Tom Roberts’s Shearing the rams is a response to the nationalistic sentiment that developed in Australia during the late nineteenth century. It reflects the emergence of a national identity defined through heroic rural activity and the economic importance of the wool industry. The iconic painting is based on a number of preliminary sketches Roberts completed on the spot at Brocklesby Station, Corowa, New South Wales, in the late spring of 1888. He returned during the following two spring periods (shearing season) to work on the painting. Once completed, the work was exhibited in the artist’s studio in Collins Street, Melbourne.
Roberts set up his easel in the empty woolshed at Brocklesby Station, and paid young Susan Bourne (the model for the tar 'boy') and her sister sixpence apiece to kick up the dust so he could recapture the atmosphere of shearing time. What immediately impresses is the work's evident vivid realism, the snapshot, photographic composition. Convincing details, such as the sunlit gold of the bottles of oil for the whetstones, a pair of shears propped against a wall, and a tobacco pipe stuck in a man’s trousers, give the picture a real ring of truth.
The framing is noted in an article in The Argus when the painting was first on display in 1890, though no mention is made of the decorative elements.2 The painting appears in the complete frame in photographs from the Memorial Exhibition held at the Fine Arts Society, June 19323, and in newspapers from 19354 and 1937.5 It is likely that the alteration of the frame was an intervention by the former Director of the NGV, J. S. MacDonald. We note elsewhere that a number of broad frames were removed from Australian paintings in the late 1930s and sold at auction in 1941.6 The truncation of the Roberts frame would fit the general style adopted by MacDonald and his successor Daryl Lindsay, for re-framing in a Whistlerian model, however it seems to be a singular example of reducing the scale of, rather than replacing, the earlier, broad framing.7
The attribution to Thallon is based on an association between the two artists. Both Roberts and Thallon had studio space in 95 Collins Street East, Melbourne in 1886.8 From 1888 Roberts studio was near by in Grosvenor Chambers, a centre for artistic activity, at 9 Collins St. However, the frame does not appear in Thallon’s ledger (1888–1903). There are very few entries for Roberts, though a number of frames on paintings by Roberts carry Thallon’s label.
A reproduction of the frame was made in 2002, by Mathew Adams and Louise Poon, from western red cedar and gilded with 23.5k gold leaf. Insufficient evidence was available to reproduce the decorative elements.
The cut-down original frame has been archived.
The frame illustrated above is the reproduction.
1 These observations were made after disassembling the remains of the original frame. The frame, in complete form, appears in a photograph from the Fine Arts Society’s Melbourne exhibition of 1932; this image was brought to my attention by Terence Lane.
2 The Argus, 24 June 1890: ‘when framed at length in heavy gold, and backed by dark maroon hangings, its truthful beauty was all displayed on the studio wall’, cited in Jane Clark & Bridget Whitelaw, Golden Summers: Heidelberg and Beyond, ICCA, 1985.
3 These photographs also show The Golden Fleece, 1894, AGNSW, in a broad frame with only a band of sanded surface to decorate the border.
4 Star, 26 October 1935.
5 Herald, 22 May 1937.
6 See also the entries for David Davies’ Moonrise (p.402.5-1); Frederick McCubbin’s Winter evening (61-2); John Longstaff’s Gippsland Sunday night, February 20th,1898 (48-2) and Tom Roberts‘ The Sunny south (1078-4).
7 The frame is reproduced in the cut-down form in the Melbourne Herald, 19 November 1956.
8 Claire Newhouse, ‘John Thallon 1848–1918’, in vol. 1, Frames Melbourne Journal of Technical Studies in Art, University of Melbourne Conservation Service, 1999, p. 83.
The frame is made from four sections of red pine. Two wide flat planks are laminated to form the base of the frame. The back frame uses a form of square mortise and tenon joint while the upper layer of the flat, which is attached to the back frame with screws and glue, is mitred across the corners. The outer edge carries a two-inch half-round wooden profile and the inner edge a small (⅜ ins) half-round on a stepped flat. The remains of the original construction suggest the bevel at the sight edge was formed by the addition of another strip of timber. The outer half-round is attached with screws from the reverse. Though the evidence is lost, the rebate would have been formed by the addition of timber strips. The surface of the frame is oil gilded gold leaf applied direct to the wood and finished with ormolu size. The upper member of the frame originally carried a pair of shears, carved in low relief, either side of a central ornament, now lost but appearing to have been a ram’s head modelled in low relief.1 A plaque, centre bottom, identified the subject and artist.
The original frame has been cut down in width from 10 ins. to 4 ins on all sides, but retains the two rounded strips, now close together, formerly wide apart. The surface is extensively worn and abraded but appears to be original.