Tom ROBERTS, Sketch portrait - Senator J.T. Walker Enlarge 1 /1


Dorchester, England 1856 – Kallista, Victoria, Australia 1931

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

Sketch portrait - Senator J.T. Walker 1901
Collection Title: Study for 'The opening of the first Parliament of the Commonwealth, 9th May 1901'
Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas mounted on cardboard Support: canvas subsequently mounted on cardboard

Primary Insc: signed and dated lower left in oil, 'T. R 1901' inscribed lower left centre in oil, 'J.T./ Walker'
Dimensions: 9.2 h x 7.9 w cm framed (overall) 242 h x 227 w x 28 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1976
Accession No: NGA 76.566

The study of James Thorum Walker, ex-director of the Bank of New South Wales, 'Free Trader' and Senator in the first Commonwealth Parliament, was probably made between the end of June and late August 1901, during the first parliamentary sessions.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Scottish-born banker, J.T. Walker was elected as one of the first six Australian senators to represent New South Wales in the first Federal Parliament. He was returned to office over four elections until his retirement from politics in 1913.

This lively sketch is one of the many individual portraits that Tom Roberts completed in preparation for ‘the big picture’. Roberts travelled widely within Australia before departing for London to request sittings with several of the city’s dignitaries, principally the Duke of Cornwall and York.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2013
From: Miriam kelly, Capital & Country: The Federation Years 1900 – 1913, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2013

At the turn of the twentieth century, Tom Roberts won the portrait commission of a lifetime—to capture the first Commonwealth Parliament of Australia, convened in Melbourne in May 1901. The artist was required to represent accurately the 269 people in attendance, providing a grand and realistic pictorial record of the most momentous occasion in Australia’s history. The portrait of Senator James Thomas Walker, measuring only 9.2 by 7.9 cm, was undertaken as a primary study for the commission, which Roberts was to nickname ‘The Big Picture’.

Scottish-born Walker was a Liberal and Free Trade senator from 1901 to 1913, and a long-term director of the Bank of New South Wales. Roberts painted him in profile, looking straight ahead, dressed for the Opening in tones of brown and black. The study is sketched with economical brushstrokes and includes an indistinct portrait looming above Walker’s right-hand shoulder; by contrast, the engaging energy of this little portrait study is lost on the figures of Walker and others in the finished commission, which appears more formal and stilted.

Tom Roberts was one of Australia’s most talented painters and portraitists, but he still yearned to prove himself, especially in England. At the time he welcomed the commission but the painting, ultimately spreading over fifteen square metres of canvas, was to occupy him for more than two years in Sydney, Melbourne and London. The stress, eyestrain and exhaustion it brought on nearly broke him, and the work failed to boost his profile or enhance his reputation at the time.

For the finished Opening of the first Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, May 9 1901 1903 (Parliament of Australia), Roberts received the sum of 1000 guineas, increased from the contracted fee of 650 guineas because he had to enlarge the canvas to include all the attendees. For all his toil, he did not sign the finished picture, which hangs in Parliament House, Canberra. He did, however, place his initials on the study of Senator J T Walker, made while the project was still fresh and the artist was filled with hope for it.

Simon Elliott

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010