34. TOM ROBERTS
Throughout his life [Tom] Roberts painted portraits for a livelihood, and his keen interest in character and expression stood him well: for he refined the professional portraitists’ static convention and, like Manet, selected some simple, unaffected and natural pose, that presented the character of the sitter. Lionel Lindsay, 1947 1
Portraiture was an important focus for Tom Roberts. For many years it accounted for nearly half of his output,2 providing a steady source of income and contributing considerably to his reputation as a leading Australian artist (both here and abroad). Painting portraits gave Roberts access to a broad cross-section of people and communities. He shared with other like-minded contemporaries a determination to advance the significance of ‘Australia’ and ‘Australianness’. Nascent nationalistic sentiments were formed and propagated in the 1880s and 90s by intellectuals, writers and artists alike, part of a vanguard of new ideas and attitudes.
‘Australianness’ could be expressed through portraits celebrating the traits and characteristics of locally born people, including Aboriginal people, or through an acknowledgement of the character and achievements of immigrants who had formed strong roots in their adopted country. Of particular interest were people who had prospered by adapting their skills and interests to the needs of the new colony, through their industriousness and intellect. Mostly men, they formed a burgeoning middle class who could afford to celebrate their own successes by commissioning portraits of themselves and their families.
Portrait of C.S. Paterson 1888 is a fine example of late nineteenth-century Australian portraiture. Scottish-born, Charles Stewart Paterson (1843-1917) was Melbourne’s leading art decorator of the 1870s and 80s. He was also an amateur artist and active supporter of community organisations. With his ruddy complexion, informal pose and relaxed demeanour, Roberts’ three quarter-length characterisation is of an affable and well-intentioned person that accords well with contemporary accounts of the man and his public life and deeds. In the words of Lionel Lindsay, the sitter’s demeanour is ‘simple’, ‘unaffected’ and ‘natural’.
Paterson arrived in Melbourne in 1872, bringing with him an enviable reputation as ‘chief decorator for Dobies of Edinburgh where he had decorated and restored Ayrton Castle and other mansions’.3 Along with his younger brother, Hugh Paterson (1856-1917), and with input from another sibling, the artist, John Ford Paterson (1851-1912), C.S. Paterson established the firm Paterson Bros in the mid-1870s.4 They quickly became Melbourne’s favoured interior decorators, working on some of the city’s finest public buildings, including Government House and the Melbourne Town Hall, as well as many of the colony’s most opulent houses and private mansions. ‘Villa Alba’, in Melbourne’s elevated Studley Park, is now a house museum, and the last remaining example of C.S. Paterson’s early interiors, awash with elaborate friezes, intricate stencilling and hand painted ceilings.
The Paterson brothers and extended family were well known to Tom Roberts and his artistic fraternity. Charles Paterson was Roberts’ landlord at his fashionably appointed Grosvenor Chambers studio. Charles Conder painted Paterson’s daughter, Elizabeth Stewart (born 1873), prior to leaving Australia in 1890, while Arthur Streeton painted Hugh Paterson in 1891.
As Andrew Montana relates, ‘The Grosvenor Chambers was the four-storey building designed in a free Renaissance style by architects Oakden, Addison and Kemp right at the top of the eastern end of the city. Still standing at 9 Collins Street, it was built in 1888 to house a couture workroom and artists’ studios and to promote Australian arts.’5 C.S. Patersons’s hope was that the building would become a ‘centre for art and patronage in the colony’, with the 1889 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition originally mooted there, before being relocated to the larger Buxton Art Gallery, situated nearby.
In 1887 Charles Paterson ‘retired’ from Paterson Bros. Completed in early to mid-1888, Roberts’ portrait could have been intended as a fulsome reward for many years of public service. It may also have helped Roberts pay the rent on his own studio where it was painted. In July 1888, it was displayed at a studio soiree organised by Roberts, along with seven other paintings that he wished to include in the selection process for the 1888–89 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition. As reported in the Melbourne Herald: ‘The best known of the works which Mr Roberts is sending are the portraits of Professor Laurie, which attracted a good deal of attention and “A Tiff” and “Reconciliation” … A capital portrait of Mr C.S. Paterson is also amongst the collection …’6
The Centennial International Exhibition was the second world fair that Melbourne had hosted – the first being in 1880, in the grand and newly built Royal Exhibition buildings. The fair reinforced Melbourne’s enviable position as one of the world’s most important and wealthy metropolises as it had had to survive intense competition from other Australian and international cities. Inclusion in it meant unprecedented exposure for manufacturers, artisans and artists.
Tom Roberts was included in the Victorian Gallery of Artists with four paintings. According to a report published in The South Australian Advertiser, ‘Mr Roberts sent a new portrait of a lady, a very satisfactory work, as well as portraits of Professor Laurie and Mr C S Paterson, with his figure piece, “Reconciliation”.’7 Not content with the widespread exposure afforded to his work, Roberts became embroiled in controversy over the selection process. He was disappointed that his design for the Exhibition Prize Winner Certificates had not been adopted, despite being recommended by the Fine Arts Committee. Roberts also questioned the Jury Awards in the Victorian Art Court. With other Victorian Artists Society members, he complained that only one first class award had been conferred – to Ellis Rowan with her ‘beautiful flower paintings’.8
While the protest proved short-lived, Roberts’ paintings showed great character and bearing. In both Portrait of C.S. Paterson (and Professor Laurie 1887, a portrait of the inaugural University of Melbourne Philosophy Professor, Henry S Laurie) Roberts revealed his strong academic training and study of anatomy. The slightly turned pose in each, the saturated hues of brown and black and the concentration of strong light, such as on the hands and face, are reminiscent of the work of Spanish master Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), whose work Roberts had encountered on a Spanish tour in 1883. At the same time, Roberts shows his awareness of the portraits of French Impressionist painters such as Édouard Manet (1832-83) with their celebration of everyday people and informal poses. The softness of the brushwork and dappled skin reveals how Roberts had also loosened up his style and technique under the influence of other French and English artists.
With its impeccable provenance, Portrait of C.S. Paterson is a rare, privately held example of Tom Roberts’ studio-based portraiture and depicts a member of a distinguished Australian family of artists and creators. Produced at the cusp of the infamous 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, it shows how Tom Roberts moulded his earlier academic training with new developments in composition and colour theory. The painting exemplifies the push to recognise an emerging breed of Australians who had either been born here or who had made this country their home and contributed greatly to its development.
1. Lindsay, L., September 1947, Tom Roberts Exhibition, The National Gallery of Victoria exhibition, Melbourne, Feb - Mar 1948, souvenir catalogue, n.p.
2. Gray, A., ‘Harmonic Arrangements: Tom Roberts’ Painting’, in Tom Roberts, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2015-16, p.43. Gray cites 40% as the proportion of portraits at the height of his work in that genre
3. Tipping, Marjorie J., 'Paterson, John Ford (1851–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 20 May 2021
4. According to Andrew Montana, ‘In 1883 the firm of Scots-born siblings registered their formal partnership as CS Paterson Brothers, operating from ‘1 Little Collins Street-West, Melbourne’: Argus, 5 November 1883, p. 3. Charles Stewart Paterson, the oldest of the siblings, retired in 1887 and the company reverted to Paterson Brothers (or Bros). ‘Villa Alba: A House Museum and the Paterson Brothers’ Scottish Influence on Decorative Arts in Colonial Victoria’, reCollections, vol.8, no.2, 2013
5. Montana, A., ‘Arabesques of Beauty: Cullis Hill, the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, Decorative Décor and Painting’, La Trobe Journal, September 2014, nos. 93-94, p.87
6. Herald 9 July 1888, p.3
7. Adelaide, 2 August 1888, p.6
8. The Age, Melbourne, 19 January 1889, p.6; The Argus, Melbourne, 22 January 1889, p.4
Rodney James BA (Hons), MA