The Artists

Tom Roberts


'The Big Picture' began as a commission, accepted by the artist, Tom Roberts in 1901.

The commission was a patriotic gesture - a 'gift to the Nation', provided by a group of private benefactors, calling itself the Australian Art Association.

Tom Roberts produced much of the painting in the Exhibition Building in Melbourne, before taking the work to London in 1903, where he was provided with space to complete the work in the South African Room of the Imperial Institute.

Soon after its completion it was taken to Paris, and here, photogravure reproductions were made of the work for public sales, with 500 of these signed by the artist.

The work travelled back to London where it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, and presented to King Edward VII in 1904 by the Commonwealth Government. It was then moved to St. James's Palace, London, where it remained on view until 1957.

In 1957, the Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies, requested the permanent loan of the painting from Queen Elizabeth II. The request was agreed to, and in 1958, 'The Big Picture' was back in Australia.

The idea was that 'The Big Picture' should be exhibited with other records of royal association with the Australian Parliament, such as the Opening in Canberra in 1927, and the First Opening of Australian Parliament by a Reigning Sovereign in 1954. Both of these works hung in the Kings Hall in the provisional Parliament House. Unfortunately, this undertaking of hanging these works together was not possible until the building of the new Parliament House, for 'The Big Picture' was found to be too big to be accommodated in Kings Hall.

It was therefore decided that the painting should tour the State galleries and on its return, was stored in the War Memorial in Canberra from 1960 to 1969. After this time, it was again moved, and hung in the basement of the provisional Parliament House until 1980.

An assessment of the painting by professional conservators, noted that it had suffered considerably from its travels.

Katrina Rumley in her informative research paper of 1989 on 'The Big Picture' noted:
'The picture had long been unprotected from changes in temperature and humidity, it had been constantly rolled and unrolled and untacked from its stretcher frame. At one stage it was even folded in half for transport. All this seriously affected the canvas. It gradually sagged, undulated and malformed and was in danger of becoming completely dilapidated. Finally, a massive conservation program was carried out on the picture by the School of Materials Conservation at the Canberra College of Advanced Education. Infra-red and ultra-violet photography were used to determine the condition of the picture. Then, with expert knowledge, painstaking work was carried out to remove the grime and old varnish, repair the tacking margin of the canvas and restore small areas of paint to match the original… After six months' work on the painting it was taken to the new High Court in Canberra, just in time for the opening of that building, (in 1981) by the Queen.

The fragile condition of the canvas even after conservation meant that it could never again be rolled, so when, in 1988, it was time to take the work from the High Court to the new Parliament House, the relocation became a major logistical exercise. Windows had to be removed from the High Court to extricate the work, a special carrying frame was used for the transport, and a complicated system of scaffolding and winches was used in Parliament House to safely manoeuvre the picture into position in the Main Committee Room Foyer. To avoid gusty Canberra winds making a sail of the picture, the relocation was carried out at dawn on a day shortly before the opening of Parliament House.'

Katrina Rumley, also notes in her paper that:
'The tradition of Parliament is expressed in the new Parliament House in historic memorials, which evoke the evolution of the legislature and in new works of art commissioned to integrate with the architecture.

Parliament's representative body responsible for the construction project, the Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House, stipulated that the building should embody a strong Parliamentary theme. This is expressed in Coats of Arms, portraits and documents along the east-west axis from the House of Representatives Chamber through Members Hall and the Committee Room Foyer to the Senate Chamber.

Roberts' painting of the Opening of the First Parliament is undoubtedly the principal work of art recording Australia's Parliamentary History. Recognising this, the Joint Standing Committee decreed that the picture must be hung in the new building and agreed to its placement in the Main Committee Room Foyer which connects with Members Hall displaying Parliamentary portraits. The Roberts picture, by its location and content was then to symbolise the culmination of the Parliamentary theme at the heart of the building.

In resolving the design of the Main Committee Room Foyer, the architects ensured the integration of the picture within the space, whereby major design elements such as the skylight above and the balustrade around the work would echo the composition of the picture.

The painting and its siting were to later take a role in Mandy Martin's design concept for her vast landscape picture commissioned in 1987 for the Main Committee Room'.

In this, the Centenary Year of Federation, Tom Roberts work 'The Big Picture' proudly hangs in the Main Committee Room Foyer, of the new Parliament House. It is a tribute to Tom Roberts who has captured for us, for all time, that important moment in Australia's History - the '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.'

Andrew Mackenzie

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

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