16. TOM ROBERTS
On 6 January 1923, Tom and Lillie Roberts departed England on board the Suevic, bound for Melbourne. The last two decades abroad had represented a ‘black period’ for the artist: his anticipated magnum opus – The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia (1903) – had proven hugely cumbersome to execute, and was met with faint praise.1 Roberts’ ambitions to enter London’s Royal Academy were thwarted, and his output much diminished by World War I. The artist was at a low ebb, and ‘his painting became stultified by an ambiguity of purpose.’2
The return to Australia therefore had an invigorating effect. As Roberts had written during a brief visit to Melbourne some years earlier, ‘It all came back to me when I sat there with the blue sweep of the Ranges before me, and the sunshine warm and golden’.3 In March 1923, the couple purchased land at South Sassafras (now Kallista) in the Dandenong Ranges, where they built a modest cottage and flower garden. Roberts savoured the quietude and natural beauty of his new setting, remarking to a friend, ‘We go on quietly – I’m doing no portraits, but am on, with fresh delight, to landscapes – and here is a very tempting surrounding.’4 This was to be the artist’s retreat from a war-ravaged world: a rural idyll from which he would contemplate his final years.
The present work, Untitled (Dandenongs Landscape), may be seen to underline nature’s continuity in the face of human discord. Gently undulating pastures are set beneath a broad sky of billowing cloud, forming an interplay of light and shade. All emphasis lies on the atmospherics of light and space: the scene’s expansive scale directs the eye upwards, towards an opening in the ‘heavens’. This dynamic cloudscape suggests the influence of JMW Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837), both of whom strived to depict nature at her most transient.5
Roberts’ renewed interest in landscape from 1919 may also be associated with his admiration for the English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).6 Roberts and Hardy both originated from the county of Dorset on the coast of South West England, and shared a fondness for the area’s rolling chalk hills and jagged cliff tops. Hardy’s literature is replete with imagery of cropped fields and clouded skies, which may correspond to Roberts’ expansive treatment of landscape in the present work. As Hardy wrote in The Return of the Native (1878), ‘Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.’7
The late works of Tom Roberts offer a compelling contrast to those of his close friend, Arthur Streeton (1867-1943). While Streeton was venerated into old age, ‘Roberts was comparatively neglected in the last decades of his life’.8 Streeton’s main compositions of the 1920s were ambitious and avowedly nationalistic, as shown by his Land of the Golden Fleece (1926). Roberts’ final works, on the other hand, appear more delicate and considered. As Ron Radford has asserted, ‘Roberts’s more modest – and more successful – late pictures […] show a greater subtlety of tone and hue.’9
It is the tonal subtleties of these late works that proved so influential for a subsequent generation of Australian landscape painters. Untitled (Dandenongs Landscape) may be seen to prefigure the works of Lloyd Rees (1895-1988) and Elioth Gruner (1882-1939) with its shimmering, silvery tones and modulated sky.10 As this work aptly demonstrates, Roberts’ modesty of purpose during his final decade did not prevent him from creating works of enduring significance.
1. Gray, A., Tom Roberts, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2015, p.296
2. Pearce, B., ‘Reflections on the Late Work,’ in Radford, R., Tom Roberts, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 1996, p.170
3. Gray, A., p.304
4. Ibid., p.54
5. Ibid., p.54
6. Topliss, H., Tom Roberts: A Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. I, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, p.16
7. Hardy, T., The Return of the Native, Penguin Books, London, 2000, n.p.
8. Radford, R., ‘The Father of Australian Landscape Painting?’ in in Radford, R., Tom Roberts, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 1996, p.10
9. Radford, R., p.18
10. Ibid., p.18
Catherine Baxendale, MA (Art Curatorship)