This previously uncatalogued painting by Tom Roberts depicts the isolated domain of the Cape Bruny lighthouse, built in 1838 on Tasmania’s Bruny Island. Roberts is thought to have made his first visit to the island state two years previously in 1878 in the company of his cousin-in-law Henson Bancroft. When he returned in 1880 and painted this vibrant image, he had seven years of rigorous study behind him and had already been identified as a star student of the prestigious Gallery School in Melbourne. Whilst he would later forge his reputation as one of the country’s most important painters, amongst the first to truly capture the light and spirit of Australia, it is through works such as Bruny Island Lighthouse that his initial artistic thoughts and processes become evident.
Roberts was born in Dorset, England, about 150 kilometres south-west of London and emigrated to Australia with his family in 1869 following the death of his father. He first started studying art in 1873 at Trades Hall School of Design, Carlton, before enrolling at the National Gallery School the following year. Over these years his nascent talent was nurtured by the respected artist Thomas Clark (c1814-1883) and two of the most revered Australian landscape artists, Louis Buvelot (1814-1888) and Eugene von Guérard (1811-1901). Whilst the latter was no doubt integral to Roberts development, in many ways it was the elder Buvelot who was more important, an ‘honest painterly’ artist who often chose relatively non-descript corners of the countryside as his subjects and this ‘simple poetry of quiet places, stayed with Roberts.’1 Like his teachers, Roberts’ fellow students were a veritable who’s who including Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), Louis Abrahams (1839-1918), C.D. Richardson (1853-1932), Bertram Mackennal(1863-1931), E. Phillips Fox (1865-1916), Jane Sutherland (1853-1928) and Walter Withers (1854-1914). McCubbin became a firm friend with the pair going on painting excursions to Studley Park; indeed, McCubbin would subsequently acknowledge that it was ‘there for the first time I got awakened to the beauties of the Australian landscape.’2
Although Bruny Island Lighthouse is new to the Roberts catalogue, it has been authenticated by Dr Helen Topliss, author of the landmark publication Tom Roberts, 1856-1931: A Catalogue Raisonné published in 1985. The cliffs are articulated in pronounced horizontal and vertical brushstrokes, contrasting with the green pigment of the hill which appears to have been literally rubbed into the surface. Fragments of under-drawing remain, particularly around the sheep on the left which gives added insight into Roberts’ drawing process, and the clarity of the clifftop image clearly articulates one of the artist’s key aspirations, to create ‘a painting (that) fixes one thing for you – one scene, one mood, one idea.’3 It also gives a strong indication of the connection Roberts felt for Tasmania, a place he painted and visited many times during his life. His second wife was Tasmanian and Roberts is now buried in her family’s plot in the northern town of Longford. It is possible that (Bruny Island Lighthouse) was exhibited at the Australian Artist’s Association in 1880 as Tasmanian Landscape but this cannot be confirmed. The painting’s first recorded owner was William Grant Buckle, managing director of a car import business, who ultimately became President of the Federal Chamber of the Automotive Industry.4 He was known to have a comprehensive collection of Australian art which featured, amongst others, two beach side scenes by Elioth Gruner,5 sun-drenched cousins to this scene of the Cape Bruny lighthouse.
1. Gray, A., ‘Harmonic Arrangements: Tom Roberts’ Painting’ in: Tom Roberts (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2015, p.31
2. ibid., p.32
3. Newton, G., ‘A Photo-Literate Generation’, in: Tom Roberts (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2015, p.67
4. ‘Mr W. G. Buckle Dead’, Sydney Morning Herald, New South Wales, 10 March 1947, p.5
5. Fisherman, Coogee Beach 1913; and Silver Sands (Bondi) 1918