Experience the work of legendary Australian artist Tom Roberts this summer at the NGA in Canberra. This extraordinary exhibition brings together Tom Roberts’ most famous paintings, loved by all Australians.
—National Gallery of Australia
Do we all love Tom Roberts’ ‘most famous’ paintings? The National Gallery of Australia, whose very welcome retrospective runs from 4 December to 28 March, certainly hopes so. And, yes, many of us probably do, in much the same way that Americans (and few others) are attached to the work of their frontier painters, especially Caleb Bingham and Frederick Remington. Yet neither Bingham nor Remington occupies in their country anything like the iconic significance of Roberts in the history of Australian art. Why is that?
I would argue that Tom Roberts’ standing as one of our great cultural icons has less to do with his paintings than his status as the hero of a myth as powerful, fateful and historically flawed as those surrounding Gallipoli and ‘the bush’ itself. We’re talking here of course about his role in the creation of the ‘Heidelberg School’, which flourished from the mid 1880s to the mid 1890s. Despite numerous attempts to revise it, the Heidelberg narrative continues to dominate our understanding not only of Australia’s visual culture then and since but also of the debt we owe Tom Roberts for liberating our art from its imperial masters.
Roberts has been variously described as ‘the father of Australian landscape painting’ and the founder of ‘the first truly distinctive school of Australian art’. He has been (wrongly) credited with bringing French Impressionism to the Antipodes. He has also (rightly) been seen as a champion of professional artists in their battles with dim conservatives and well-meaning amateurs. Even more importantly, Roberts is remembered for his encouragement of younger artists, including the native-born Arthur Streeton, to paint Australia ‘as it really was’. Indeed the birth of ‘Australian impressionism’ has been commonly dated to the famous 9 × 5 Impression Exhibition he organised in Melbourne in 1889. His stinging rebuke of Argus critic James Smith’s damning review of this event is still seen as an Australian declaration of independence from the stuffy conventions of the English art world. When Roberts moved to Sydney in the 1890s and became involved with the Bulletin crowd, he and his art also became associated with the rise of colonial nationalism.
It is therefore no coincidence that the paintings of Roberts we most love and remember all date from Heidelberg’s relatively brief high tide. After 1895, when this movement breaks up and Roberts and other leading lights decamp to London, his work no longer interests us. So our appreciation of Roberts and his art is inextricably tied to our tacit acceptance of ‘Heidelberg’ and his starring role as its founder.
We may even be addicted to the art of Roberts, Streeton et al—as Paul Simon was years ago to ‘Kodachrome’—for ‘giving us those nice bright colours’, making us ‘think al the world’s a sunny day’.
What difference then would it make if we learned that the Heidelberg narrative failed to encompass most of that era’s artists, while excluding its most popular art forms and most widely seen images? How would we feel if Australia’s leading art practitioners proved to be (like Roberts) empire loyalists and followers of the latest trends in English art? What would Victorians, in particular, have to say if Heidelberg had to share pride of place with the Hawkesbury and Sydney Harbour as the true birthplace of a national school of Australian art?
In Tom Roberts’ case, let’s go even further out on a limb. What if the much less likeable (and talented) Julian Ashton turned out to be the more prominent and influential champion of Australian art both during and after the Heidelberg era? Even more unbelievably, how would we have to reimagine our art history if the most widely viewed artist of the period—‘the most Australian of all Australian artists’, according to some—turned out to be neither Tom Roberts nor any of the other Heidelberg icons?
In other words, what would happen if we took Australian art lovers’ ‘Kodachrome’ away? Well, you’re about to find out, as I encourage you for the moment to forget ‘Heidelberg’ and start interpreting the pictures of the Ashton–Roberts generation as the ‘art of imperial nationalism’.
The empire and all that
The largest elephant in the room of the Heidelberg narrative is Britain and its empire, to which the artists of that era were ethnically, socially, economically, culturally, aesthetically and politically bonded. Whether ‘native born’ or not, they were proudly Austral Britons or British Australians. What they produced was likewise a cultural hybrid: the art of imperial nationalism, a local variant of the global visual culture of British imperialism. The empire constituted the foreground—not merely the background—of their art as well as of their lives, influencing in a variety of ways how they would be trained, what they would depict, their choice of style and medium, whether their work would sell, and to whom.
For a start these British-Australian artists had to reckon with the colonial ruling class, whose world view, tastes, and patronage so strongly shaped Australia’s nascent art worlds as imperial outposts of English art. In their eyes, art’s cultural mission was to civilise and uplift the masses through their exposure to exemplary British artworks, whether displayed in public galleries or reproduced in the illustrated press. Entry-level art education was firmly based on the redoubtable ‘South Kensington’ model. The training of aspiring professional art practitioners was, more often than not, entrusted to expatriate Brits. When acting as trustees of their respective colonies’ ‘national galleries’, the great and the good would invariably rely on the Royal Academy’s advice as to what art should be purchased. Needless to say, locally produced artworks were not on London’s radar (or theirs).
But the greatest challenge for colonial art practitioners was their dependence on the patronage of colonial governors and politicians, newspaper proprietors, jobbing publishers, theatre owners, and a handful of prosperous pastoralists and urban professionals. This was an especially important issue for painters who were seeking to emulate the naturalism and realism of the plein-air Barbizon school favoured by younger English artists, because their would-be patrons still only had eyes for Ruskin-approved academicians of an earlier era. The brutal reality was that not even a Tom Roberts or an Arthur Streeton could live solely on the sale of their landscapes and history paintings. This was inevitably a prime source of conflict between the colonial art establishment and professional artists—especially those who could not fall back on newspaper illustration, commissioned portraits, stage-set painting, art teaching or a private income.
However, while Australia’s colonies were less than generous patrons of art, they did at least provide their artists with inspiring subjects, namely the productive enterprises and cities in which so much British capital had been invested. These included the vast landscapes conquered and cleared by squatters and selectors to provide the wool, meat and grain destined for British markets, as well as the coal, tin and gold mines that had enriched some local as well as overseas investors. On the strength of this wealth Melbourne and Sydney had become cosmopolitan centres capable of not only (modestly) supporting their own artists’ colonies but also offering them townscapes of colonial urbanity. While some art historians have stressed the nostalgic element in ‘Heidelberg’ paintings, the appetite of local and British audiences for images of Australian modernity and progress was even more evident, especially in the illustrated press.
The wealth, achievements and sunshine inscribed in this era’s art corresponded with an increase in colonial nationalist pride and British awareness of Australia’s strategic and economic significance for itself and the empire as a whole. Indeed the contemporary displays of Australian artworks in London and at various international exhibitions were used not only as advertisements for skilled migrants and signals of impending nationhood but also as signs of the rewards for Australia (and other white settler societies) for their continuing support of the ‘new imperialism’. Although Melbourne’s and Sydney’s artistic bohemians remained resolutely apolitical, they benefited for a time from this updraught of imperial nationalism, as well as expressing it in their work.
Unfortunately for Roberts and his colleagues, Australia’s economic sunshine had well and truly vanished by the early 1890s. The crash of Melbourne’s land boom at the end of the eighties had already rendered that city anything but ‘marvellous’ for its art practitioners. In 1893 it was a series of bank runs followed by a long drought that spelled the end of Sydney artists’ limited prosperity. It was against these conditions—indeed the economic depression would continue for more than a decade after Federation—that some of the most significant migrations in the history of Australian art would occur, bring to an end Heidelberg School’s brief but brilliant flowering. And where did its leading lights go? Not to Paris, the epicentre of world art, but to London, the heart of empire and the ultimate inspiration for their imperial nationalist art.
What is ‘art’?
‘Heidelberg’ also rests on an aesthetic sleight-of-hand so pervasive in our culture that it regularly escapes our notice. It is that ‘art’ is what hangs on the walls of our leading public galleries and auction houses. Art—great art—is painting, above all oil painting, or so distinguished observers such as Edmund Capon, Patrick McCaughey and Barry Pearce tell us. Works on paper may be art, but they’re in the second division, mainly the preserve of specialists and collectors who can’t afford the real thing. And whatever else ‘art’ may be it is most certainly not ‘illustration’, so woe betide the reputation of any painter who has also worked as an illustrator. Such are the definitions and discriminations that underpin much of our art history and that are regularly reinforced in blockbuster exhibitions of Heidelberg painters, not least Tom Roberts.
The problem with these notions of ‘art’ is that they are not the ones that prevailed during the Heidelberg era. Indeed the period’s most dominant art form was the engraved illustration, which decorated the pages of the immensely popular and powerful illustrated press. Collaboratively produced and mechanically reproduced, these engravings were the most-viewed images of Australia prior to Federation, seen by tens of thousands both here and in Britain. They were also the prime source, along with photography, of the iconography that underpinned the paintings of Roberts and his confrères. They should be counted among the highest achievements of the imperial nationalist art movement.
Beyond their influence on the Heidelberg icons—not to mention how Australians and others saw themselves and their society—there are three reasons why the engraved work of artist-illustrators should be treated as seriously as the paintings of their ‘brother brushes’. First, most engravings (aside from pen and ink cartoons) started life as original paintings, commonly done in gouaches, sometimes in oils. Second, advances in engraving and printing technologies in the 1870s allowed these works to be reproduced with extraordinary subtlety and fidelity. Third, and most important, they were at the time—along with paintings—regularly exhibited, reviewed and regarded as ‘art’. While every artistic medium has its own strengths and limitations, today’s elevation of paintings over engravings should not lead us to devalue the latter’s aesthetic or historic significance.
If the finest engraved illustrations were so highly regarded—in Britain as well as in Australia—so too were their creators, including painters who also worked as illustrators. Far from fearing loss of reputation, many artists then seen as the ‘big men’ of the colonial art world were quite happy to subsidise their painting careers by also pursuing the art of illustration. This proved to be a fatal choice when changing aesthetic conventions and Heidelberg myth-making led to their eclipse by artists such as Roberts who stuck to their painting.
The collateral damage caused by ‘Heidelberg’ is not simply that we’ve been deprived of access to some of this era’s most striking images but also that the paintings on which so much attention has been lavished provide us with such a narrow and distorted window on Australian art and life, and how these were seen at the time.
A tale of two cities … and two leaders
‘Heidelberg’ is of course also a Victorian conceit, akin to the National Gallery of Victoria’s continuing claim to being a ‘national’ gallery. Nevertheless, Sydney was more influential than Melbourne in creating a national movement of imperial nationalist art. This may seem an absurd claim, given the far stronger foundations of Melburnian institutions at this time for displaying fine art and training professional artists—not to mention the long-established view that the first distinctive school of Australian art originated in the artists’ camps just beyond the city in the mid 1880s. However, the Victorian capital’s problem was that it produced far more artists than it could support, especially after the end of its long boom in 1889; a challenge compounded by the refusal of the NGV to purchase paintings by the very art practitioners it had helped to educate.
Sydney, on the other hand, was far more focused on creating a sustainable economic infrastructure to support artistic enterprise. Aside from the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ annual mandate to buy £500 worth of Australian art, Sydney-based artists could support themselves through teaching, painting portraits and stage-sets, creating illuminated addresses, commemorative albums and other forms of visual ephemera and, most importantly, a full range of graphic arts ranging from drawings for the illustrated press to book illustrations, cartoons and etchings. Indeed the black-and-white work, especially for the Bulletin, the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, and the Sydney Mail, was seen at the time and since as world class—an accolade never bestowed on the paintings even of an Arthur Streeton. An important testimony to its artists’ excellence was that they were readily employed as illustrators by England’s leading weeklies, the Illustrated London News and the Graphic.
One result of Sydney’s comparative advantage was that it could attract some of Melbourne’s finest artists, including Julian Ashton and Tom Roberts, the two men who, more than any others, inspired the rise of an imperial nationalist art movement. The similarities between these two Englishmen are striking. Both were trained in England and deeply influenced by Whistler, as well as the plein-air traditions of the Barbizon school. Their Australian careers began in Melbourne, but in 1885—the year Roberts returned to Australia after completing his training at the Royal Academy—Ashton was lured away to Sydney to become a staff artist for the Picturesque Atlas. Roberts (and Streeton) would follow Ashton and base themselves in Sydney for most of the 1890s.
Both Ashton and Roberts promoted the virtues of plein-air painting and were simultaneously active in the establishment of Sydney’s and Melbourne’s artists’ camps. Inevitably they attracted their fair share of disciples, such as Ashton’s students Sid Long and George Lambert and Roberts’ younger mates Charles Conder and of course Arthur Streeton. Both men were also active in championing efforts to increase the status and rewards of their fellow professionals.
However, while Roberts was undoubtedly the better painter, Ashton was the more effective, not to say more Machiavellian, politician. Ashton bolstered Sydney’s position as the principal midwife of imperial nationalist art when he became president of the NSW Art Society and a trustee of the then National Gallery of New South Wales. He was instrumental in the gallery’s purchase of Streeton’s Still Glides the Stream in 1890, which was the impetus for the young Victorian’s migration to Sydney. Then in 1895 he established the Julian Ashton Art School, which produced the artists who would dominate the local art scene for the next four decades. Three years later he orchestrated the first exhibition in London of Australia’s imperial nationalist artists. No other figure, not even Roberts, can lay as much claim as Ashton to establishing this new movement in Australian art.
However, while Ashton remained in Sydney to preside over its art world until his death in 1942, Roberts moved on to London where he assumed leadership of a large colony of Australian expatriate artists who, while drinking deeply from the fount of English art, would become an ever more tightly knit band of imperial nationalist art practitioners.
When and where was imperial nationalist art ‘born’?
A ‘distinctive school of landscape painting [is] being founded in these colonies, and a work so exquisitely illustrated as the Picturesque Atlas [is] well calculated to disseminate and strengthen a love of art, while at the same time revealing to us what a wealth of beauty [is] to be found in Australian scenery’. So said James Smith in 1887, two years before his review of the 9 × 5 Impression Exhibition inspired Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, and Arthur Streeton to assert that it was they who were in the vanguard of developing ‘a great school of painting in Australia’. Who was right?
Of the two competing claims, I’d say that Smith was closer to the mark, because the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia more definitively (and earlier) marked the start of the imperial nationalist art movement. Widely hailed at its launch in 1886 as marking ‘the birth of art under the Southern Cross’, the Atlas would become over the next three years the subject of more than 1300 newspaper articles in the Australian colonies. It provoked the first inter-colonial discussion about how Australia should be depicted as a nation through the eyes of its own artists. Exhibitions of its original drawings toured the country. More than 50,000 subscribers signed up to pay 10 guineas—the equivalent today of 350,000 willing to spend more than $1100—for a three-volume book of fine art, featuring more than 1100 engraved illustrations, that would take three years to produce. No artistic enterprise of this magnitude and expense has ever made such an impact on the Australian public.
The Atlas was more than a symbolic pivot point in Australian art history. Its North American backers introduced into the colonies a series of critical innovations in marketing, fine-art engraving and printing, and the style of illustration. By making Sydney its base and enlisting the Bulletin as part of its public relations machine, the Atlas was also instrumental in shifting the axis of Australian art to the harbour city. It stimulated the employment of artists and decisively lifted the standards of black-and-white art in Sydney’s illustrated press. It was also the making of Julian Ashton.
Despite its national impact and historical significance, the Atlas has earned at best a footnote in the Heidelberg narrative, largely for two reasons. None of its icons, not even Roberts, was employed in this enterprise. And of course its reliance on engraved illustrations ruled it out, by definition, as a serious contributor to the advancement of Australian art. And it didn’t originate in Melbourne. So the birth date of Australian art had to be fixed at the opening of the 9 × 5, an important moment no doubt in hindsight but at the time merely a local and short-lived succès de scandale a la Whistler for Roberts and his followers—and yet another echo of the English art-world.
Where Heidelberg went to die?
Following the collapse of the Australian art market in the 1890s, most of the leading imperial nationalist artists moved to London, where they remained for the better part of two decades. In most versions of ‘Heidelberg’ this exodus is seen as both tragic and a lost opportunity. Not only were they being driven from the place and subjects that had inspired their greatest art but they were also forsaking the chance to enlarge their artistic vision in Paris for the backwaters of English art. This view combines the disappointments of those who have wanted to cast Roberts and his followers as aesthetic radicals and/or Australian nationalists anxious to break free from the cultural and political hegemony of their British overlords.
I would argue, on the contrary, that their decision to base themselves at the epicentre of empire and English art was entirely consistent with their earlier work and careers and their desire to advance themselves as artists working within the traditional norms and contemporary fashions of the London art world. We should therefore not be surprised that they looked to English artists past and present for the inspiration of their mature work. Sometimes this would lead them back to the works of Constable, Whistler and especially Turner. Some like Lambert were influenced by the contemporary vogue for Velásquez, but most sought to move on from their earlier Barbizon naturalism/realism by embracing the work of English impressionists such as George Clausen and Wilson Steer.
However, while the Englishness of their art was given new impetus and expression, so too was their identity as British Australians, colonial nationalists and empire loyalists. As they were now based thousands of kilometres from their Antipodean connections, their parochial attachments to Melbourne or Sydney gave way to the emergence of a truly national school of Australian artists, whose home was ironically the Chelsea Arts Club. They even received imperial recognition of their work following the formation in 1910 of the Royal British Colonial Society of Artists. Whether English- or Australian-born, they were now inescapably colonial artists.
Breaking into the London art world between 1900 and 1914 was nevertheless no easy matter. Apart from having their paintings accepted at the exhibitions of the Royal Academy or the New English Art Club, their only sales would come from commissioned portraits or one-man shows in a London gallery. Lambert and John Longstaff prospered moderately well, but Roberts struggled and Streeton only kept afloat by returning periodically to Australia to flog his European work and maintain his local reputation.
The outbreak of the Great War was almost a welcome circuit-breaker in the lives of these artists. Many of them downed their brushes to throw themselves into the defence of empire and ‘civilisation’. A number from the Chelsea Arts Club, including Roberts and Streeton, enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps on the eve of the Gallipoli landing. However, it was only in 1917–18 that some of them would become Australia’s first official war artists, reaffirming their credentials as Australia’s leading exponents of imperial nationalist art.
Reimagining the art of imperial nationalism
The invention of the Heidelberg narrative about the origins and character of what I have called ‘imperial nationalist art’ was already underway around 1900, but became better defined and more pronounced in the inter-war period. It was finally institutionalised after the Second World War through the work and intersecting interests of a new generation of art curators, administrators, dealers, collectors and historians. Despite a wave of revisionist critiques of its historical value and aesthetic assumptions in the 1980s and 1990s, a succession of immensely popular exhibitions and some notable recent surveys of Australian history have served to enshrine a more refined but still robust version of the original narrative. The immensely high prices paid for the canvasses of the Heidelberg icons, compared with the works of those who don’t fit the narrative, confirm its durability and hegemony. Are we about to forget ‘Heidelberg’? I don’t think so.
But it would be nice to think that one day we might be able to insert the achievements of Roberts and his fellow icons into a broader, less anachronistic account of the historical significance and aesthetic diversity of their era’s visual culture. This will only happen when a new generation of historians produces a decent biography of Julian Ashton, a collective portrait of Sydney’s artist-illustrators, and a penetrating account of ‘Heidelberg’s’ origins, evolution and staying power. But it will take more than academic texts to engineer a reimagination of this era. For in the art world believing will be based on seeing, among other things, the full range of images produced by our imperial nationalist artists—and not just their paintings, or only the works they produced at Heidelberg’s high tide.
A hint of just how we might expand our view of their art can be found in the accompanying illustrations. They come from the pen and brush of the Birmingham-born and -trained A.H. Fullwood (1863–1930): a staff artist of the Picturesque Atlas, Sydney Mail and the Graphic; a leading painter and activist in Sydney’s fractious art world; one of Tom Roberts’ and Arthur Streeton’s closest mates in Sydney and London; the prolific Australian pioneer of monotypes and postcard art sent round the world; an official war artist; and the creator of the original ‘Dad’ in On Our Selection. He was probably the most-viewed British-Australian artist of his generation. No less a contemporary critic than David Souter regarded Fullwood—not Roberts or Streeton—as ‘the most Australian of all Australian artists’. But until we can do better than look at his era through the Heidelberg lens, we are unlikely to see or hear much of him and his pictures.
However, once we dare to dissect and rework the Heidelberg narrative, we can start posing even more fundamental questions. Why do we still cleave to ‘Heidelberg’—our ‘Kodachrome’—almost as tenaciously as the Gallipoli myths? And what would we gain by acknowledging more fully imperialism’s lasting impact on our society? Perhaps we might then be better able, adapting Paul Simon’s words, ‘to read the writing on our wall’.
Follow us for more: