is ‘a petit bourgeois intellectual, no doubt about it’, it did not follow that ‘every petit bourgeois intellectual is Valery’. Sartre was correct in his conclusion about there being various ways of being a petit-bourgeois artist. Indeed, he could have added ‘even for the same person’. For that reason, his ‘no doubt about it’ assumed too much. Even if the economic status of Paul Valery could be slotted into one class throughout his lifetime, it does not follow that all his ideas were confined to that socio-economic circumstance. Biographers must distinguish when their subjects’ work transcends the fluctuating class situations into which they were born, are trained and later practice.
Marx appreciated that
the petit-bourgeois intelligentsia do not represent that class because
they enjoy the company of shopkeepers, but rather when in
their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not
get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to
the same problems and solutions to which material and social position
drive the latter practically.
One occasion when Roberts surpassed the viewpoint of the petit-bourgeoisie was his Allegro con brio (1885-90), the small canvas depicting Bourke street west, where his iconography was caught up in the dynamics of the imperial order around its pivot of communication and commerce at the GPO corner.
The links between Preston’s work and her class origins and attachments remain unexplored. Born into the middle class, she lost status after her father’s death, but fell in with wealthy pupils as their teacher or travelling companion, before marrying into the mercantile bourgeoisie in 1919 after which she had no need to earn her living. In asking what effect did these shifts have on her art, we could begin by wondering whether the problems facing the national bourgeoisie appeared in her modernity and interest in Aboriginal design, while her magazine covers and woodcuts had more to do with her self-promotion.
family were self-employed or small-scale entrepreneurs, just as he has
lived as a freelance painter.
Critical realism is as close as his iconography has come to a
proletarian consciousness. Max Raphael’s observation regarding Picasso
that ‘Most artists are of petty-bourgeois origin, and their Communism
serves to provide them with emotional support, rather than with weapons
useful in their practical activities’,
also applied to Looby.
The way forward is not to leave biography on the shelf of bourgeois history, but to make biography another means for the interrogation of history writing itself. What is radical about Marxist biography is not its contextualising – its social ensembles - but its critique of history as a muddle of one damn thing after another, generalities, heroes, the denial of qualitative transformations and an avoidance of the present.
Refusal to foreshadow events is another way in which Tom Roberts engaged with historical materialism. Announcing what happens in advance of the awareness that one’s subject had of those events is to play at being god, a fall into philosophical Idealism. Foreknowledge is not how we live, and should not be how philosophical Materialists account for our world. To allege that anyone ‘must have known’ anything in advance is folly for historians, because such a presumption weakens analysis by reducing perplexity for subject, teller and reader. The keystone of materialist dialectics is that human beings make ourselves - individually and collectively, physically and emotionally - although never in circumstances wholly chosen by ourselves. At every point we must make choices because we can never know what will happen in the next second, still less a decade hence. When Roberts illustrated a Kendall verse in 1880, he could not have known that he would be commissioned to make a posthumous portrait of Kendall fifty years later, and the biographer gains nothing by alluding to the second event when reporting the first.
Another example of Roberts’s lack of foreknowledge came at the close of July 1914 when he joined the boat-train for France, expecting to holiday in northern Italy. Instead, he took a fortnight to reach Lake Como because the Great European War was breaking out. At several points during my book, I could have included our historical knowledge that the war happened when it did, and thus assume that Roberts ‘must have known’ what was about to happen. Had I done so I would have sapped the narrative pleasure and power that the reader gains from moving forward with the subject. For instance, whether Tom’s son, Caleb, would survive the war was of burning concern to his parents, a worry which I hoped to make affecting for my readers. Hence, I took care not to hint that their boy had lived by changing ‘son’ to ‘close relative’ when sourcing information at an earlier moment in the text. Similarly, Lillie Williamson is introduced without any hint that sixteen years she will become his wife.
Black Swan of Trespass (1979) a life of Margaret Preston followed
two chapters of chronology and four thematic ones. Preston’s modernism
suggested its fractured collage. Students cribbing for essays on her
work skip these first 140 pages although that final chapter makes sense
only when considered through the preceding palimpsest of physics,
landscape, social class and the subconscious.
Looby was in mid-career as I wrote about him in the 1980s so that there
could be no reading back from the grave to tidy up the trajectory. I
presented aspects of his life within themes central to his career, such
as suburbia, religion, prizes, the art market, bureaucrats and the
grotesque. I designed the cover to place his name in the center of block
of names from his ensemble??
In considering how to tell the story of Tom Roberts, I reacted against two experiences. The first was my dramatisation and subsequent novelisation of a few years of his life. In 1981, I had initiated an ABC television series, One Summer Again. Disappointed at how that project was developing in 1983, I drafted a novel, which I abandoned for want of a plot. My television episodes and fiction got the temptation to play around with the facts out of the way.
second consideration was my suspicion that in following themes I had not
given the standard form of biography a fair chance. So I was tempted to
find out how much weight - contexts, ideas and themes - a lifeline could
bear. My decision to venture down the grandfather-to-grave path was
strengthened because Roberts’s life was of a piece with late Victorian
notions of progress.
Nonetheless, Tom Roberts still presented its eponymous subject as part of various circles - Marx’s ensembles - though here they did not supply the organising principle for his life-story, or for much of my analysis. First among those groupings was that of other visual artists. How can we make sense of Tom Roberts unless we know what was happening to his contemporaries? Because the envy that operates among creators can also be a spur to do better, I needed to record the successes of his friends. For that reason I kept several life-stories running in parallel, from the Spaniard Ramon Casas, whom Roberts met in Spain in 1883, to Arthur Fullwood, a painter friend from Sydney and London. Their lives illuminate Roberts’s by marking paths not taken. Similarly, we can evaluate the importance that a commission or an idea had for him only if we have a scale against which to measure its impact or novelty. Other groupings limned were writers, musicians, and connoisseurs. I wove the musician George Marshall Hall and the poet Henry Kendall into the narrative to consider how particular was the income and repute of a visual artist.
Looking back, I am more than ever convinced that the time-line biography is inherently flawed. In 1999, the National Portrait Gallery commissioned an essay on two series of portraits which Roberts painted in the 1890s, one of artists and acquaintances and the second of Aborigines. The thematic approach for this essay confirmed how my focus on chronology had got in the way of my penetrating Roberts’s creative life. Hence, the next image of Roberts will call for more than a revised edition.
A greater regret is that I could view neither the Streeton nor the Roberts retrospectives before completing Tom Roberts. Had I seen the Streeton in time I could have joked about his ‘The centre of the Empire’ (1903) being ‘The Heart of Dampness’. Instead, I wrote up my responses to both retrospectives for 24 Hours. Easier to analyse when they hang together on the same wall. The opportunity to compare Roberts’s landscapes from the late 1880s with each other and with the talk about glare and foliage, left me as sceptical as ever about placing works in a strict chronological order according to such features, still less from the tightness of brushstrokes. I have been friends with enough painters to appreciate why a looser hand might appear after lunch at any stage of a career. Tom Roberts would also have benefited had I been able to read Anna Gray’s work on George Lambert (1996), or Mary Eagle’s catalogues of the Conder (1997) and Roberts (1997) holdings in the National Gallery of Australia. A full-length study of Sarah Bernhardt in Australia, Come to dazzle, by Corille Fraser (1998); a biography of Theodore Fink by Donald Garden (1998), and Andrew Montana’s The Art Movement in Australia, 1875-1900 (2000) are thickening the context for Roberts. Minutiae document the circles through which Roberts moved and, by putting him in one place, stop his biographer from putting him somewhere he could not have been that day. John Poynter’s life of Rev. Alexander Leeper (1997) supplied a date in October 1894 when Roberts visited McCubbin in the National Gallery of Victoria. John Meredith’s life of the poet Will Ogilvie, Breaker’s Mate (1996), put Roberts in the company of Banjo Paterson early in 1901 – the only reference to their having met. Andrew Brown-May’s Melbourne Street life (1998) named the shoe-black in the south-east corner of Allegro con brio.
More directly connected to Roberts will be books on artists’ organisations. Much as I learned from having to write the history of these bodies up from scratch, I would not have minded too much if I had been able to rely on a Masters thesis on the Victorian Artists Society and its predecessors. Once that work is done we might be able to settle whether Roberts was first president of VAS. The coining of the phrases ‘Heidelberg School’ and ‘Father of the Australian Landscape painting’ have been explored but we know far less about when ‘blue-gold’ became a cliché, or the ‘9by5s’ emblematic? In 1934, Harold Herbert could sum up a century of European painting in Victoria without mentioning the ‘9by5s’, since labeled as the most important exhibition in nineteenth-century Australia. A local lineage for ‘impressionist’ would not go astray.
Books about overseas art are enriching our appreciation of the milieu through which Roberts made his way. Two volumes on London’s greenery-yellowry Grosvenor Gallery came out just after my manuscript went to the printer. The impact of the Grosvenor’s dumping of British art on the Australian market needs to be researched from London archives as well as the Australian press. Frames are coming in for the attention they deserve, even though a book on English framers during Roberts’s career appeared too late in 1995 for me to use. Frames might make a picture, but not without canvas, brushes and paints. Roberts more than once lamented the shortage of white. We need a history on the availability of artists’ materials in Australia. How regular were supplies to Buxtons? The French flag flying in ‘Allegro con brio’ was a tribute to the canvas merchant at that site who advertised in the VAS catalogue and from whom the artists bought canvas, apart from their tents. We do not need to be able to recognise paintings from the back to appreciate why a materialist account of art-making has to include more about the artists’ materials than we know for Australia.
Among the gems to be found in Tom Griffiths’s Hunters and Collectors (1996) was the Field Naturalists Club, established in Melbourne in 1880. When the artists’ camps are set within that wider impulse to spend time in the suburban bush, plein-airism takes on a fresh dimension. Jane Sutherland jokingly called one of her paintings ‘Field Naturalists’ (c.1896). An inventory of the birds in Roberts’s bush scenes gains significance in this overlap between art-making and the study of nature, as does McCubbin’s ‘boneology’, Roberts’s portraits of Aborigines and his scavenging of their middens.
Proceeding beyond nature study, we need to acquaint ourselves with what was then believed to be the science of seeing. I had hoped to survey the popular science journals and Encyclopaediae of the 1880s but did no more than scratch the surface by identifying the physiologist Professor W. B. Carpenter, whom Roberts mentioned as an authority in 1889. Melbourne eye specialist Dr Caffyn and biology Professor Baldwin Spencer were possible sources for Roberts’s knowledge of the perception of colour. Most of what painters knew they obtained from jawing, only a skim of which has made its way into letters for historians to footnote.
To know what Roberts thought he was on about we have to be steeped in the conventional wisdoms within and against which he worked. For that reason, I took a page to paraphrase views pertinent precisely for their ordinariness from the lecture on ‘Art’ at the 1891 meeting of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science. Essays on the local response to overseas painters, such as Peter Graham, George Frederick Watts and J. A. McN. Whistler, like the reception of the criticism of John Ruskin and George Moore, will be called for. Only after my biography had appeared did a friend mention that he owned Roberts’s copy of Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies(1885). Forgetting to pass on such tit-bits is a means to that title’s end. I am keeping up a file on Velasquez down under. Articles on the Australian reception of Kipling, Hardy, Dickens and both George Eliot and T. S. Eliot are not topics to undertake as specific tasks, but will emerge from research into related matters.
To achieve these ends, we will need research guides to the mentions made of third parties in collections of correspondence. Repositories should encourage their users to notify them of comments in manuscript collections about public figures. For example, the information concerning Elioth Gruner in letters from Lionel Lindsay and Syd Ure Smith to Hans Heysen is invaluable.
Contexts are denser than we have had the research to recognise. An editor at Macmillans announced, after reading my manuscript, that she had not realised how much culture Australia had had before Whitlam. How much background still needs to become common property is clear from Stephanie Holt’s admirable account of the Melbourne reception of Jules Lefebvre’s painting, ‘Chloe’ (1875). Holt reprinted an 1883 cartoon headed ‘A Question of Propriety’ without noting that this phrase was also the title of one of the most admired paintings in the National Gallery, in which clerics judge whether a gypsy’s dancing is immodest.
The longest consideration of taste in Tom Roberts is the chapter on the narrative in the visual arts, Ut pictura poesis, which had to break out of the chronological pattern to explore a theme. Nonetheless, I failed to ask why the passion for story-telling in the visual arts was dominant at the close of last century. Did it have an extra appeal among white Australians who needed to inscribe their story into the Deeds that Won the Empire, in one more connection between the passion for history in every department of culture and the faith in progress? Should we be listening for the voice of the head of the household reading Dickens aloud to his family when we peer into narrative paintings?
Taste and cash are often seen as antithetical elements in the story of art. Money taps the root of all art even if one function of connoisseurship is to varnish the presence of lucre. Curators and academics seem reluctant to count the pieces of silver, as if our knowing the price that a painter got for a work will devalue its aesthetic appeal. Flaubert assured us that we cannot have fine thoughts without beautiful forms but he plotted the fate of Emma Bovary around how much money she owed. Balzac and Zola were blatant in their treatment of the cash nexus in art. Roberts’s Parliament picture is about Empire, but it was also about a 2000-guinea fee from the sale of prints. I failed to total Roberts’s earnings which I had taken so much care to include, and so left to another the computing of his annual income, and how much of those sums was profit. The state of Roberts’s finances appears from his ordering shirts from Bond street, or his travelling saloon class to Europe. Here, attention has to be paid to the subventions from his wives.
An essay on Roberts’s prose style could enrich our understanding of his ways of seeing and describing. Here, the sources would be both published articles and private correspondence. That study should compare his verbal imagery with Streeton’s. Nothing that Roberts put on canvas was as evocative of Coogee as Streeton’s ‘the great green rollers tumble in like huge heavy cylinders of liquid glass’.
From where will these books and articles come? Academics are not obvious candidates. Some cannot tell the difference between the fallacy of empiricism and the necessity for empirical research. The pressure on younger scholars to publish at least one article a year in order to have their contracts renewed means that they are tempted to deconstruct a chapter in Bernard Smith rather than research their own version from scratch. Others with the resources to research but have added next to nothing, either out of laziness or through being distracted by the linguistic turn. The outcome of all this new work will be to reveal Australian history in all its glories, not compartmentalised, as it is by the administrative conveniences of universities, into Art History, Political Science, Economics, English and Cultural Studies.
Another possible source is gallery curators but they will need sabbaticals and access to ARC funds. The catalogue for the 1996 Roberts retrospective was still a scratch-job compared with the standards expected at national galleries in Washington or Paris. The two years of funding that Jane Clark received to prepare Golden Summers in 1985, should be automatic for both the curators and the catalogue editors associated with national projects such as retrospectives of our major artists. The educational value of these shows should outlast their hangs by the production of teaching aids, such as zip discs of the images unlikely to be assembled again.
The telling of a life requires an ensemble of reseachers as much as the life itself needed social relations. R. H. Croll, Virginia Spate and Helen Topliss built the machine from which I could paint the big picture. No biographer can ever know enough. A biographer has only a part of one lifetime to research a subject’s entire life and could never master all the backgrounds that contribute pertinent details Ray Monk, author of Wittgenstein (1990), tells of a letter he received from the secretary of the Liverpool Omnibus Historical Society. Glancing at a review of Monk’s book, this gentleman had seen a photograph of Ludwig Wittgenstein in the company of a young man. The caption identified the scene as London. Monk’s correspondent admitted that he had never previously heard of Mr Wittgenstein but he did know about omnibuses and was confident that the one in the photograph was of a type exclusive to Liverpool. The detail had significance because it meant that the young friend had traveled at least as far as Liverpool with Wittgenstein when he went to Ireland, increasing the evidence about the closeness of their relationship.
I had a comparable lesson early in 2000 when writing up the portraits that Roberts had made in 1892 on Mer Island, Torres strait. A fellow researcher in the National Library put me in touch with Dr Anna Shnukal at the University of Queensland who has spent several years constructing genealogies of the islanders and so could identify the people Roberts encountered. I could have devoted several years to her task and she to mine, but neither of us could have done both, still less could we have at the same time become experts in carriage building to interpret the streetscape in Allegro con brio.
Not every biographer will collide with an omnibus fanatic, or even have a friend who has a friend. Much of the detail that professors spend a lifetime trying to recover about the textures of daily life in past times was once the property of illiterates. For instance, why Roberts depicted his shearers in pink-and-white striped shirts would have been known to everyone of them in 1890 but is a mystery to the historians of fashion to whom I have spoken. The wife of a retired pastoralist suggested mattress ticking.
store of information allows us to sharpen our questions. One of my
favourite biographical assays is Savage
Ruskin (1979) by Patrick Conner which, in 150 pages, explores why
Ruskin was so savage as critic. Connor could frame that question and
proffer answers only because of the three volume biographies of Ruskin.
Similarly, ensembles of researchers will accumulate details relevant to
Tom Roberts and his class. Occasionally one investigator will be reshape
the portrait because of previous depictions. New ways of asking will
emerge, as feminists keep doing to enrich our understanding of every
The tensions between biography and history, along with those between
history as conceptual analysis and history as narrative, retain their
capacity to help us comprehend what can be known about both our species
and its individual members. Those theories are stories worth telling.
Historians, however, are not entitled to make things up, or even to alter their sequence for dramatic effect. Truth is not a matter of personal preference, but is anchored to the surviving evidence, debatable though those details always are. Speculation is permissible only if quarantined by conditionals. For example, although I had heard rumours (including from Tom’s descendants) that Roberts had been a philanderer at most stages of his life, because I had not found any evidence to substantiate his womanising, I did not make it explicit in my drafts, although I hinted that Tom might not have been a virgin when he married at the age of forty. Then, very late in the writing, I came upon a letter from a young lady to her mother, in which she agreed that Mr Roberts was a bounder, before explaining that she would never lose her dignity. With this evidence, I could expand on this aspect, ading some general comments.
Tom Roberts carries some of the elements of fiction, despite its load of footnotes. I brought to my presentation of Roberts’s life some features that I understand about my own and those of people around me. For instance, as a freelance writer I know how important getting a quid each week was in Roberts’s life, as he juggled cash and inspiration. Perhaps having a salary paid into one’s bank account each month has misled tenured scholars about the finances of creative souls. Similarly, a biographer who is unable to recall which necktie he wore yesterday might have passed over the references to clothes that appear throughout Roberts’s correspondence. But this was an aspect that I observe in myself and so made a point of examining how Roberts chose to dress as an artist and ‘up the country’.
E. M. Forster posited a reciprocal trust between novelist and reader: ‘Memory and intelligence are closely connected, for unless we remember we cannot understand’. The latter must believe that the significance of details would emerge later on. I had to trust my readers to recall small points made in opening chapters. For instance, on page two, I refer to the Irongate Bridge, outside Shrewsbury, the birthplace of Tom’s father, and which J. M. W. Turner had painted in the 1780s. That juxtaposition of industry with nature returns several times before concluding with artists depicting the Sydney Harbour Bridge 150 years and 700 pages later. In a parallel thread, references to transport indicate how the pace of life was accelerating Tom’s distress. However, the novelist and biographer stand in different relations to what Forster called ‘loose ends’. Real life is not as tidy as a detective yarn, and so needs its false starts and dead ends. Contrariwise, a novelist may mislead whereas a biographer may not.
biographer’s own prose style is also part of the evidence and
interpretation. We cannot tell it as it really was in same tone of voice
for Charlie Conder and Hans Heysen. Even the one subject can change so
drastically as to require a shift in register, as happened when Arthur
Streeton alchemised his quicksilver personality into lead. Equally, not
every biographer is suitable for every subject. The style is the man or
woman on both sides of the biographical covers. Although mimicking the
voice of the subject rarely succeeds, some counterpoint is desirable.
Across nearly two decades, I have gone back and forth to Roberts’s life. During three of those years, his life loomed larger in my days than did my own. To my relief, I never found him boring. He never became pompous. He kept his sense of humour. Despite often being testy, he never whinged on paper, no matter how hard life became for him. There were times when I wanted to boot him in the backside for how he treated his first wife. If it were now possible to stroll around a gallery with him to have his views on the pictures, and then lunch together, I would think myself privileged to have spent those hours in his company. I cannot be so confident that he would enjoy the questions I have stored up.
 Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, 5, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1976, pp. 7-8.
 Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, OUP, New York, 1973.
 Jean-Paul Sartre, The Problem of Method, Methuen, London, 1963, p. 56.
 Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, 11, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1979, pp. 130-31.
 Humphrey McQueen, Tom Roberts, Macmillan, Sydney, 1996, chapter 11.
 Humphrey McQueen, The Black Swan of Trespass, APCOL, Sydney, 1979, chapter three.
 Humphrey McQueen, Suburbs of the Sacred, Penguin, Ringwood, 1988, pp. 204-7.
 Max Raphael, Proudhon, Marx, Picasso, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1980, p. 3.
 Humphrey McQueen, ‘Tits and feathers’, Island Magazine, 22, March 1985, pp. 31-36.
 Tim Bonyhady & Andrew Sayers (eds), The Heads of the People, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2000, pp. 96-111.
 24 Hours, April 1996, pp. 54-7; December 1996, pp. 58-62 & 125.
 Pamela Clelland Gray, ‘A Pioneer of Australian Picture Framing: An Introduction to the Work of Lillie Williamson’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, 34, 1994, pp. 48-58.
 Anthea Callan, Techniques of the Impressionists, Chartwell Books, Secaucus, 1982.
 Stephanie Holt, ‘Chloe: A Curious History’, Jeanette Hoorn (ed.), Strange Women, MUP, Carlton, 1994, p. 126; ‘A Question of Propriety’ was also the heading of an editorial in Table Talk, 14 June 1889, p. 8, when a comparable controversy arose at Bendigo.
 Hayden White, Metahistory, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1973.
 Ann Galbally and Ann Gray (eds), Letters from Smike, OUP, Melbourne, 1989, p. 17.
 Jim Badger, ‘It Shows in His Buggy – the place of the buggy in Nineteeth-Century Australia’, Victorian Historical Journal, 69 (2), November 1998, pp. 112-31.
 For example, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation, Thames & Hudson, London, 1999.
 McQueen, Tom Roberts, pp. 461-2.
 E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1962, p. 95.
See also: articles in Historians