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Tom Roberts’s By the Treasury


An effect is only momentary: so an impressionist tries to find his place. Two half-hours are never alike, and he who tries to paint a sunset on two successive evenings, must be more or less painting from memory. So, in these works, it has been the object of the artists to render faithfully, and thus obtain first records of effects widely differing, and often of very fleeting character.1 Introduction, The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, Melbourne, 1889.

On 17 August 1889 The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition opened at Buxton’s Art Gallery, Swanston Street, Melbourne. The rapid execution of the 183 exhibited sketches generated enormous debate and controversy, and the exhibition is regarded as one of the most significant events in the history and development of Australian art.  

Of the seven exhibitors (Charles Conder, Herbert Daly, R. E. Falls, Frederick McCubbin, C. D. Richardson, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton), Roberts was the largest contributor with sixty-two works. His subject matter was diverse – it included landscapes, portraits, urban and genre subjects. Fewer than ten works were explicit views of Melbourne, and By the Treasury is one of only four known surviving examples.  

By the Treasury was painted outside Grosvenor Chambers, 9 Collins Street, Melbourne, and shows the corner of Spring and Collins streets on a wet winter’s day. The driver of a hansom cab, in caped overcoat, restrains his horse near the corner of the Treasury; a cable car rattles down Macarthur Street from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (its spires still unbuilt); and a pedestrian, in top hat and overcoat, crosses Spring Street in the foreground. The panel (a cedar cigar-box lid, still retaining its original Favorita label) is ‘dashed off’, brilliantly utilising the grain of the wood to suggest the texture of the sky, buildings and road. The subdued and tonal palette shares similarities with works by the famous American painter James McNeill Whistler.  

By the Treasury specifically attracted the attention of the press of the day. On 17 August 1889 the critic James Smith of the Melbourne Argus wrote:

Some of the impressions, in which sufficient work has been put to entitle them to be spoken of as sketches, show that the artists are capable of much better things. Such is the clever … the ‘Treasury’ … of Mr. Tom Roberts …  

The sketch was one of several works acquired from The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition by Dr John Springthorpe, a leading patron of contemporary art, and remained in his collection until 1934. A subsequent owner was the prominent Melbourne gallery proprietor and collector George Page-Cooper.  

Last sighted in 1967, By the Treasury is a major rediscovery in Tom Roberts’s oeuvre and will be included in the permanent displays of Australian art at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. It will hang alongside Roberts’s Harper’s Weekly, also acquired by Dr Springthorpe from The 9

by 5 Impression Exhibition and purchased by the NGV in 1958.  

Geoffrey Smith, Curator, Australian Art 19th century to early modernism (in 2002). Terence Lane, Senior Curator, Australian Art to 1900 (in 2002).   

Note

1     Introduction, The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, Melbourne, 1889.