The Artists

Tom Roberts

'Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia
by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (later H.M. King George V),
May 9, 1901', 1903

Photograph of the artist Tom Roberts working on his painting of the
'Opening of the First Federal Parliament' (also known as 'The Big Picture')
inside the Melbourne Exhibition Building c. 1901
Mitchell Library
State Library of New South Wales

'The Big Picture'

This painting is one of the most historically important artworks in Australia. Tom Roberts referred to the work as 'The Big Picture', and believed that the commission to paint the work would bring him a degree of financial stability and help to develop social contacts and possible future commissions.

He initially felt honoured and excited to have been chosen to paint this major Australian historic occasion, and wrote the following to his son, Caleb:

"When the great day came your mother and I went to the hall
of the Exhibition Building, and without getting seats walked
quietly at the very back, and climbing up some rails, I was able
to see that immense gathering of people from all Australia, and
from so many parts of the world.
It was very solemn and great.
The heads on the floor looked like a landscape stretching away…
So I had been a witness of that scene…
In the meantime my studio was getting ready, and a day or two later
came Mr Jefferson and Mr Milligan, whose idea the whole thing was,
to treat with me again; they had given a commission to dear old
Waite [James Clarke Waite, 1832-1920]
who found himself unable to go on.
The result was that the commission came to me, and I made a sketch,
then was hurried off to Sydney to do something of their Royal
Highnesses, and you can guess, my son, how your father felt.
For the first time his work seemed wanted, and things were being done
for him, instead of having to bustle himself."

[Abstract from letter reproduced from the book:
Tom Roberts: Father of Australian Landscape Painting
by Robert Henderson Croll,
Sydney: Robertson and Mullens, 1935, p. 62 ]

However, with time, Roberts seem to lose some of his enthusiasm for the work, and in a letter to S.W. Pring from his studio in the Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Roberts described the work as a '17 foot Frankenstein'.

In many ways, Roberts was fortunate to secure the commission, for at that time, due to the poor financial state of the Australian economy and the lack of sales and commissions in the Art world, he was seriously considering leaving Australia for the greener pastures of England. He arrived in Melbourne from Sydney with his wife, Lillie on 5 May 1901, and was invited with his wife to the opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia on 9 May. During the opening ceremony, Roberts placed himself in a favourable vantage point and worked rapidly on a sketch of the 'Opening' in oils on wood panel, 30.5 x 45.8 cm. This sketch is now in the collection of the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

As Roberts mentions in the above letter to his son, Caleb, James Clarke Waite was originally offered the commission for the official painting, however as he was unable to accept the offer, Roberts was given the opportunity.

On 20 May 1901, he signed the contract to paint the event. The original contract was for 650 guineas for a canvas 152 x 244 cm, however this contract was later increased when it was realized that the canvas would need to be larger to accommodate all the portraits of those who were present, at a size where individuals were distinguishable. The renewed contract was for 1000 guineas for the present canvas, which measures when unframed 304.5 x 509.2 cm. Roberts was also paid one guinea for each life sketch.

After the official opening, Roberts travelled to Sydney to work on the Royal portraits. He made a number of pencil sketches in Government House, Sydney, and was later provided with official photographs of the Royal couple from which to work. He later travelled to Brisbane, where he painted the portraits of Lord and Lady Lamington.

His contract required him to include correct representations of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, the Govenor-General, Governors of each State, the Members of both Federal Houses of Parliament and the many distinguished guests from Australia and overseas - 'to the number of not less than 250'.

In all, the key to the painting lists 269 names, 11 of which are listed as in the 'Gallery', and out of the 269 names, only 31 are those of women.

It is known that Tom Roberts went to great lengths to accurately record the sitters in the painting, even to the keeping of statistics on their weights and measurements. Katrina Rumley, noted that 'The hefty John Forrest refused to reveal his weight to the artist, and Lord Hopetoun said that sitting for his portrait was almost as bad as enduring a heavy opera'. On the other hand, some sitters are known to have approached Roberts with considerable sums of money, to be portrayed in the foreground of the work. It is interesting to note that listed as sitter number 251 in the key to the work, is Tom Roberts close friend and fellow artist. 'Mr Fred McCubbin'.

As a tribute to Sir Henry Parkes, the 'Father of Federation' who died in 1896, Roberts included his portrait in his work, on the wall above the official platform.

To complete the commission, Roberts was provided with a room within the Exhibition Building in Melbourne, and then in London in 1903, to complete the work, Roberts was provided with the South African Room in the Imperial Institute.

Roberts completed the work in London on 16 November 1903, and his relief in finishing the commission was expressed in the drawing accompanying his letter of 6 November, where he notes that the work is close to completion, and draws a bulldog escaping from a collar and chain.

The work once completed was sent to Paris for engraving at Goupil & Cie. It remained unsigned by Roberts and undated, unlike his initial sketch in which he scratched in the paint in the lower right of the work 'Tom Roberts'.

It is well documented that 'The Big Picture' drained Roberts of much of his artistic energy, and he entered what many have described as his 'black period'. This was brought about by a number of factors, although most could be attributed to the hopeful outcomes of 'The Big Picture' commission not eventuating. Roberts did not receive the accolades that he expected from completing the commission, nor did his work in London for commissions, increase to any extent, even with his close association with the future King and other dignitaries.

In all Roberts earned nearly 2000 guineas from the commission, which took two and a half years to complete.

Another artist, Charles Nuttall, also produced a work of the Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, however, a notice in The Age in July 1903, announced that 'Charles Nuttall's drawing of the Opening does not have official recognition.' The work by Nuttall hangs in the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, while Tom Roberts' official work hangs in Parliament House, Canberra on permanent loan from the British Royal Collection.

Left: Arthur Streeton - Above Us The Great Grave Sky, 1890
Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

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