BIRTH: 1856 ROBERTS
Born on 09 March 1856: Thomas
William Roberts, British Australian painter who died in
LINKS (Studio) (The Bridge) (Busy Street) (By the Shore) (Woman by the Pond) [the preceding titles are not given, so I made them up]
Bailed Up (1927, 135x183cm) _ Tom Roberts was fascinated by pastoral life and found his greatest fulfillment in a series of bush-life paintings begun in 1888-90 with Shearing the rams and continued after his shift in 1891 from Melbourne to Sydney. Whilst staying at Duncan Anderson's Newstead sheep station, near Inverell in the New England tableland of northern New South Wales, Roberts conceived the idea of a bushranging picture. In it he would present an imaginary incident from the disorderly past, within an artistically modern portrayal of the Australian landscape in its highest key. Such was the beginning of Bailed up.
At Newstead at the end of 1893 Roberts was already planning his second sheep-shearing painting, The Golden Fleece, which he would complete during the following year. Walking along the road between Newstead and Paradise, a neighboring station owned by Russell Hughes, he found a setting for his bushranging picture. It was an isolated spot among grass trees and a forest of tall gums, a level bend on a long steep ascent, the last bad hill for travellers following the Macintyre River on their way to Inverell. This back road was not in fact a coaching route, but here was a good setting for Roberts's 'sham stick-up': a coach would have been well and truly trapped by the great log placed across the narrow climbing road; mounted bushrangers could have waited well camouflaged in the steep forest above, and a spare horse left lurking in the shadows. It was highland country, not far from where the region's last bushranger, 'Captain Thunderbolt', had died a quarter of a century earlier.
At this ideal spot for a robbery under arms, the artist, helped by the Anderson family, built a platform of timber, bark and wire in a stringy-bark tree growing below the road, so that he could set up his canvas on this 'Perch' at the level of the road. A Cobb & Co. coach then in operation between Inverell and Glen Innes was painted in town at Inverell, together with its driver Bob Bates. 'Silent Bob Bates' had a story of being robbed by Thunderbolt some three decades earlier, and it was his laconic, hard-wrung description of the quiet nature of the incident which determined the mood of Roberts's composition. Other characters were modelled by other townspeople in Inverell, and by station hands at Newstead, where the painting was completed. Roberts made tiny drawings and an oil sketch of how he wanted the scene to look before he started his big canvas, in which he set out to create the most complex painting of his career to date; complex because it was not only about the seizing of a moment in the landscape but was also intended to convey a recollection of the historical past. This particular place had engendered the artist's idea of a sudden, apparitional haunting by bushrangers.
Of the group of bush masterpieces that Roberts embarked upon between 1888 and 1898, Bailed up turned out to be the most contentious. For in spite of the nationalistic fervour which might have guaranteed an enthusiastic reception for the painting when it was exhibited in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1890s, it neither succeeded in eliciting unanimous praise, nor found a willing buyer. Roberts dropped the price from £275 to 70 guineas in 1900. After all the enthusiasm and trouble he took to paint Bailed up, Roberts could not dispatch it into the world.
Because Roberts reworked the painting in 1927 it is now difficult to assess the validity of its reception in 1895. Nagging criticisms made by the press concerned the way the legs of the men, or the skin of the horses had been depicted, for example. Perhaps unsatisfactory pictorial resolution was sensed, turning potential collectors away. Eventually in 1928, after Roberts had substantially repainted the background landscape, Bailed up, price 500 guineas, was sold from an exhibition of his work in Sydney.
Critical opinion about Bailed up has fluctuated. Lionel Lindsay wrote warmly of it in the Macquarie Galleries exhibition catalogue, praising its rich rendering of light and comparing its subject to the prose of Henry Lawson. But more recently, in his biography of Roberts, Humphrey McQueen ventured the opinion that Bailed up was ineffectual as a bushranging story and that, because of its flat, almost skyless landscape and lateral disposition of figures across the composition, it was an insipid echo of the then-fashionable, decorative, Symbolist mural style of Puvis de Chavannes. This ambiguity about Bailed up as an icon of Australian art is puzzling. Why is admiration of it so tempered with caution? Is it because, notwithstanding the monumental failure of his vast Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, his Bailed up represents the most protracted struggle in Roberts's career to realise his vision on a large scale?
Answers to these questions may be hinted at by comparing Bailed up with its family of bush-life paintings. Others of the family might have had a more instant appeal. The motif of A break away!, for example, has the impact of an action shot filmed by a swooping helicopter. A rider tries desperately to stop a mob of sheep stampeding down to a water-hole. Suspended in heat and dust, the powerful dynamic of this composition can be read from far away. Small wonder that when Bailed up was first exhibited in 1895 the press preferred Frank Mahony's bustling Australian paintings of Americanized 'cowboys' and 'outlaws', such as the cattlepiece Rounding up a straggler (1889), and the mounted pursuit of bushrangers As in the Days of Old (1892), both of which Roberts would have seen hanging in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Against such action-packed pictures, the static solemnity of Bailed up seems to have worked against its general appeal; perceived perhaps as rather laid-back but artificial tableau. Yet, by considering the deceptive ease of its mood, and with a patient examination of its detail, we may appreciate Bailed up as one of his greatest achievements.
The composition has been cunningly constructed with diagonals and verticals leading the eye up to, around and beyond the dramatis personae. The landscape rises to the very top of the picture no sky as such, and no space for escape and the gaze soon descends once more to the lower half, forced to contain itself within the flat parameters of the picture. Scanning the surface further brings forth the real richness of the work since, as much as Bailed up may be about armed robbery, or landscape, or historical mythology, it is equally about the transforming process of painting.
Roberts's enormous struggle with Bailed up enabled him to arrive at a majestic synthesis. Light became paint, and paint became light and we cannot tell the difference between the two, whether it is in the radiance of the shirts and hats of the figures, or the straw-coloured grass and silvery tree-trunks of the midsummer landscape. Day after day Roberts walked three kilometers uphill on the road from Paradise, where he stayed because it was closer than Newstead, climbed up a ladder to the 'Perch', and stared at the hot stillness he was setting down on his canvas which had been wired to a railing. This sense he transferred to the coach scene itself, investing the figures with an almost mystical calm. Indeed he created the feeling that time had stopped in the small, transient affairs of humankind, as an all-pervading, all-redeeming, saturating light became the most important subject of the work. The idea that we are observing a kind of fairytale incident, strangely remote from yet hypnotised by it, was carried even more tellingly into Roberts's companion bushranging picture In a corner on the Macintrye, painted about the same time. But nowhere in the entire history of Australian painting has such a quality been better rendered than in Bailed up, where the mystery of light, human incident, and experience of the Australian bush are combined with spellbinding orchestration.
The remaining question which tantalizes is a technical one, and concerns the extent to which Roberts repainted Bailed up in 1927. The surface of the painting scraped, reworked, impasted, glazed, restated is like a fossilised ocean bed, and traversing its bumps, dents and crevices with the naked eye does not easily expose what is old or new; only the impression of an impenetrable embodiment of the painting's own history. Roberts inscribed two dates on the painting 1895 and 1927 and said that he reworked it extensively in 1927 in his current manner. This was at a period when he had become much more a meditative artist than a descriptive one, and thus of profound interest to certain later painters of Australian landscape. And that, in the end, is the telling factor which may distinguish Bailed up from the period of its conception. For although he was no Poussin, nor even a Puvis, he had an astute intuition for the grid. In other words, at his best, he could orchestrate with genius all the aspects of a painting, be they naturalistic or abstract, into the modern values of a flat surface. In this way Bailed up straddles two worlds. It began as an idea for an historical narrative of the nineteenth century, but finished, through Roberts's difficulties, as a scaffolding by which he could be in grand scale a painter for the twentieth.
Louis Buvelot (1886 drawing, 28x22cm) _ Tom Robert's portrait of venerable artistic elder Louis Buvelot, is one of the most sensitive portrayals of an Australian artist made by a fellow artist. Buvelot is presented with a quiet dignity that underlines the respect and admiration that he inspired in the generation of artists that followed him and upon whom his work had such influence.