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Dorchester, England 1856 – Kallista, Victoria, Australia 1931

  • Australia from 1869
  • England, Europe 1881- 85, 1903-23

The Thames and Cleopatra's Needle c 1884 Place made: London, Greater London, England
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on cardboard Support: cardboard

Primary Insc: not signed. not dated.
Dimensions: sight 12.4 h x 22.7 w cm
Cat Raisonné: 40
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2016
Accession No: NGA 2016.252

In the last known photograph of Tom Roberts, taken in 1931 at his home Talisman in Kallista, Victoria, he enjoys the simple pleasure of a pipe as he sits before the fireplace. Displayed on an adjacent sideboard is a small landscape, The Thames and Cleopatra’s Needle, which he painted in London in 1884. This treasured memento of the city remained in his collection for almost half a century and has recently found a new home at the NGA.

From 1881, Roberts attended the Royal Academy Schools in London and travelled through Spain and France before returning to Melbourne in 1884. In the months leading up to his departure, he painted several views of the Thames Embankment. These were seen and admired by Arthur Streeton, who, in a June 1932 edition of The Argus, maintained the importance of these ‘impressions’ in developing a new approach to landscape painting in Australia and the impetus to paint directly from nature.

Working on small panels to capture the changing effect of light falling on the Thames, Roberts was influenced by James McNeill Whistler’s small-scale sea and river landscapes shrouded in mist or in half-light or twilight. In The Thames and Cleopatra’s Needle, his masterful composition of repeating arcs and staccato-like verticals is expressed in tonal harmonies of blushing pink, green and mauve, weighted by blue and purple-grey shadows. Using a small square brush the artist pulls paint across the sky in waves to create a subtle sense of atmospheric movement, while energetic daubs of green covey the liveliness of broken water lapping at the Embankment in the lower left corner.

The painting has been acquired in honour of Dr Anna Gray for her distinguished service to the NGA and for her contribution as curator of Tom Roberts. Visitors in the final weekend of the exhibition were fortunate enough to see this wonderful work on public display for the first time since 1974.

Dr Emma Kindred, Assistant Curator, Australian Paintings and Sculpture before 1920

in artonview, issue 86, Winter 2016