ART- AUSTRALIAN - Making Faces

Making faces, Inscribing history

Catalog essay  for Tom Roberts Retrospective, National Gallery, 2015-16

Four out of every ten images in Helen Topliss’s Tom Roberts Catalogue Raisonee are of faces. ‘Portraits pay … my boy’ is how Roberts justified the time he spent on them and away from the landscapes and subject pictures on which he knew his reputation must depend. Yet, Tom’s breezy explanation was true for commissions in as much as the pre-arranged fee was guaranteed unless a sitter rejected her or his depiction, or went bust. Other canvases had to find their buyers at twice-yearly exhibitions run by volunteer organisations. The dealer-gallery system did not flourish here in Robert’s lifetime. One-person shows were rare and often no more than a clearance auction like the one he staged late in 1900 before quitting Sydney for London.

 Still, portraits paid. Or did they? In today’s parlance, Roberts, as a freelance artist, ran a micro-business. Almost all such enterprises fail and most of the survivors do so through self-exploitation. Nothing in the Roberts papers indicates awareness of cost-accounting. Like most of the self-employed, he thought himself happy – Micawber-like - for as long as his annual income exceeded annual expenses by sixpence. To calculate a rate of return on his labour-time or from his capital outlays might well have revealed that he could have cleared more in wages at a photographic studio. Life had taught him to doubt that art could be made for art’s sake without an undercoat of cash and a frame of guinea pieces. Like a spider which must spin, Roberts made images because that activity expressed a creative bent and a quest for esteem. Portraiture bought him into close, if fleeting contact with the Upper Crust. Such associations lifted his standing and improved his chances of securing further commissions, as happened with the contract to depict the opening of the first Federal parliament in 1901.

Nonetheless, face-making took time away from the production of the subjects – biblical, mythological, historical – then considered most fitting for High Art. Roberts knew well enough the terms of the Faustian bargain that artists must make between money and time, between ‘present laughter’ and the spur of enduring fame. He mocked himself in a ditty: ‘I’ve painted kids in every pose, A’kissing their mammie or smelling a rose. I’ve painted ‘em in the nurse’s lap, And in the cradle sucking pap.’ Unlike the art student Ramon Casas (1866-1932) who had shown him something of impressionist technique in Spain in 1883, Roberts did not settle for a career of flattering American heiresses, despite his ‘wondrous soft way’ with women sitters.

Without the book-keeping to prove to himself that his income from portraiture had brought him a certain number of hours in which to travel up country or capture the passing parade of city life, Roberts engaged in two moves which underwrote his wish to make his ‘art the perfect expression of … art for all time and of all places.’ One was technical, the other conceptual.

First, the rate of return from a commissioned portrait depends on how elaborate are the clothing and the backdrop. ‘Mde Pfund’ (1887) is wearing a lace upper sleeve which have called for more care than her plain gloves while her figure is set against a featureless field, which is the case with most Roberts portraits.  As a youthful assistant in Stewart’s Bourke-street photographic rooms, he had learned more about how to arrange the décor around customers than he did about taking or processing plates. Flowers, feathers and fabrics were standard ‘stuffage’ but ceramics, screens and armour were on hand to suit the sitter. If their inclusion added little to the cost of taking a photograph, to render those objects in oil could almost double the time required for a portrait. Failure to estimate the necessary hours could turn a paying proposition into a loss. Money was no object for Dr Smith when he had Roberts picture his four-year old daughter Louise in 1888, surrounded by a stuffed bird, an illuminated book and a Japanese vase of flowers. On occasion, Roberts went beyond the unadorned to elevate face-making towards the anecdotal, hoping to please the majority of gallery-goers who prefer pictures that tell stories. ‘Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes’ (1887), for instance, allows the viewer to imagine how the girl and her dog had shared experiences outside the picture-frame.

Roberts’s second move to fulfil his desire to turn face-making into more than oleaginous photographs led him towards group and serial portraiture. He began in 1892 with a triptych of Cardinal Moran, Sir Henry Parkes and Mr Justice Windeyer representing ‘Church, State, Law’, which the Bulletin relabeled ‘The World, the Flesh and the Devil’, while confessing to be unable to identify who was which. No buyer came forward for this contentious trio. Roberts fulfilled a dozen individual commissions before 1896 when he began a more extensive sequence of twenty-three ‘Familiar Faces and Figures’. His motives were mercenary and patriotic. He hoped that his collection would the locals to set up a National Portrait Gallery here to follow London’s in 1856, He could supply portraits of those whom the Bulletin editor, J.F. Archibald, called any ‘man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics’ when he bequeathed funds in 1919 to establish the eponymous prize that has lifted the place of portraiture in Australian consciousness several times higher than dreamed of by Roberts, into  the art-world equivalent of the Melbourne Cup or any grand final.

From where did Roberts get the idea of a linked series? In London’s Portrait Gallery he had seen Godfrey Kneller’s members of the Kitcat Club, made between 1702 and 1717, as mass produced as the mutton pies from the Club took its name. In contrast to Kneller’s slickness, George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) – known as ‘England’s Michelangelo’ - bestowed a certain grandeur on his twin series by calling one the ‘Hall of Fame’ and the other a mystical ‘Hall of Life’, twelve of which Roberts saw at the 1888-9 Centennial Exhibition in Melbourne. In Sydney, Roberts regularly walked past the forty life-size statues of explorers and cabinet ministers set into the alcoves the Lands Department building.

Such exemplars might nourish Roberts’s aspirations but did nothing to indicate how to apply paint in ways that would attract support for works which, he acknowledged, could not be fully appreciated for a further ‘fifty years’. Hence, alongside his calls for institutional backing, Roberts sought to elevate the standing of portraiture through associations with masterpieces. Few then stood higher in the regard of the art world than the Velasquez portrait of the actor Pablo de Valladolid, which Eduard Manet thought ‘perhaps the most astonishing piece of painting ever created … The background disappears, it is air that surrounds the fellow.’ This composition inspired Whistler’s 1884 portrait of the violinist Sarasate, which Roberts’s fellow art student, R. Anning Bell, told him was the ‘finest painting he had seen by any living man.’ Roberts applied Whistler’s insight that Velasquez made ‘his people live within their frames, and stand upon their legs’ to his wood panel of the Nietzschean professor of music, George Marshall Hall. Rather than present Hall standing on his legs, Roberts has him ready to levitate through his will to power by pressing his fists into his sides. None of the other twenty-two matches this bravura though those of Robert Brough and Major-General Hutton ‘live within their frames’, as do the more casual poses of the theatrical promoters, Dion G. Boucicault and George Coppin.

            Throughout the series that became ’Familiar Faces and Figures’, Roberts implemented the rule that un-commissioned portraits should not absorb more time or materials than essential. After applying a mauve wash to one of the wooden door panels, he allowed their primed grain to add more relief to the black of almost all the male attire than provided by white shirtfronts. The style of the series was closer to the illustrated press than to formal poses, a contrast obvious between the explosive panel of Marshall Hall and the treacle of the commissioned portrait a year later. Most of the panels showed only the subject with no identifying clue, an exception being the line of music in the bottom left corner of the Alfred Hill as orchestral conductor.

If the twenty-three ‘Familiar Faces and Figures’ are read as a representative account of one cultural stratum of 1890s Australia, can we extend that reasoning beyond the 240 individual portraits on the parliament canvas to all the Roberts canvases that include figures?

In some cases, their names are known, for example, the shoeblack in Allegro con brio (1885-91) and the upright shearer on the far right of The Golden Fleece (1894). Most of the identities are uncertain so that everyone within 100 kms of Inverell is convinced that a forebear posed for Bailed Up (1896).

The delusion that the criminal mind could be discerned through composing a stereotypical physiognomy out of photographs of a large number of murderers held sway beyond the 1890s. Far from our relying on physical characteristics, might we not conceive a collective portrait of the ‘coming Australian race’ from a kaleidoscope of all the leisure and labour, clothing and customs, in Roberts’s oeuvre? Roman historians who often lack the details for even brief biographies call the technique prosopography, derived from the Latin for writing about persons or faces.

            No matter how much he sought the kudos that came from his associating with pastoralists and premiers and princes, he never lost his ease with bush-workers, barrowmen or troopers. His personality contributed to his success as a portraitist. Curiosity and a delight in conversation kept him going through the ordeal of 260 recognisable heads for the ‘Opening of Parliament’. His campaigns to lift the status of portraiture required his acceptance of the heroic but never overpowered the temper democratic’ absorbed from colonial experience. Indeed, his hopes for a National Portrait Gallery combined the pride of the Austral-Britons in emulating the Mother Country with their assertion that her antipodean children were establishing no less admirable institutions under southern skies.

            In addition to public recognition of portraiture as a genre, Roberts promoted the conviction that European Australians – ‘the coming race’ – had a past worthy of chronicling; he embarked on ‘Bailed Up’ during 1895 to visualise bush-ranging as a strand of colonial life that had already closed.

            Even more contested was the belief that Aboriginal Australia – ‘the passing race’ – had a culture worthy of recording through the emerging discipline of anthropology. Consideration of Roberts’s seven portrayals of indigenous subjects has to place them in the context of 1890s attitudes before setting them against prejudices prevalent among today’s cultural theorists. To depict natives had never been out of the ordinary. Indeed, such studies exercised explorers and invaders on every continent, whether out of curiosity or to serve a scientific establishment which, in 1841, told British travelers: ‘The head is so important as distinctive of race, that particular attention must be paid to it.’ Paintings added flesh tones – that other outer sign of mental capacity – to the skeletal remains traded among scholars to construct evolutionary chains from simian to homo sapiens sapiens, such as the one on display at Canberra’s Institute of Anatomy until the 1960s and at the War Memorial where carvings of fauna culminate in a pair of Aboriginal heads. An ethnographic approach did not preclude portraits as attentive to personality as the finest of the colonisers. Once most of the continent had been subdued by 1880, the attention of artists encompassed the consequences for the survivors, as it had in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1830s. None of the titles that Roberts gave to his handful raised the disquiet in Phil May’s cartoon ‘A Curiosity in her Own Country’ (1888) or William Macintosh’s sculpture ‘Notice to Quit’ (c. 1890).

            At the same time, Roberts’s acquaintance with the University of Melbourne’s professor of biology, Baldwin Spencer, led to a portrait of the Alice Springs postmaster Alfred Hewitt with whom Spencer collaborated on a classic of social anthropology, The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899). Seven years earlier, Roberts had sailed around the Torres Straits, an experience which enriched his prose account more than it influenced his manner of depicting the islanders.

In the Riverina in 1889, Roberts made his first, ‘Gubby Wellington’ and his most seen, ‘Charlie Turner’ (1982), bought at once by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the high price of thirty-give guineas, before going to the Chicago Exposition next year and to London in 1898. He did two more during his 1892 tour of the Torres Strait and three around the Clarence River in 1894-5. Despite his cataloguing them as a ‘Series of Aboriginal Studies and Types’, they had come in response to the luck of encounters. All were respectful.

 Images of native women were one way around the Wowsers who had removed the full-length nude ‘Chloe’ (1875) from the National Gallery of Victoria. The art market for ‘dusky Venuses’ had a real-life equivalent in the sexual exploitation known as ‘black velvet’. Despite Roberts’s depiction of exposed pointed breasts, his ‘Young Married Lubra’ did not find a ready buyer.

As a Corporal in the Dental Department of Wandsworth Hospital, Roberts spent nearly three years in hourly contact with faces of ‘our beautiful youth and manhood’ mutilated by bullets and jaws shattered by shrapnel. He drew two victims for the hospital Gazette, describing one case as ‘the whole upper jaw and left eye carried away, leaving only one thing human looking, on a strange front to a man’s head, an eye - …’ During the thirteen years between the Armistice and his demise, Roberts painted only seventeen more portraits, mostly of family and friends. In 1924, he fulfilled a request from the Art Gallery of New South Wales to contribute to a group of self-portraits by artists – an echo of his hopes for ‘Familiar Faces’ and of the lobbying he had  put into the establishment of the Historic Memorials Committee. He never entered the Archibald, a Prize he would have taken more than once had it existed in the Nineties. Although the swagger of that decade had gone, Tom Roberts presented himself at an angle to reality, challenging the viewer to meet him on the artist’s terms. Seven years later, with his mouth being eaten away by cancer, he wrote to a friend in London: ‘one doesn’t, since “those four years”, think quite so much