fig. 1 
Tom Roberts

Tom Roberts’s large canvas, Shearing the rams (fig. 1) is popularly seen today as an archetypal vision of Australian pastoral life. With his considerable capacity for self-advertisement, Roberts did much to foster this notion. He was proud of the fact that he had travelled into the country and spent months working on the picture in an outback shed at Brocklesby, near Corowa, New South Wales. 

In a letter to The Argus (4 July 1890) he described his desire to paint a shearing picture: ‘so it came that being in the bush and feeling the delight and fascination of the great pastoral life and work I have tried to express it’.1 This letter and that quoted in the next paragraph are reprinted in R. H. Croll, Tom Roberts, Father of Australian Landscape Painting, Melbourne, 1935, pp. 33–34. In describing the advantages to the artist of direct communion with nature and the rural life, Roberts was espousing an idea prevalent in contemporary European art circles. Roberts was not, however, the first artist to depict the subject of shearing sheep. It had been previously treated in a few isolated paintings2 For example, see 1884 Victorian Jubilee Exhibition Catalogue, Art Pamphlets, State Library of Victoria, where J. A. Turner exhibited a series of shearing pictures and a William Pratt exhibited No. 274 Sheep Shearing. Also cf. Virginia Spate, Tom Roberts, Melbourne, 1972, p. 85, and p. 140, f.n. 14. but, more frequently, shearers were shown at work in photographs and in illustrated newspapers and magazines during the 1870s and 80s. An exploration of the contemporary pictorial tradition reveals that in the formulation of his painting Roberts followed an established photographic and illustrative convention, as opposed to originating a new subject for artistic attention. 

We learn the circumstances under which Shearing the rams was painted in an article in The Argus (24 June 1890), evidently based on an interview with Roberts himself. ‘The artist’, the writer says, ‘made good choice of subject. It seemed to him most really and absolutely Australian, and then he went out to the great Australian river to learn it.’ Roberts began preparatory studies for the picture at the Brocklesby station during the spring of 1888 when he made between seventy and eighty sketches of ‘the light, the atmosphere, the sheep, the men and the work.’ The National Gallery of Victoria has acquired a signed gouache sketch, inscribed in Roberts’s own hand, ‘First Sketch for Shearing’3 I am indebted to Sonia Dean who pointed out the existence of this sketch. (fig. 2). The sketch helps us to trace the creative process by which Roberts’s initial idea evolved towards its mature expression in the finished painting. 

 

During the following spring of 1889 Roberts set out his canvas in the Brocklesby shed and began to paint the final work. He ‘picked out the most characteristic and picturesque of the shearers, the “rouseabouts” and the boy’, and carefully posed them in the manner he required. His adoption of the practice of painting a large figure subject directly before the motif followed the plein-aire methods advocated by the French artist, Jules Bastien-Lepage, whose work Roberts greatly admired.4 J. S. McDonald, ‘The Art of the Late Tom Roberts’, Catalogue of the 1932 Tom Roberts’ Memorial Exhibition, p. 5; R. H. Croll, op. cit., p. 23; for the ‘popular’ interpretation of Lepage’s plein-airisme in the 1880s see Prince Bojidar Karageorgevitch, ‘Personal Reminiscences of Jules Bastien-Lepage’, Magazine of Art, vol. XIII, 1889–90, esp. p. 83. It was not until some time in May 1890 that Roberts eventually finished the painting in his Melbourne studio.5 The Argus, 31 May 1890, and The Age, 30 May 1890. The latter reference is quoted by Spate, op cit., p. 86; Roberts’s practice in finishing the picture in his Melbourne studio is not incompatible with the actual working methods of Lepage. Cf. A. Theuriet, ‘Jules Bastien-Lepage and his art; A memoir’, Bastien Lepage. Marie Bashkirtseff, London, 1892. Thus, Shearing the rams was a carefully and consciously formulated painting executed over a long period, not an informal, ‘slice of life’ glimpsed in an Australian shearing shed.      

Roberts, who worked as a photographer’s assistant,6 R. H. Croll, op cit., pp. 1, 23, 152; Jack Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia, Melbourne, 1955, pp. 88–89. may have been aware of shearing scenes which appeared in contemporary photographs. A photograph entitled ‘Shearing’ (fig. 3), by a well-known Melbourne photographer, Charles Nettleton,7 For Nettleton, see Cato, op. cit., pp. 31–33, and entry under Nettleton by Jean Gittins in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, ed. Douglas Pike, M.U.P., 1974, vol. 5, 1851–90, p. 329. I am indebted to Jenny Carew who drew my attention to Nettleton’s photograph. anticipates the construction of pictorial space found in Shearing the rams. There is the same slightly diagonal thrust into distance, accentuated by the lines of the floorboards. The structure of the shearing shed roof plays a similar role in the composition, while one gains the same sense of rhythmic interval as the central poles recede into the background. Equally significant is the way the photograph conveys the quality and sources of light in the shed: the light filters through from outside and permeates the atmosphere.     

The treatment of shearing scenes in black-and-white illustration during the period formed a parallel with that of photography; in fact, in some cases, illustrators simply copied existing photographs.8 For example, the illustration ‘Sheepshearing’ on p. 473 of David Blair’s The History of Australasia, Melbourne, 1879, is copied from a well-known contemporary photograph, ‘Shearing’, by J. W. Lindt. Towards the end of 1885 Roberts became involved with drawing black-and-white illustrations for The Picturesque Atlas of Australasia.9 He contributed work at an exhibition of paintings and drawings for The Atlas held in George Rossi Ashton’s studio; cf. The Age, 5 November 1885; The Argus, 31 October 1885. I owe one of these references to Virginia Spate. It was for this publication that his acquaintance, George Rossi Ashton,10 Andrew Garran (ed.), The Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, Sydney, 1886, vol. III, pp. 751 and 752. Ashton and Roberts had studios in Collins Street and were both connected with the reform of the Victorian Academy of the Arts and the establishment of the Victorian Artists’ Society in the late 1880s. had drawn an illustration of ‘Sheep-Shearing’, some two years before Roberts began work on his Shearing. Ashton’s illustration contains a large inset of a single shearer engaged in his task. By isolating a single person in this manner, Ashton was able to suggest a certain figure type or character who embodied the ‘typical’ shearer, his finest qualities and virtues. In Roberts’s painting the central shearer is also isolated within his own pool of space, while his pose is noticeably similar to that of Ashton’s figure. Consequently, contemporary critics quickly identified Roberts’s central shearer as ‘the champion of the shed’ (The Argus, 31 May 1890). 

 

Ashton’s illustration also shows to one side a shearer with apparent ease lifts a sheep above the floor. This figure is foreshadowed in Roberts’s initial sketch, but in the painting we find an even stronger resemblance to Ashton’s portrayal of the motif. In The Picturesque Atlas Ashton devoted a separate drawing to the figure of a ‘Tarboy’ who looks cheekily at the spectator. The tarboy is relatively inconspicuous in Roberts’s first sketch, but perhaps unwisely the ‘human appeal’ of the boy’s smiling face is emphasised in the final picture. 

A further source which may have influenced Robert’s formulation of Shearing the rams was an illustration of ‘Shearing’ by William Hatherell (fig. 4) that appeared in Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia of 1888.11 Ε. E. Morris (ed.), Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia, Melbourne, 1887–89, vol. II (1888), p. 221 Hatherell was an English artist who studied and exhibited at the Royal Academy. His drawing may have been influenced by photography, cf. a photograph from the National Library, reproduced in Derrik Stone and Donald Garden Squatters and Settlers. Melbourne, 1978, p. 55 Roberts appears to have turned to another drawing by Hatherell in the same Cassell’s volume (opposite p. 220) for the motif of horse and rider in The Breakaway. Hatherell’s illustration suggests the continuity of the shearing theme within the popular pictorial tradition; his illustration recalls Ashton’s earlier treatment of the theme while simultaneously anticipating several features of Roberts’s Shearing. We note the recurrence of the same dominating figure in the foreground, his face partly obscured as he bends over the sheep. There is a similar suggestion of the rhythmic alternation of the men’s bodies as they work, especially in Roberts’s foremost three shearers, who echo the poses and arrangement of Hatherell’s figures. We see the robust, bearded figure to one side, lifting the sheep in front of him. Even the slightly diagonal organisation of space is comparable, in particular Ashton’s illustration also shows to one side a shearer, who A further source which may have influenced Roberts’s the emphasis on the floorboards which guide the movement of the eye into the picture. 

What makes Roberts’s treatment of the shearing theme unique is his conscious attempt to achieve the heroisation of pastoral labour and his rendering of the light and atmosphere in the shearing shed. The figures are modelled with an academic emphasis on form and clarity of contour, undisturbed by harsh contrasts of light and dark. We find, however, a more sensitive and subtle feeling for colour and light values within this general linear framework. Roberts, for instance, carefully adjusts his tones to suggest the play of light reflected on the floorboards through the open hatches. A touch of real virtuosity is the effect of sunlight striking the oil-filled bottle on the shed post. However, the most dramatic rendering of light occurs in the thick ochre impasto conveying the harsh glare of sunlight glimpsed through the gap in the back wall of the shed. 

While Roberts derived the general composition of Shearing the rams from local sources, his treatment of the subject was heavily indebted to a wider European tradition. He lent weight and dignity to his conception by drawing upon an established convention with the Millet/Bastien-Lepage tradition, which extolled the virtues of hard rural labour. The face of Roberts’s central shearer is partly obscured as he concentrates on the object of his labour, a figure comparable with Millet’s heroic but anonymous worker. The repetitive value of his activity is evoked through the rhythmic pattern of the shearers’ bent backs.12 By the 1880s Millet’s sympathetic treatment of the rural worker was an established convention within European academic art. Technically Roberts’s painting owes more to the tight, tonal realism of Lepage than to Millet’s looser, more generalised style. In the foreground of the picture Roberts has consciously presented a variety of types: he presents an image of youth, manly vigour, and old age, all happily engaged in the activity of the shearing shed. 

The youthful rouseabout on the left is modelled on the younger worker in Courbet’s Stonebreakers,13 U Hoff. ‘Reflections on the Heidelberg School 1885–1900’. Meanjin, vol. X. no. 2. p. 129; Courbet probably derived the figure from Millet’s The Winnower of 1848; cf. R. Herbert, ‘City vs. Country: The Rural Image in French Painting from Millet to Gauguin’, Art Forum, February 1970, p. 46. Roberts may also have known the pose from a classical source – it also occurs in a modified form in his The Sculptor’s Studio, 1883 (Australian National Gallery, Canberra) – but, in the context of Shearing the rams, the pose almost certainly refers to Courbet’s figure. Courbet’s painting projects an uncompromising image of the stonebreaker’s cruel, back-breaking existence. Roberts had earlier interpreted and re-presented the pessimistic, social implications of Courbet’s subject within an Australian context in ‘a large figure subject’ of 1888 – The end to a career: the old scrub cutter.14 Cf. The Age, 20 April 1888; Spate, op. cit., p. 85, and p. 140, f.n. 13. The painting is now lost, but a line-drawing of it survives in the 1888; V.A.S. Exhibition Catalogue May 1888, no 25. In both pose and theme, the old scrub cutter recalls the older figure in Courbet’s painting.In Shearing the rams, however, there is no sense of exploited labour, nor of the exertion, sweat and grime which might be associated with the scene in real life. Roberts’s deliberate reference to Courbet’s painting is perhaps best interpreted as a positive counter-assertion of the democratic values of Australian society. One of Courbet’s labourers is apparently too old for such arduous work, the other, too young. By contrast, the young rouseabout’s enthusiastic involvement with his job complements the attitude of the ‘old cockatoo farmer’, who surveys the scene with a placid sense of enjoyment. It may be significant that Roberts conceived and painted his shearing subject just as the newly formed, militant Amalgamated Shearers’ Union reached the height of its power and influence.15 The A.S.U. was formed in 1886 See W. G. Spence, Australia’s Awakening, Sydney, 1909. His political sympathy with the Labor movement was probably formed early in the 1880s when he began his friendship with the future Labor politician, Dr William Maloney, and also came into contact with J. F. Archibald of the radical Sydney Bulletin.16 Roberts toured Spain with Maloney in 1883; cf. Croll, op. cit., pp. 9–13. In 1885 he met Archibald on the S.S. Lusitania during the return voyage to Australia; cf. entry under Archibald by Sylvia Lawson in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, ed. Douglas Pike, M.U.P., vol. 3, 1851–90, p. 45. 

Towards the back of the shed may be seen a shearer who drinks lustily from a billy; the figure recalls a similar motif of a navvy drinking in Ford Madox Brown’s famous painting, Work. Brown’s picture, which explores a moral theme of the place of labour in contemporary society and the significance of different types of work, may have influenced Roberts’s conception of his subject.17 Cf. Spate, op. cit., p. 88. Roberts said (The Argus, 4 July 1890) that he wished to express ‘the meaning of spirit – of strong masculine labour . . . and the great human interest of the whole scene.’ He defended his attempt to communicate this ideal through a specifically local Australian subject with the assertion ‘that by making art the perfect expression of one time and one place, it becomes art for all time and of all places.’ He saw Shearing the rams as nationalistic in its specific subject and yet universal in its heroisation of the ideal of labour.

Leigh Astbury, Tutor, Department of Fine Arts, University of Melbourne (in 1978).

Notes

1           This letter and that quoted in the next paragraph are reprinted in R. H. Croll, Tom Roberts, Father of Australian Landscape Painting, Melbourne, 1935, pp. 33–34. In describing the advantages to the artist of direct communion with nature and the rural life, Roberts was espousing an idea prevalent in contemporary European art circles. 

2          For example, see 1884 Victorian Jubilee Exhibition Catalogue, Art Pamphlets, State Library of Victoria, where J. A. Turner exhibited a series of shearing pictures and a William Pratt exhibited No. 274 Sheep Shearing. Also cf. Virginia Spate, Tom Roberts, Melbourne, 1972, p. 85, and p. 140, f.n. 14. 

3          I am indebted to Sonia Dean who pointed out the existence of this sketch. 

4          J. S. McDonald, ‘The Art of the Late Tom Roberts’, Catalogue of the 1932 Tom Roberts’ Memorial Exhibition, p. 5; R. H. Croll, op. cit., p. 23; for the ‘popular’ interpretation of Lepage’s plein-airisme in the 1880s see Prince Bojidar Karageorgevitch, ‘Personal Reminiscences of Jules Bastien-Lepage’, Magazine of Art, vol. XIII, 1889–90, esp. p. 83. 

5          The Argus, 31 May 1890, and The Age, 30 May 1890. The latter reference is quoted by Spate, op cit., p. 86; Roberts’s practice in finishing the picture in his Melbourne studio is not incompatible with the actual working methods of Lepage. Cf. A. Theuriet, ‘Jules Bastien-Lepage and his art; A memoir’, Bastien Lepage. Marie Bashkirtseff, London, 1892. 

6          R. H. Croll, op cit., pp. 1, 23, 152; Jack Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia, Melbourne, 1955, pp. 88–89. 

7          For Nettleton, see Cato, op. cit., pp. 31–33, and entry under Nettleton by Jean Gittins in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, ed. Douglas Pike, M.U.P., 1974, vol. 5, 1851–90, p. 329. I am indebted to Jenny Carew who drew my attention to Nettleton’s photograph. 

8         For example, the illustration ‘Sheepshearing’ on p. 473 of David Blair’s The History of Australasia, Melbourne, 1879, is copied from a well-known contemporary photograph, ‘Shearing’, by J. W. Lindt. 

9         He contributed work at an exhibition of paintings and drawings for The Atlas held in George Rossi Ashton’s studio; cf. The Age, 5 November 1885; The Argus, 31 October 1885. I owe one of these references to Virginia Spate. 

10       Andrew Garran (ed.), The Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, Sydney, 1886, vol. III, pp. 751 and 752. Ashton and Roberts had studios in Collins Street and were both connected with the reform of the Victorian Academy of the Arts and the establishment of the Victorian Artists’ Society in the late 1880s. 

11         Ε. E. Morris (ed.), Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia, Melbourne, 1887–89, vol. II (1888), p. 221 Hatherell was an English artist who studied and exhibited at the Royal Academy. His drawing may have been influenced by photography, cf. a photograph from the National Library, reproduced in Derrik Stone and Donald Garden Squatters and Settlers. Melbourne, 1978, p. 55 Roberts appears to have turned to another drawing by Hatherell in the same Cassell’s volume (opposite p. 220) for the motif of horse and rider in The Breakaway

12        By the 1880s Millet’s sympathetic treatment of the rural worker was an established convention within European academic art. Technically Roberts’s painting owes more to the tight, tonal realism of Lepage than to Millet’s looser, more generalised style. 

13        U Hoff. ‘Reflections on the Heidelberg School 1885–1900’. Meanjin, vol. X. no. 2. p. 129; Courbet probably derived the figure from Millet’s The Winnower of 1848; cf. R. Herbert, ‘City vs. Country: The Rural Image in French Painting from Millet to Gauguin’, Art Forum, February 1970, p. 46. Roberts may also have known the pose from a classical source – it also occurs in a modified form in his The Sculptor’s Studio, 1883 (Australian National Gallery, Canberra) – but, in the context of Shearing the rams, the pose almost certainly refers to Courbet’s figure. 

14        Cf. The Age, 20 April 1888; Spate, op. cit., p. 85, and p. 140, f.n. 13. The painting is now lost, but a line-drawing of it survives in the 1888; V.A.S. Exhibition Catalogue May 1888, no 25. In both pose and theme, the old scrub cutter recalls the older figure in Courbet’s painting. 

15       The A.S.U. was formed in 1886 See W. G. Spence, Australia’s Awakening, Sydney, 1909. 

16        Roberts toured Spain with Maloney in 1883; cf. Croll, op. cit., pp. 9–13. In 1885 he met Archibald on the S.S. Lusitania during the return voyage to Australia; cf. entry under Archibald by Sylvia Lawson in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, ed. Douglas Pike, M.U.P., vol. 3, 1851–90, p. 45. 

17        Cf. Spate, op. cit., p. 88.