Dorchester, England 1856 – Kallista, Victoria, Australia 1931
Study of Lena Brasch
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
Tom Roberts first met Selina Venus (Lena) Brasch in 1888 at her sister’s wedding in Melbourne, where Roberts was best man. They were reacquainted in 1891 when Roberts travelled to Sydney, staying at Curlew Camp at Sirius Cove. Established by her brother Reuben Brasch, she became a regular visitor to the Camp and to Roberts’s and Arthur Streeton’s fortnightly ‘Studio Thursdays’. The extent of the relationship between Roberts and Brasch is unknown but it seems that the artist had a respectful fascination with her; Portrait study of Lena Brasch is the first of a number of paintings by Roberts for which she modelled.
This portrait study captures a woman of great beauty and fine features, yet she is reserved, drawing away, her posture stiff and her large grey eyes hidden. Sitting for Roberts for the first time, she appears shy, hesitant to reveal too much. Roberts worked on her face and added the vibrant red in her hat but left the portrait unfinished. He covered it with a new canvas and re-figured her as An eastern princess c 1893 (NGA), a portrait of an exotic woman.
Of the paintings for which Brasch modelled for Roberts, this is one of only a few where she is not dressed in costume but has been painted as herself. Here it is her downcast eyes that intrigue most; in her reluctance to look at the artist, and at us, the painting captures a mood rather conveying a personality.
Portrait study of Lena Brasch wasn’t discovered until 1975 when Gallery staff removed An eastern princess from its stretcher and found the study underneath.
Tom Roberts was born in England, and moved to Australia in 1869. With Frederick McCubbin, Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton, he set up artist camps in Melbourne and Sydney where painters could capture the Australian landscape en plein air. In a nostalgic letter to Frederick McCubbin dated 31 December 1914, Roberts wrote:
I saw Mrs Abrahams, & [one] of the dear old Don’s children at Mrs Wyatt’s (Lena Brasch) a little while ago—it brought back old times to me. You remember the evenings we sat at the Camp, the last light of the sun on the ti tree in the creek—the smell of the chop—& the gum twigs—the mopoke. a happy time.
 M Eagle, The oil paintings of Tom Roberts in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1997, p 61.
 ‘Letters from Tom Roberts to Frederick McCubbin’, La Trobe Library Journal, vol 2, no 7, April 1971, 99. 64-76 (State Library of Victoria MS 8187; MS 8188).
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010