ART - AUSTRALIAN - Tom Robert & Opening of Parliament

Opening of Parliament

 Federation had been a near-run thing. Fewer than half of those eligible to vote did so, and of those, well over forty percent were against. The draft constitution had to become an Act of the British parliament. In London, the Australian delegates pondered breaking off negotiations with the Secretary for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, who assured the Commons that he would protect ‘the private interests of investors’ by securing their right of appeal to the Privy Council. A compromise was not reached until mid-June 1900. Meanwhile, the West Australian cabinet held back until three weeks after the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act gained Royal Assent on 9 July.

The uncertainties around the Federal Movement extended to the depiction of the opening of the first Federal parliament in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building on 9 May 1901. Before sojourning in Melbourne on his way ‘home’ to London, Tom Roberts had turned down one offer from a syndicate to produce an oil painting as the basis for the sale of prints. After the promoters’ second-choice withdrew, Roberts accepted an improved contract on 29 May, three weeks after the event to which he was a last-minute invitee. With no allocated seat, he had climbed up some railings to view the 12,000 guests looking ‘like a landscape stretching away.’ From that impression he made an oil sketch. Broad drags of his brush blocked in the architecture of the crowd as much as of the building while diagonal shafts of light centred on the ducal party.

Numerous still photographers, motion-picture camera operators and graphic artists captured all or parts of the ceremony. Nonetheless, the appeal of oil on canvas as a guarantee of quality for the marketing of prints remained, even if categorised as ‘Municipal paintings’ and diminished by association with the panoramas of vice-regal enclosures on Cup Day, when parvenus paid the painter to place them close to the center of attention. Roberts declined such offers from members of parliament but included two of the syndicate’s promoters among the 250 recognisable faces, along with four of his intimates. The principal adjustment to literalism was to impose a life-size portrait of the ‘Father of Federation’, the late Sir Henry Parkes, as if presiding over the proceedings.

Roberts’s fees increased from the initial offer of 650 gns to more than 1,500. A guinea was the equivalent of twenty-one shillings, one more than the pound. The difference went beyond the quantitative. Tradesmen were paid in pounds: professional gentlemen with guineas. In keeping with his status, Roberts bought a top hat and frock coat to call on his notable subjects.

The choice of Roberts flowed from his reputation as a portrait painter of individuals, in series (for which see the entry on ‘Heads of the People’), and as groups in his shearing and bushranger canvases. Despite these accomplishments, by March 1903, he still had fifty of the 250 faces to jigsaw into position to raise, as he said, the whole ‘above the muck.’ Canvases of these dimensions were known as ‘machines’ because of the scaffolding required to work across an area twice as wide (510cm) as Tom’s arm span and half as high (305cm.) as himself. A photograph shows Roberts up against it, literally and metaphorically.

Imperial matters affected the composition since the six months of official mourning for Queen Victoria, who had died on 22 January, required the women to dress as dismally as the men. Touches of white, grey and mauve were all the relief that most of the milliners dared to offer an artist famed for his high-toned palette. As ever an exception, the leader of Victorian society, Lady Janet Clarke, wore silver grey offset by pink roses which Roberts welcomed as ‘most useful to me at this particular place.’

The wet, incomplete canvas had to be boxed for shipment to London in March 1903 and again in November to Paris for engraving at the House of Goupil. Not until 4 July 1904 could the Commonwealth’s first two Governors-General present the framed canvas to the King-Emperor, Edward VII. From there it went to St James Palace, the nominal headquarters of the British monarchy. And there the ‘Big Gem’ remained unremarked until the Commonwealth issued a simplified and monochromatic blue 5 1/2d stamp for the Golden Jubilee of Federation in May 1951. Seven years later, the Queen repatriated the canvas on a permanent loan. Consigned to the basement of the temporary parliament house, the painting moved into the High Court in 1981 before being enshrined in the new Parliament House in 1988.

To satisfy local sentiment, the syndicate had floated the idea of Roberts’s continuing the tradition of commissioned artists from Rubens and von Geurard, by making a copy for the Federal Parliament. Such thoughts evaporated. The Australians would have to be satisfied by spending a guinea or two on a black-and-white print.

Although Roberts had inserted a recognizable likeness of his boon companion Fred McCubbin into the ‘Big Picture’, the latter demonstrated his opposed notion of a national picture with his 223.5cm.x294.2cm. triptych, ‘The Pioneer’ (1902-4). In 1913, he campaigned against the commissioning of expatriates to decorate Australia House and to supply the Historic Memorials Committee with posthumous portraits at 150 gns a throw. By then, Roberts’s reputation as a face-maker could not secure him a place in the first round, although he had been the prime mover behind the scheme. Early next year, Queen Mary’s secretary responded to his letter advising of his exhibition with the chilling ‘nice to hear of you again.’

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 If the creation of the Commonwealth is now assumed to have been a step towards de-dominionisation, in the early 1900s, advocates of Federation had welcomed it as a strengthening of the Empire, militarily and financially, leading perhaps to Imperial Federation of at least the white settlement colonies. The early defeats and final victory during the anti-Boer War (1899-1902) encouraged this prospect. For the first time, troops from Australia fought as Australians, not from their respective colonies. After 1902, schools in Britain celebrated Empire Day. The significance of Roberts’s composition needs to be read within that mentality. His friend and the engineer of the Federal movement, Alfred Deakin, caught this ambivalence by designating him ‘the first court painter of the Commonwealth.’ The cynosure of the action depicted is the future George V on the podium but the shaft of light falls on the worthies assembled below as representatives of Australian democracy.