Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience

CHAPTER 5

TOM ROBERTS’ LONDON YEARS

In examining Tom Roberts’ London years (1903–1923) this article focuses on the painter’s triangle of loyalties – Australian, English and British imperial – and questions the relevance of considering him an expatriate. New evidence is presented about the house Tom and Lillie built in Hampstead Garden Suburb, which served as a refuge from the difficulties and disappointments of Tom’s career, as well as from the tiring drudgery of war work.

In the years he spent in England Tom Roberts would never have considered himself an expatriate. And, indeed, why should he have? He was born in England in 1856, migrating to Australia with his mother and younger sister and brother at the age of thirteen; spent the years 1881–1885 pursuing his art studies at the Royal Academy Schools in London; and was domiciled in England from 1903 to 1923. In so far as an expatriate is defined as a person who has withdrawn from residence in his native country, it would technically be more correct to describe Roberts as an expatriate Englishman in Australia.1

Humphrey McQueen begins his biography of Roberts by pointing out that the painter spent thirty-five of his seventy-five years in England and posits that ‘understanding Roberts’ ambitions and achievements requires an appreciation of the codes and assumptions that determined advancement and shaped prospects for a white man throughout the British Empire’. But while the imperial dimension of Roberts’ career is important, McQueen shows less interest in the painter’s Englishness, as distinct from Britishness, and his continuing relationship with the land of his birth. In her Catalogue Raisonée Helen Topliss describes Roberts in his London years as an expatriate, and in her contribution to the 1996 Tom Roberts exhibition she sees him as ‘characteristic of that immigrant generation of artists, writers and craftworkers who had arrived in Australia at a sufficiently early age to adapt to the needs of a new country’, but also describes him as having ‘split loyalties’. Virginia Spate, however, identifies the Britishness and Australianness of immigrant painters from England and Scotland as ‘one and the same thing’, which is an odd way of putting it, but goes further in asserting that these painters ‘contributed as much, if not more, to the development of an Australian style and iconography than did the native-born’. In this chapter I look at Roberts’ London years with a view to teasing out his own sense of identity, and exploring what the trinity of Britishness, Englishness and Australianness meant to him.2

As early as 1899 Roberts had expressed his intention of making the move to England. In 1900, writing from New Zealand, he told his friend S.W. Pring that ‘I may happen to see you in England – if I can clear enough by a sale I think of having – it’s ho for the old country – there’s nothing for a painter here’. But it was his extended work on ‘The Big Picture’, the commissioned painting of the opening of the first federal parliament in 1901, which finally served to justify the journey. Some of Roberts’ friends commiserated with him about the time and effort the ‘big picture’ demanded. ‘I hope the big machine is a success’, wrote Charles Conder, ‘but it must be an awful job to do’. But Roberts himself was totally committed to the project. He had been there in the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, watching from a gallery, and described the occasion as ‘very solemn and great’: ‘the heads on the floor looked like a landscape stretching away’. To Pring he confided:

 

Friends pity me but they needn’t. I know what a chance there is to produce something & am going for it for all it’s worth. Machine? no. a document? – yes? & something more. The Royalty & and its suite of Governors of states and – the members, democracy – with the people – that’s the Empire & and this all meets under one roof. And that’s what I’m painting.

Roberts took for granted that this was a national occasion, but the ‘big picture’ was ultimately a portrait of the empire, captured in this one moment in the cathedral-like space of the Exhibition Building.3

Roberts persuaded the Australian Art Association, which had originally commissioned the painting, that he needed to travel to England to complete the portraits of the members of the royal party. The association agreed to meet the cost of freight for the painting and rental of a studio in London, but Roberts had to pay the fare for himself and his family. The painter was accorded an official farewell dinner, presided over by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne. Tom, his wife Lillie and their five-year-old son Caleb arrived in England in April 1903. They took lodgings in Manchester Square, later in the year moving to a flat in Putney. Although he had rented a studio in Warwick Square, the Imperial Institute also gave him the use of its South Africa Room, a big space for the painting with high north-facing windows, ‘a room to dream in’ as he described it.4 There were still some fifty dignitaries to paint, and his ‘brush’ with royalty included lunch with the Duke and Duchess of York, now Prince and Princess of Wales, which was the kind of recognition Roberts always enjoyed. Late in the piece, it seems, it was decided that the painting, which the association had formally given to the Commonwealth, should in turn be presented to King Edward. So the long, laborious process culminated in a ceremony on 4 July 1904 at the Royal Academy, where the painting was put on display. The ‘big picture’ had come to rest, along with its painter, at the heart of empire.5

Roberts might well have felt satisfaction at the completion of a project which had meant so much to him. But his hope that mixing with the rich and famous would result in portrait commissions was largely disappointed. And the ‘big picture’ itself received only condescending notice from the critics. He was beginning to realise that at the age of forty-eight establishing a new career in London was not going to be easy. The heart of empire could seem a heartless place. As he put it in a much-quoted interview in 1906:

 

England doesn’t really want anybody. She has everybody and everything. The supply is in excess of the demand. She has the whole world to draw upon, and everyone comes here sooner or later. The only thing is to make her want you, and that is difficult, for she really only wants the exceptional in any line.

One can sense the self-doubt in his voice: was what he had to offer exceptional? Nor did Lillie warm to London. When Frederick McCubbin – the ‘Prof’ as Roberts always called him – wrote in 1904 expressing the hope that he and Lillie were liking London better, it was probably Lillie he had in mind, as her only experience of England had been in the course of a grand tour with friends in 1886. A year later we find Roberts telling the ‘Prof’ that ‘the Missus’ was beginning to think London was an interesting place. Lillie had taken up wood carving, learning to gild, and was soon making frames, with a view not only to saving money with Tom’s paintings, but also contributing to the family income.6

With his three-year preoccupation with the ‘Big Picture’ at an end, it seemed as if Roberts suddenly had an empty canvas before him, and the sight was somehow unnerving. ‘I’m beginning work here’, he told Alfred Deakin in 1904, ‘and have a very uphill fight before me. The mere quantity and variety of styles and efforts of different men is likely to affect one’s own outlook – and you have to stand very firm and be sure’. The riches of the European art scene seemed constricting rather than liberating. To make matters worse he started having problems with his eyes: it was almost as if his loss of confidence was affecting what the painter was able to see. There was, however, no question of going back to Australia. The career commitment had been made. But the problems he was encountering did diminish the sense of having come ‘home’.7

McCubbin’s career offers an interesting contrast. Native-born, he had, at this time, never travelled outside Australia. While Roberts was finishing the ‘big picture’ in London, McCubbin was working on his own magnus opus: ‘I am pegging on at the Pioneer and I feel like the poor devels [sic] I am painting in the picture rather sad about it however I am doing my best’. He was also canvassing the possibility of making a trip to Europe, which Roberts was encouraging, offering ‘a truckle bed’ in their flat to put him up for a couple of months. In 1904 McCubbin dismally reported on his one-man show at the Athenaeum, which he thought represented his ‘best ever’ work (it included his ‘big picture’) but for which receipts were only a few pounds over expenses: ‘the indifference that is allied to contempt underlies all that Melbourne cares for Art’. Responding to Roberts’ longstanding invitation, he remarked on his own ‘unfortunate want of the initiative’. ‘I sometimes think that it’s all a dream & that there is no Europe, that it’s a huge joke’. With so many of his fellow artists in London he was feeling lonely in the colonial outpost: ‘Smike and You and the boys will look upon me as an Old Provincial I am afraid when I get to Europe’. But when at last he made the trip in 1907 he did have the satisfaction of knowing that the National Gallery of Victoria had recently used the Felton Bequest to acquire ‘The Pioneer’ for £350. That gallery did not buy a Roberts until 1920.8

From time to time Roberts would feel some cause for optimism – a short trip to Holland in 1905 resulted in ‘the best painting work I’ve done so far’ he told the ‘Prof’ – but in 1907 there was huge disappointment when a painting he had been working on for two years, ‘The Sleeper Awakened’, was rejected by the Royal Academy. This painting was inspired by the Arabian Nights and seemed an unlikely subject for Roberts, but was clearly meant to mark a new departure in his work. ‘I got the “gem” biffed last night’, he told Pring; ‘So far, it seems a rum climax to two years work’. He was not prepared to give away too much about his feelings. His sense of failure was heightened by the knowledge that nine Australians had had paintings accepted by the academy. Caleb recalled his father lamenting that he had gone to England ‘ten years too late’ to achieve recognition.9

In the face of this and similar knockbacks, it was a sign of his grim determination that Tom and Lillie decided to build a house in the newly opened up Hampstead Garden Suburb. Lillie’s father had died in 1905, a cause for considerable grief given the separation of distance, but a modestly sizeable inheritance made the move into property possible. There was also a saving involved, as the idea was for the house to have its own studio, which meant there would be no need to keep up the studio in Kensington he had rented since 1905.

Hampstead Garden Suburb, an extension of Golders Green, was an interesting choice. It was, of course, a move to the suburban periphery; the trust which established the garden suburb had only acquired the 240 acres in 1907. Its proximity to Hampstead Heath was a plus, but there were other reasons why this new development would have appealed to Tom and Lillie. The suburb was the lifework of Henrietta Barnett, wife of the Reverend Samuel Barnett, a man who has been described as, physically, ‘peculiarly unattractive’. Both were very much committed to ‘good works’ and had got to know each other through the Charity Organisation Society. During a twenty-one-year stint at St Jude’s Whitechapel they had built Toynbee Hall. Beatrice Webb described Henrietta as ‘an active-minded, true and warm-hearted woman. She is conceited; she would be objectionably conceited if it were not for her genuine belief in her husband’s superiority not only to the rest of the world but to herself’. In 1879 the Barnetts had acquired a house in Hampstead which served both as a ‘cottage home’ for girls, training them for domestic service, and as a retreat for themselves; ten years later they moved the cottage to Heath End. As the expanding metropolis began to encroach on the area around Hampstead Heath plans were made for an extension to the Heath reserve. It was in this context that Henrietta Barnett became enthused of the idea of ensuring appropriate suburban development in the vicinity of the Heath extension.10

Adopting the ideal of the garden suburb, Henrietta harnessed it to her social agenda. The architect Raymond Unwin, whose firm was already involved with Letchworth Garden Suburb, was enlisted. In 1911 Unwin, writing in the Garden Cities & Town Planning Magazine, explained the philosophy underpinning the Hampstead project:

 

I ... felt it to be very important to secure some good centre to the estate, which it was intended should be developed as a community having a certain unity of social character. It was regarded by Mrs Barnett as one of the most important parts of the scheme, from the social point of view, that all classes should be housed within the area of the estate. Thoughtful people who have had experience of large towns in the neighbourhood of which there have been growing up vast suburbs often peopled by one class or another of the community, have realised the very grave evils resulting from this aggregation of people having such a one-sided and limited outlook on life. And while it is obviously not possible to mix together indiscriminately the dwellings of people of all classes, the promoters of the suburb felt that a great effort should be made to prove that it is not only possible, but as it is in every way most desirable, so by proper planning it may be arranged that all classes of the community should live together in such close relationship that even the smaller units of social life, such as the parish, should contain a sufficiently wide variety of types and classes of people to produce a healthy, interesting and open-minded society.

This obsession with the intractability of the class order might have seemed peculiarly English, but Henrietta Barnett’s social agenda would have appealed to Roberts, with his experience of colonial democracy (and this was a time when Australasia was regarded as a social laboratory for the world). The aesthetic of the garden suburb would also have pleased him: the emphasis on architectural harmony, the use of local materials, the arts-and-crafts dimension. The suburb early on acquired something of an arty reputation, which rather irritated Henrietta. ‘People often assume that the inhabitants of the Garden Suburb are all eccentric, sandalled, corsetless “cranks”. That’, she insisted, ‘is not the case’. But the elderly author of the history of the suburb recalls that as a small child in the 1920s he ‘certainly had the impression that women living north of Meadway were likely to wear bandeaux and shapeless homespun and probably had bare feet!’. If Roberts missed having easy access to the society of his brother artists in Chelsea, he could nevertheless feel that Hampstead Garden Suburb provided a congenial environment for an artist.11

Quite a few years ago – more than I care to remember in fact – I went in search of the house that Tom and Lillie had built. Although the house had been described by their contemporaries, many quoted by R.H. Croll, it did not seem that any of the more recent writers on Roberts had sighted it. Similarly, McQueen in his biography records in a footnote a ‘personal visit’ to Putney, where Tom and Lillie rented their flat, but no such visit to Hampstead Garden Suburb is noted. As will emerge, there is a reason why the house is difficult to locate.

As I walked from Golders Green tube station, going down Hoop Lane and into Meadway and the leafy quietness of Hampstead Garden Suburb, I was struck by the imposing uniformity of style – steep pitched roofs, big chimneys, casement windows, hedges but no garden walls. Everything seemed intact: why shouldn’t the Roberts house have survived? I knew that it had originally been no.1 Bigwood Road, and that later it had been renumbered no. 27. I had also copied a primitive sketch of the house – no more than four or five lines – that Roberts had included in a letter to T.R. Bavin, in which he had described the house as ‘a small one tacked on [to] a good studio’.12 When, with the aid of my London A to Z, I found Bigwood Road my hopes rose. But on reaching no. 17, a house on the corner of Southway, I next encountered a block of institutional buildings labelled Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute. And then, on the other side of the institute, where I figured no. 27 should have been, was a school. Well, I thought, that explains the lack of reference to the house: it had made way for the school.

Rather disconsolate, I walked up Northway to the top of the hill and Central Square, which is dominated by two handsome brick churches designed by Edwin Lutyens: the parish church, St Jude-on-the-Hill, and the Free Church (a Roman Catholic church apparently being considered unnecessary). Both were closed to visitors on a week day. The square itself was a rather empty, desolate space, except for a couple of lads kicking a football.13 I was beginning to lose interest in this highly planned, self-contained garden suburb. Until, that is, strolling down Southway I noticed no. 10, which bore a remarkable resemblance to Roberts’ little sketch, with a room at the front, with studio-like windows, facing north. I considered knocking on the door there and then, but thought better of it. That afternoon I penned a letter to the owner/occupier with my enquiry. Within twenty-four hours I was rung by the owner, a Mr Robert Walker: and yes, in the course of his own research into the origins of his house, he had acquired copies of the architect’s drawings from the Suburb Archive.

Figure 5.1 Tom and Lillie Roberts’ house in Hampstead Garden Suburb

Source: Hampstead Garden Suburb Archive

The house had been built for a Mr Tom Roberts, a painter, and while Mr Walker was aware that the front room had been designed as a studio he had no idea of Roberts’ status in the pantheon of Australian art. Invited to afternoon tea, I was able to inspect the house, only superficially altered since Tom and Lillie lived here, and was then able to pursue the research trail to the Suburb Archive. It had been one of the first houses built in that locality, which helps explain its originally been no. 1 Bigwood Avenue. It was actually used in advertisements for the Hampstead Garden Suburb development. Later, when Bigwood Avenue was extended to the north, the section where the Roberts house was located was renamed Southway, though looking at the overall plan, one assumes this must always have been the intention. The 1971 Conservation Study describes no. 10 Southway as ‘a gem of small scale dignity by Geoffrey Lucas, a square block with a canted window to the ground floor and a big central chimney’. Mr Walker reported that in the late 1950s Tom Roberts’ son materialised on the doorstep (he couldn’t remember his name) with a woman he assumed to be his wife, taxi waiting, chiefly concerned, it seemed, to ascertain whether a gun had been left in the loft: it seemed an unlikely mission, given the time lapse, and they departed gunless. More recently Caleb’s son Noel had been in touch, exchanging information with the Walkers. But no historian or biographer had set foot in the house that Tom and Lillie built.14

The house, built at a cost of about £670,15 was a success. Tom and Lillie approved what the architect Lucas had designed for them:

 

We’ve been lucky enough to have chosen a site that overlooks Hampstead Heath from which we are only a few minutes walk – The house is a small one tacked on a good studio – The Mrs has cupboards all over the place – (all nearly full!) & no passages – We are fit and well the Mrs enjoying things.

It was, however, out on the edge and there was difficulty getting a maid – ‘we are too much in the wilderness!’ As for the studio, it was ‘a privilege to work in it’. Jessie Traill described it as ‘a charming home’, and an English friend remarked ‘its great ingenuity in convenience of arrangement and economy of space’, and saw both house and garden as bearing ‘the impress of artistic design’. One might guess that Lillie had some influence on the house plan, but the garden was very much Tom’s preserve: he planted sycamore trees, hawthorn, fruit trees (there were still eight pear trees when the Walkers bought the house), raspberry, currant and gooseberry bushes. For him ‘a bit of gardening with the smell of the fresh earth’ was ‘like a tonic’. On Sundays Tom and Lillie presided over a kind of afternoon tea salon, sometimes in an arbour in the garden, otherwise in the studio in the midst of Tom’s paintings.16

Tom and Lillie found themselves part of a lively community, its pioneers, attracted by the garden suburb ideal, expecting to have a say in its affairs. By 1910 a Club House had been built, with a hall, billiard room, smoking room and a women’s meeting room. In 1911 King George and Queen Mary visited the Club House and took a two-hour look at the garden suburb, which was clearly the subject of public interest: was Tom there to renew his acquaintance with the Royals? Within a few years Henrietta Barnett was boasting that there was an art school, a music school, provision for adult classes and societies, a residential club house for working ladies, an eventide home and a rest home for tired working girls. She saw the residents of the suburb as being ‘relieved of the oppression of wealth, and able to meet each other on the simpler and deeper grounds of common interests and shared aspirations’. Tom and Lillie may have been living on the suburban fringe, but they could feel themselves to be participants in an important social experiment.17

The move to Hampstead Garden Suburb coincided with an improvement in Roberts’ artistic morale. In early 1909 he told Pring of ‘a kind of dawning in ... my work after four or five years of doubt and uncertainty’ and later in the year he confirmed that ‘after a long spell I’ve found some light, & things are clearer for me’.18 In 1910 he could breathe a sigh of relief when the Royal Academy hung two of his paintings.

Although now living on the suburban fringe Roberts did not lose touch with the social life associated with the London art scene. He still dropped in on the Chelsea Arts Club, which had a significant Australian membership. Indeed, Bernard Smith, commenting on the exodus of Australian painters at this time, tartly observes that ‘it was in the Chelsea Arts Club that the Heidelberg School established its last and least distinguished camp’. Nor is it a surprise to find Roberts, along with George Lambert, organising a reception and entertainment for Australian representatives and delegates attending the Imperial Conference in 1911. It was held at the Imperial Institute, but Roberts and Lambert enlisted many of their friends from the Chelsea Arts Club to take part. The British Australasian described the event as ‘most brilliant and successful’. Boy Scouts formed a kind of guard of honour at the door and the band of the Grenadier Guards provided ‘beautiful selections’. The popular Peter Dawson was on hand to sing ‘Kangaroo and Dingo’ and, less appropriately, ‘Rolling down to Rio’.19

But the climax of the evening was a series of acted tableaux telling the story of ‘Australian development and awakening’. ‘Watched only by scanty packs of blackfellows’, sleeping Australia is first visited by the adventurers of Spain who, ‘careless of their own as for others’ lives [are] uninterested in any new land that could not give them riches and slaves. Not for them will Australia awake’. Next on the scene are Dutch traders: they are keen, money-conscious observers, but, used to tropical islands, they do not respond to ‘Australia’s more subtle beauties’. Australia stirs but ‘cannot yield herself to such sordid wooers – and she sinks to sleep again’. Now, at last:

 

Enter the British, masterful but kindly wooers. As the natives, suspecting these strange newcomers, prepare to resent their intrusion, the Commander soothes their fears and restrains the impetuosity of his own men, at the same time claiming the land for Britain. At last Australia knows her own. It is for them she has waited so long, and at their touch she lives.

The fourth episode, in praise of the explorer, was performed by the ‘Hon Walter James and a black’, the latter the only unnamed actor in the entertainment. Then comes the discovery of gold: ‘Australia rejoices, eager to shower all her wealth upon the men who love her’. Finally, the apotheosis: ‘The sister States, occupied with local rivalry, disturb Australia by their lack of harmony. She uses all the means of entreaty and persuasion at her command to urge Federation’. In this episode it was noted that ‘the part of a little black girl was taken by Miss Konody’ – the daughter, it would appear, of Mrs Konody who was playing one of the States. Little Miss Konody was presumably ‘blacked up’ for the occasion, as must have been the case with the ‘blackfellows’ in earlier scenes, but from where had Roberts and Lambert recruited the explorer’s black?20

Throughout this story of Australian awakening, the Aborigines are little more than background figures, unnoticed by the sleeping Australia. One is tempted to pursue the metaphor through to its logical conclusion – that, with the arrival of the British, Australia would get no sleep at all, and might well hanker for the peace and quiet of the Aboriginal centuries. Of course the entertainment was a light-hearted affair intended to please and amuse its imperial audience, but its celebration of British superiority has the ring of sincerity. The omissions are also telling: while explorers and gold-diggers are held up for esteem, convicts are tidily swept under the imperial carpet. On the other hand, one wonders whether Roberts, who had an interest in Aboriginal culture, was responsible for including the ‘little black girl’ in the Federation scene. Was it meant to suggest that in the great national and imperial moment that he had portrayed in ‘the big picture’ the Aboriginal presence could not be entirely ignored?

More confident in his painting, Roberts had a modestly successful solo exhibition in February 1914, and perhaps boosted by this was intending to pay a visit to Australia when the Great War intervened. He was on his way to Italy on a painting trip when, as he put it, ‘the thing began to happen ... I could not paint. I saw the boys in the trenches between me and the canvas’, and he returned to England: ‘It was no use. I had to join up, I simply couldn’t keep out of it. I had planned my trip to Australia before the war, but I just had to postpone it, make a slight mistake about my age, and do my little bit’. On his return he joined the volunteers, ‘the last ditchers’ he called them, going on long route marches every Saturday. Sometime in mid-1915 an officer walked into the Chelsea Arts Club seeking volunteers for the military hospitals. Roberts was among a number of artists who answered the call. He found himself at the Third London General Hospital where he was to spend the rest of the war, by which time he had, as Caleb put it, reached ‘the exalted rank of Sergeant’. ‘I’m very proud to be a Tommy’, he told Pring in 1915. But the work was often exhausting: he records one day when he was on duty from 6 a.m. until after 10 p.m. with only one half-hour break. According to Caleb ‘he would come home to Golders Green on week-end leave and rest with little energy left for other interests’. For the rest of the war he hardly painted at all. He was either overlooked in the appointment of war artists or preferred the penance of the hospital work.21

In late 1919 Roberts at last set out on the journey to Australia, the trip justified partly in terms of restoring his health, which seemed to have been knocked by the years of war work (he was now in his sixties), and partly with a view to selling some paintings there. And Lillie had hopes that ‘the voyage and visit to the old land will set him up to come back for a happy old age’.22 That it did – and in 1923 he and Lillie finally returned to Australia and to something resembling retirement. By this time Caleb had married and was settled in England.

Tom’s comments in press interviews during his 1919–1920 visit and on his and Lillie’s arrival in 1923 point up the complexity of loyalties at play. He was proud to be a Tommy and to be doing his bit for Britain and empire, but he was also ‘proud of the Australians’ whose ‘unconsciously fine bearing made people think they were officers instead of privates’. He was seeing ‘the Australians’ in London, and it was in that sense an English perspective, echoing the celebrated image that the poet John Masefield had offered in Gallipoli, when he praised the Anzacs for their ‘physical beauty and nobility of bearing’. Sensitive, perhaps, because of his long absence in England, Roberts seemed hesitant about his own Australianness: ‘When people tell me I am not an Australian ... I reply that there are many people not Australians who do Australian things’. In 1923 he told the Adelaide Evening Journal that he hoped to stay in Australia, ‘Mrs Roberts permitting’:

 

Mrs Roberts burst out laughing. ‘My husband is a goose,’ she said with whimsical tenderness. ‘Also he will never really grow up. As a matter of fact he is just teasing me. He knows perfectly well that I share his partiality for Australia – the more so that he finds such sure inspiration here’.

The ‘partiality for Australia’ suggests not so much a sense of the expatriate coming home as the making of a difficult choice. And, of course, Lillie would in particular regret the separation from their only son and child, Caleb.23

There was never any doubt about Roberts’ imperial loyalty and it seemed that his having been born in England strengthened that attachment. There is a nice symbolism to his making the journey to the heart of empire in 1903 with the ‘big picture’, so to speak, in his luggage. Both painter and painting would eventually return to Australia, though the latter technically only on permanent loan. But the historical tableaux he helped stage in 1911 had a significance for those involved simply because the entertainment took place in London: the tableaux represent a kind of Australian performance in honour of the empire. ‘Australia’ is the continent: the people in the tableaux are not ‘Australians’ but the ‘masterful but kindly’ British.

Many of Roberts’ contemporaries saw him as being English. His nickname, Bulldog, loudly proclaimed it. His accent was perceived as being English. The native-born Norman Lindsay, who admired Roberts’ work, was in no doubt that he was an Englishman. And I don’t think Roberts would have disputed the fact: though he might well have seen himself as an Englishman who did Australian things. On returning to live in Australia in 1923 he was eager not to be seen as forsaking England. ‘Don’t run away with the idea that we didn’t appreciate dear old England’, he told the Adelaide journalist, adding nostalgically, ‘We had a jolly little home at Golders Green, where many of the fraternity would congregate’. Hampstead Garden Suburb, and the values it represented, had been an important part of Tom and Lillie’s English experience. Unlike the flat in Putney, it was a place where they could feel rooted in the soil.24

James Quinn, whom Roberts acknowledged as an important influence in reviving and renewing his powers, writing to Roberts from England told him that now he was ‘back home I am sure you will see the character of the Australian bush as no Australian, who has not been away from home can see it’. This was very close to Lindsay’s view: ‘The mind from abroad, when it has vision, possesses a wider perspective. It sees virtues and advantages that escape the native-born, whose sense of them is blunted by familiarity’. It was important in Roberts’ role in helping create the Heidelberg School that he had just returned from England, but ‘it was in Australia that I gained my first impressions of the beauty of the world, and the bush taught me’. And it is this perspective from abroad that Spate is pointing to when paying tribute to the contribution of ‘immigrant painters’ to ‘Australian style and iconography’.25

It is not germane to my argument here whether this interpretation of the contribution of Roberts and other ‘immigrant painters’ is valid or not, though I think it is patronising of McQueen to conclude, with respect to Roberts’ first decade in England, that ‘in courting respectability he had achieved irrelevance’.26 In seeking to make a living in England, was Roberts ‘courting respectability’? (Roberts, whether in Melbourne or London, clearly thought there was nothing wrong with a bit of ‘respectability’ which, as far as he was concerned, could co-exist with a whiff of bohemia.) And it is relevant to note here that art historians are not so ready as they once were to dismiss out of hand Roberts’ English and later Australian works.27

At the outset I suggested that strictly speaking Tom Roberts was an English rather than an Australian expatriate. But perhaps the real point is that for someone like Roberts it is not rewarding to apply the label ‘expatriate’ at all. For him perhaps more than for anyone, W.K. Hancock’s classic formulation, ‘independent Australian Briton’, is appropriate.28 Within the bounds of the empire, Tom Roberts moved to and fro between centre and periphery. There were choices involved relating to career and family, but from his point of view it was not a choice between being English or Australian. If some of his contemporaries saw him as an Englishman, so be it: but he knew that, for him as a painter, the Australian bush, much more than the Royal Academy Schools, had been his teacher.

ENDNOTES

1     The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘to expatriate’ as ‘to withdraw (oneself) from residence in one’s native country’ or ‘from allegiance to one’s country’, and ‘an expatriate’ as ‘an expatriated person’. ‘Native country’ implies the country of one’s birth. http://www.macquariedictionary.com.au, accessed 16 October 2008.

2     McQueen, 1996, 3–4; Topliss, 1985, 25; Topliss and Spate, 1996, 160, 166, 68.

3     Conder to Roberts, n.d., Roberts Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, MSS A2479/39; Roberts to Pring, 25 April 1900, 21 June (no year given, but written from the Exhibition Building where Roberts was working on the ‘big picture’ 1901–1903), S.W. Pring Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, MSS 1367/2.

4     McQueen, 1996, 481.

5     Rickard, 1996, 271; McQueen, 1996, 479–481. There had also been a visit to Paris to see to the engraving of the painting, which the Art Association was going to market.

6     British Australian, 30 August 1906, quoted Topliss, 1985, 25; McCubbin to Roberts, 4 November 1904, Roberts Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, MSS A2479; Roberts to McCubbin, 23 October 1905, Photocopy, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, MSS 8188, Box 596/5.

7     Roberts to Deakin, 4 August 1904, Quoted in Crawford, 1964, 155.

8     McCubbin to Roberts, 14 June 1904, 25 August 1905, Roberts Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, MSS A2479. ‘Smike’ was the nickname for Arthur Streeton.

9     Roberts to Pring, 27 April 1907, Pring Papers; McQueen, 1996, 520; Caleb quoted in Croll, 1935, 96.

10    Ikin and Green, 1990, 7, 9.

11    Ikin and Green, 1990, 25, 39.

12    Roberts to Bavin, 16 October 1909, Bavin Papers. National Library of Australia, MS 560.

13    As Nikolaus Pevsner had observed in 1951, ‘The Central Square in spite of its public buildings has never become a real social centre, because not only shops, but also cinemas, pubs, cafés have been refused admission’. (Quoted in Ikin and Green, 1990, 43).

14    Shanklin Cox and Associates, 1971, 127. Author’s journal, 3 September 1992.

15    This is noted on the Abstract Specification Form for the house, Hampstead Garden Suburb Archive.

16    Roberts to Bavin, 16 October 1909, Bavin Papers, National Library of Australia, MS 560; Traill and E.R. Garnsey. Quoted in Croll, 1935, 90–93; Roberts to McCubbin, 14 November 1909, Photocopy, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, MS 8188, Box 596/5. The pear trees were still there when the Walkers acquired the house in 1956, but subsequently died one by one. The garden was, he said, ‘deeply shaded by hawthorn and sycamore trees’ and ‘nothing would flourish in the flowerbeds!’ Subsequently the garden was re-landscaped with very little of the original garden surviving. (Copy, Walker to Noel Roberts, 24 October 1910, Author’s possession.)

17    Ikin and Green, 1990, 42; Barnett, 1917, 205.

18    Roberts to Pring, 11 February 1909, Pring Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales; Roberts to Bavin, 16 October 1909, Bavin Papers, National Library of Australia, MS 560. McQueen assumes that ‘the Robertses would not have presumed on their previous acquaintance’ with the King and Queen. In Tom’s case, I am not so sure!

19    Smith, 1962, 152; British Australasian, 1 June 1911 quoted in Croll, 1935, 99–101.

20    Croll, 1935, 99–101.

21    Newscutting, n.d. but c.1920, in large book, Roberts Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, MSS 4586, Box 1X(2); Caleb quoted in Croll, 1935, 96–97; Roberts to Pring, 18 July 1915. Pring Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales; re war artists, McQueen, 1996, 592.

22    McQueen, 1996, 606.

23    Newscutting, Evening Journal (Adelaide), 16 May 1923, Book 114, Roberts Papers, MSS 4586, Box 1X(2); Masefield, 1916, 25.

24    Newscutting, Evening Journal (Adelaide), 16 May 1923, Book 114, Roberts Papers, MSS 4586, Box 1X(2).

25    Quinn to Roberts, 12 January 1924, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, MSS A2480, Vol. 3; Lindsay, quoted in McQueen, 1996, 638; newscutting, Herald (Melbourne), 20 March 1920, Roberts Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, MSS, 4586/1X(2), 105; Topliss and Spate, 1996, 68.

26    McQueen, 1996, 559.

27    See, for example, Pearce, 1996, 168–178.

28    Hancock, 1930.

PRIMARY SOURCES

Author’s Journal, 1992.

Bavin Papers, National Library of Australia.

British Australian, 1906.

Hampstead Garden Suburb Archive.

Tom Roberts Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

S.W. Pring Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Walker to Noel Roberts, 24 October 1910, copy in author’s possession.

REFERENCES

Barnett, Henrietta. 1917. In Problems of Reconstruction: Lectures and Addresses at the Summer Meeting at the Hampstead Garden Suburb, August, 1917. London: T. Fisher Unwin Ltd.

Crawford, R.M. 1964. ‘Tom Roberts and Alfred Deakin’. In In Honour of Daryl Lindsay: Essays and Studies, edited by Philipp, Franz; Stewart, June. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Croll, R.H. 1935. Tom Roberts: Father of Australian Landscape Painting. Melbourne: Robertson & Mullens.

Ikin, C.W.; with Green, Brigid Grafton. 1990. Hampstead Garden Suburb: Dreams and Realities, London: New Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust.

Hancock, W.K. 1930. Australia. London: Ernest Benn.

Masefield, John. 1916. Gallipoli. London: Heinemann.

McQueen, Humphrey. 1996. Tom Roberts. Sydney, Macmillan.

Pearce, Barry. 1996. ‘Reflections on the Late Work’. In Tom Roberts, edited by Radford, Ron. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia.

Rickard, John. 1996. ‘The Big Picture’. In Victorian Icon: The Royal Exhibition Building Melbourne, edited by Dunstan, David. Melbourne: The Exhibition Trustees.

Shanklin, Cox and Associates. 1971. ‘Hampstead garden suburb: A conservation Study’. Hampstead Garden Suburb Archive.

Smith, Bernard. 1962. Australian Painting 1788–1970. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Topliss, Helen. 1985. Tom Roberts, 1856–1931: A Catalogue Raisonnée. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Topliss, Helen and Spate, Virginia. 1996. In Tom Roberts, edited by Radford, Ron. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia.

 

Cite this chapter as: Rickard, John. 2009. ‘Tom Roberts’ London years’. Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience, edited by Bridge, Carl; Crawford, Robert; Dunstan, David. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 5.1 to 5.13.

 

Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience

   by Carl Bridge