One of Australia's most iconic painters, Tom Roberts was an early champion of plein-air painting and together with Frederick McCubbin, Roberts helped establish the famous painting camps around Heidelberg in Victoria.
Tom Roberts was born on 9 March 1856 in Dorchester, England, the son of a newspaper editor. In 1869, following his father’s death, the thirteen-year-old Roberts emigrated to Australia with his family. In Melbourne he worked for a photographer and, in 1873, attended weekly drawing classes at the Schools of Design at Collingwood and Carlton. He studied at the National Gallery School, Melbourne, from 1874 to 1880, then in 1881 he travelled to London where he attended the Royal Academy Schools from 1881-83. To help finance his studies he contributed illustrations to Graphic . In the summer of 1883 Roberts visited Spain; he met Spanish art students Laureano Barrau and Ramon Casas, who encouraged him to paint directly in front of the motif. Roberts returned to Melbourne in 1885, where he promoted plein air painting and, together with Frederick McCubbin , established the famous painting camps around Heidelberg, on the outskirts of Melbourne. He was a major instigator of the 9 × 5 Impressions Exhibition of 1889.
During 1889-98 Roberts worked in Sydney around Sirius Cove and spent much of his time visiting outback stations in New South Wales, painting rural works of a national character such as Shearing the rams 1890 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne). He also established a reputation for his portraits, including those of public figures such as Sir Henry Parkes, and a series of 23 informal panel portraits of Australian types. He moved to Sydney in 1891.
In 1901 Roberts was commissioned to paint a vast representation of the opening in Melbourne of the first Federal Parliament of Australia and, in 1903, he returned to England where he completed the work. During the First World War he served as an orderly at the 3rd London General Hospital, Wandsworth. After visits to Australia in 1919 and 1920, he returned in 1923 where he painted landscapes in a low-key palette. Tom Roberts died from cancer on 14 September 1931 at Kallista, Victoria.
Gray, Dr Anne Note: Head of Australian Art, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, ACT