Tom Roberts is most often associated with his large, nationalistic paintings such as Shearing the Rams 1888-90 and Bailed Up 1895. These much loved national treasures are so embedded in our national psyche that we often overlook Roberts’ ability as a portraitist. During the 1880s and 1890s, the two most significant decades of his career, he supported himself as a painter of commissioned portraits, in pastels as well as oils. Over one third of his entire oeuvre was devoted to portraiture and ‘some would argue with much justification that Roberts is Australia’s best portraitist of all time.’1 The artist was an ardent supporter of the genre and lobbied for a National Portrait Gallery to be established in Australia.
During his career, Roberts painted a vast range of sitters including pastoralists, fellow artists, musicians, actresses, society women and politicians. The present work was completed around 1900-01 and is most likely a portrait of Hersey Alice Eveleigh de Moleyns, daughter of the 4th Baron Ventry and wife of John Adrian Louis Hope, the 7th Earl of Hopetoun. In 1889, Lord Hopetoun, a Lord-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria, was appointed Governor of Victoria and in November that year Lord and Lady Hopetoun sailed for Melbourne. Lady Hopetoun was just 22 years old when she arrived in the colonies with her husband and young son, Lord Hope (“Hopie”). Lord Hopetoun proved popular with Victorians, but the young Lady Hopetoun, painfully shy and with no experience of public life, was thought reserved and haughty. Her public persona hid a much less formal, warmer side of her character, described here in Launceston’s Daily Telegraph prior to her arrival in Australia, ‘Lady Hopetoun…is considered one of the best hostesses in England. She is always full of fun, very witty, and yet withal quite the “grande dame”’.2 When not attending to her formal duties, Lady Hopetoun was known to spend time sketching humorous cartoons of life in the colony, she was also a keen horsewoman and a crack shot.
The Hopetouns lived in Melbourne for five and a half years, from 1889-1895, during Lord Hopetoun’s tenure as Govenor. In the course of their stay a second son was born, Charles Melbourne Hope, named in honour of the colony. The family went back to England in March 1895 however returned in 1900 when Lord Hopetoun was appointed the first Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. The Hopetouns were present at the inauguration ceremony of the Commonwealth of Australia, famously depicted by Roberts in his major work, Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York, May 9, 1901. Roberts worked methodically with his preparations for ‘The Big Picture’, as it became known, and would make notes of the height and weight of all of his sitters, numbering more than 250 in total.
The present work is most likely a study of Lady Hopetoun done by Roberts prior to the completion of the ‘The Big Picture’; both had several sittings with Roberts, giving their time generously to the artist who found them to be very accommodating. In his account of the sittings with the Hopetouns, Roberts recalls, ‘Lady Hopetoun gave me every possible time out of the few days…so I started with the promise of two sittings, and worked on a pastel sketch’.3 The artist describes attempting two pastel drawings of Her Ladyship however declared one a failure so ‘rubbed it off’. Roberts enjoyed the friendly company of both the Hopetouns during their sittings and they were both pleased with the portrait studies that Roberts completed, he recalled ‘the sittings are a great pleasure’.4
1. Radford, R., ‘Tom Roberts, the Father of Australian landscape Painting?’, Tom Roberts, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of South Australia, p.12
2. ‘Countess of Hopetoun’, Daily Telegraph, Tasmania, 6 July 1901, p.4
3. Tom Roberts, cited in Croll, R.H., Tom Roberts: Father of Australian Landscape Painting, Robertson & Mullins, Melbourne, 1935, p.67
Caroline Jones MArtAdmin