Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Neglected Tom

I have so many things to show you from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but not much time. My conscience has been nagging at me though, since I finished my last post on the gallery without including any of Tom Roberts's pictures.  I have been feeling especially guilty about this because one of the ones I wanted to include is a painting I've spent years thinking was by Arthur Streeton. Most unfair.

The picture in question is this one, Holiday Sketch at Coogee:
 It is Coogee Bay. Not as we know it, I need hardly add. My brother used to live in Coogee, with a bunch of reprobates. I used to go round on Saturday around lunchtime and find him cooking rump steak and mushrooms from a tin, which was a surprisingly delicious combination. We have all grown far too sophisticated for tinned mushrooms now;  those were the days of our innocence.

This painting is similarly a glimpse of Sydney's lost innocence, I think. I can never decide whether it is better now - after all, you can get good coffee and don't have to bring a picnic of sandwiches that inevitably get gritty with sand - or not - the traffic, oh, the flaming traffic.

My mother was shocked when we walked down Coogee Bay Road a year or two ago. It is just one long stretch of cafes, all of them full of people. 'What do all these people do?' she wondered, 'Why are they all here? How do they earn a living?' I have no idea. Perhaps they are all rich. Perhaps they are all deeply in debt.
 Anyway, in case you're interested, the label tells us that Tom Roberts was actually born in England (a Pom, I never knew, the man who gave us some of the images we think of as most Australian!) in 1856, came to Australia in 1869, spent 1903 to 1923 in England, and died at Kallista, Victoria in 1931 (interesting that the label writers at the gallery use 'England', rather than 'United Kingdom').
 Roberts met the artist Charles Conder in 1888 and the two painted together at Coogee Beach, apparently. Conder was younger than Roberts and he followed Roberts to Melbourne to join Roberts and Streeton at their artists' camp at Heidelberg.

This painting, we are told, is 'an early testament to Roberts's plein-air impressionist technique, which evokes the sun's glare on the bright blue sea, the white sand, dry grass and spindly sea-side vegetation'. I don't know about you, but I think I understood that before I read it, although I may not have articulated it, to be fair.
This next lovely thing is called The Camp, Sirius Cove. Roberts painted it in 1899 and, if the label writer is to be believed, he 'depicts his former painting haunt as an idyllic memory, albeit with a photographically sharp focus. It is flawlessly constructed and crisply executed to recall the brightly sunlit scene. Although the artists' camp is long gone, Roberts's view of the headland is still recognisable today, close to the present site of Taronga Park Zoo.'
 The gallery does of course also have two more famous Roberts pictures, the one in the shearing shed (that's the one I think particularly evokes a sense of real Australianness - after all it inspired a very fine chain of petrol stations, in the Mittagong branch of which I first encountered that other now neglected Australian classic, the T-bone steak) and the one of a highway robbery. They have been reproduced so often that I've almost become sick of them so, if you want to see them, you'll have to come to Australia and visit the NSW gallery yourself.

If you can't manage that though, I do have more pictures I want to show you, from other parts of the gallery's collection. But they will have to wait for another day as, once again, time is against me.

To be continued.

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