Tom Roberts was central to the birth of Australian Impressionism in August 1889 at Buxton’s, a small art gallery in Melbourne, and 128 years later he continues to remain central in the entire nation’s evolved sense of selfhood.
In many ways the English-born Roberts was blessed with an “outsider” vision. That is, he was more of an impartial observer rather than a partial documenter - it made his works free of visual clichés and set him apart from his contemporaries in the way that a novelist might stand out from journalists.
Furthermore, Roberts was one of the first artists to respond to the unique character of the Australian landscape. He lived on Johnson Street in Abbotsford and often took his friend Frederick McCubbin to Studley Park in Kew to extol the virtues of the Australian Bush. This seems unremarkable until one realises its surprising extent: for instance, his painting Saplings of 1889, in the Art Gallery of South Australia, could almost be taken for a Fred Williams painting of the Sixties. In fact, Arthur Boyd is of the opinion that almost all of Australian painting owes something to the example set by Tom Roberts – one might quibble with the word “all” but the point is clear: the clarity and power of Roberts’ mercurial imagination touched many.
Roberts’ free-ranging imagination allowed him to be innovative and more footloose in his inspirations and in looking back over his landscapes, portraits, drawings and prints one is struck by his diversity and artistic range. Furthermore, he spoke French, was well travelled, he studied at the National Gallery School and the Royal Academy, knew his literature, was the life of the party and turned heads at all occasions. He once said an inspiring and beautiful thing about art: “by making art the perfect expression of one time and one place, it becomes for all time and of all places”.
In saying this he elevated the prominence of the everyday – in other words, its ordinary features, overlooked aspects and transitory nature now became worthy subjects for the artistic imagination. This is why the subjects of so many of Roberts’ early and mid-career paintings seem caught rather than sought – as though he came across them or they wafted past him. Since everyday things are everywhere and never cease, we too experience them. Not in the way that Roberts experienced them but in the way that his depictions evoke the “floating worlds” of our own contemporary everyday events – “I too have seen this or felt that” exist as instances of something “for all time and of all places”.
This is, in essence, the beauty and charm of the observational casualness of his painting The School Track of circa 1900. The painting depicts a scene (Roberts would have called it a nocturne) that is subtly suggested in broad strokes of umber, blue-grey and olive green tones. Its vertical format highlights the figure of a girl climbing up a set of stairs ascending what appears to be a vegetated and wooded stretch of a railway cutting or elevated walkway. A street lamp and handrails punctuate the skyline giving the painting the impression of a Whistler-like composition – one where suggestion and intimacy, rather than academic naturalism, govern the aesthetic effect.
Roberts’ School Track stands as a gently rendered scene of the type that was shown, just one year earlier, at the birth of Australian Impressionism.
National Gallery of Australia, Tom Roberts, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2016.
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Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head, School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne