Skip to main content

Tom Roberts
, 1920

by Alice Mills OAM

gelatin silver photograph (sight: 14.1 cm x 9.1 cm)

More images of this artwork

Tom Roberts (1856-1931) came to Australia from England at the age of thirteen, but returned to study art in London. He arrived back in Melbourne in 1885 and established a successful portrait practice. At the same time, he began to paint outdoors with a number of other artists, including Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton, and together they came to be known as the Heidelberg School. Roberts himself gained a reputation as the ‘father of Australian landscape painting’, although his works include many superb representations of men and women from late-nineteenth- century artistic, musical and political circles. In 1901 Roberts won the contract to paint the opening of the first Federal Parliament in Melbourne. At forty- seven, the artist hoped that the 5x3 metre painting would establish his reputation in England, where, over two and a half years, he completed its accurate likenesses of 269 people, painting ‘against time and light and fog’, as he put it. He found, however, that ‘England doesn’t really want anybody. She has everybody and everything. The supply is in excess of the demand … everyone comes here sooner or later. The only thing is to make her want you, and that is difficult, for she really only wants the exceptional in any line.’ The big picture was presented by the Commonwealth to King Edward VII, who insisted on its being hung at the Royal Academy. In 1958 HM Queen Elizabeth II loaned the work permanently to Australia; it hangs in Parliament House. After many fairly miserable years in London, where he was supported by his wife, Lillie, a framemaker, Roberts returned to the Dandenongs, where he mainly painted landscapes and flower pieces.

Alice Mills (1870–1929), born in Ballarat, trained in the studio of Johnstone, O’Shannessy in Melbourne before becoming a leading professional photographer in her own right. Gayfield Shaw, for whom this photograph is inscribed, was a prominent Sydney gallery director and printmaker.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of Gerard Vaughan 2001
Accession number: 2001.11