ROBERTS, Thomas William (1856-1931)

ROBERTS, Thomas William (1856-1931)
always known as Tom Roberts, was born at Dorchester, England, on 9 March 1856. His father, Richard Roberts, had been editor of the Dorset County Chronicle, and had married Matilda Evans. When he died at the age of 43 his widow and three children were left in poor circumstances, and it was decided that they should emigrate to Australia where they arrived in 1869. Tom Roberts had been educated at Dorchester Grammar School and received the classical training of the period. He had few memories of his schooldays except that he was generally happy; one incident that remained in his mind was his being sent with a note to Thomas Hardy who was then living close to Dorchester. When Mrs Roberts and her children arrived in Melbourne they found a house in the industrial suburb of Collingwood, and were for some time very poor. Tom found work with a photographer in Smith-street, Collingwood, and afterwards obtained a position with Stewart and Company, well-known photographers in Bourke-street, Melbourne. He afterwards became their head operator. Long before this he had begun to study drawing at the local school of design, and in 1875 he joined the national gallery school where he studied under Thomas Clark and Eugene von Guerard (q.v.). Roberts received inspiration and encouragement from Clark, who was master of the drawing school, but it is doubtful whether the practice of copying pictures in the national gallery which was encouraged by von Guerard had much value. An important reform was the establishment of a life class, and the tradition is that Roberts was the leader of the students in the agitation which brought this into being.
In 1881 when Roberts was 25 he sold a few of his pictures and went to London for further study. He entered at the Royal Academy classes and succeeded in getting some black and white work accepted by the Graphic and other periodicals. A little later he came under the influence of Bastien Lepage, and two artists Barrau and Casas whom he met while travelling in Spain. Impressionism was making itself felt, and when Roberts came back to Australia his work showed its influence. This influence was to be extended to the work of Conder (q.v.), Streeton and other Australian artists. Conder had come to Melbourne in 1888, and he and Streeton, Davies (q.v.), McCubbin (q.v.) and Roberts often met in painting camps on the outskirts of Melbourne. Roberts was getting a certain amount of portrait painting about this time, and in 1889 the famous exhibition of impressions was held at Melbourne. The size of the paintings had been limited to nine inches by five, and of the 182 exhibits Roberts contributed 62, Streeton 40, and Conder 46. The critics fumed and raged, some members of the public even laughed, but the controversy that ensued at least advertized the exhibition, and the works, which were all low-priced, sold well. In 1890 Roberts painted his large picture, "Shearing the Rams" and hoped that it might be purchased by the national gallery of Victoria. It was bought by Mr. C. W. Trenchard and it was not until 40 years later that his wish was fulfilled. It was the first of a series of pictures of station life to be painted. Two others, "The Golden Fleece" and "The Breakaway", are now in the national galleries of New South Wales and South Australia respectively. In 1891 Streeton and Roberts went to Sydney and camped on the shores of the harbour. They lived on eight shillings a week each and did much good painting, but there had been a financial crisis and it was as difficult to sell pictures in Sydney as in Melbourne. There was great rejoicing a little later when the Sydney national gallery bought one of Roberts's paintings for £75. For a time he had a studio in Sydney with Streeton, and did some teaching. He also obtained some commissions for portraits, one of the best of these being a portrait of Sir Henry Parkes, which has since been presented to the Sydney gallery. When the Society of Artists was formed in Sydney in 1895 Roberts was elected president and remained in that position until 1897. Among the portraits painted during this period were those of Lord Beauchamp, now in the Sydney gallery, and Lord Linlithgow, now at Adelaide. In April 1896 he was married to Elizabeth Williamson.
Towards the end of 1900 Roberts decided to go to London and held a farewell one-man show at Sydney. He went first to Melbourne, and soon afterwards the suggestion was made that he should paint a picture of the opening of the first federal parliament. Eventually he agreed to do so for the sum of 1000 guineas. He was to spend about two years in painting this picture (it was 21 feet by 11 feet), and most of the work was done in a studio in the exhibition building, Melbourne. It was a thoroughly conscientious piece of work but it is practically impossible to make a picture of this kind a success as a work of art. It was finished in London in 1903, exhibited at the Royal Academy, and subsequently presented to His Majesty the King. After the completion of this picture Roberts had studios at Warwick Square and South Kensington and a trying period followed when nothing would go right with his painting, possibly he was having difficulty in getting accustomed to the English light. He afterwards spoke gratefully of the help he had obtained from James Quinn, the Australian portrait painter. In 1910 he went to live at Golders Green and began to get more confidence, although he felt the difficulty of obtaining recognition in England. His pictures were sometimes well-placed in the academy but sales were few. In February 1914 he had a one-man show in Bond-street and obtained appreciative notices from the critics. He was very pleased when the Queen paid a surprise visit to this show. Then came the war and Roberts could not paint. "I saw the boys in the trenches between me and my canvas." One day at the Chelsea Arts Club an officer walked in and asked for volunteers. Roberts was approaching 60 years of age, but he volunteered and worked as a hospital orderly for three and a half years. Towards the end of the period he was made a sergeant and assisted in the patching up of face wounds.
Directly the war was over Roberts came back to his painting with renewed zest. A year later he was able to say, "They may say I am old-fashioned nowadays. Well I'm proud that since the war I have exhibited with some of the modern London societies that are the most exclusive in the selection of their pictures." In November 1919 he went to Australia for a holiday and in March 1920 a successful exhibition of his work was opened at the Athenaeum gallery, Melbourne. His admirers noted that though his work had been affected by his residence in Europe, it still retained its old merits with at times an added refinement in colour. In August he had another show at Hordern's gallery in Sydney, which was also successful. Greatly encouraged he went back to England at the end of 1920 and two years later returned finally to Australia, having waited to see his only son married and settled in a home of his own.
Roberts, now 67 years of age, built a studio at Kallista in the ranges some 30 miles out of Melbourne. Most of his later painting was in landscape and he found no difficulty in again capturing the Australian atmosphere. He held occasional small shows which were received with appreciation by both press and public, and he was glad to see his friends around him. His wife dying early in 1928 he was a lonely man for a time, but subsequently married an old friend, Jean Boyes of Tasmania. In May 1931 he had to undergo an operation and was slow in recovering. He died at Kallista on 14 September 1931 and was buried in the churchyard of Illawarra, Tasmania. He was survived by his second wife and his only son, Caleb G. Roberts, B.Sc., M.C., who had settled in Victoria before his father's death.
Tom Roberts had a great influence on Australian art and more than anyone else showed his fellow artists the value and beauty of light. His portraits are often excellent, firmly drawn and modelled and showing much grasp of character. His landscapes are well designed and full of light and colour. He has a high place in the list of Australian artists. A fellow artist has described his appearance when he came to Sydney in his thirties as "an elderly young man who stooped slightly but was slim enough to appear above the average height" (he was five feet ten inches but looked taller), "lean, scant-bearded and prematurely bald, with eyes set deep beneath a domed brow". He had not altered much when he returned to Australia in his sixties. He then sometimes showed signs of restlessness as though he felt he had still much to do, and was not sure how much time he had to do it in. In his early days he was given the name of "Bulldog", perhaps because of a certain tenacity in his character. A forceful leader with an independent outlook, he was always ready to help a student, and never resentful of criticism of his own work. The largest collection of his pictures is in the national gallery of New South Wales. He is also represented at the National library, Canberra, in the national galleries of Victoria and South Australia, and in the galleries at Castlemaine and Geelong.
R. H. Croll, Tom Roberts, Father of Australian Landscape Painting; The Herald, Melbourne, 20 March 1920; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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