Tom ROBERTS, An Australian native Enlarge 1 /1

Tom ROBERTS

Dorchester, England 1856 – Kallista, Victoria, Australia 1931

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

An Australian native [Portrait of a lady] 1888 Title Notes: originally bought under the name of Miss Lily Williams
Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas Support: canvas

Primary Insc: signed and dated lower left in black oil paint, 'T.R. 88.'
Dimensions: 127.2 h x 76.2 w cm framed (overall) 1672 h x 1168 w x 125 d mm
Cat Raisonné: 112
Acknowledgement: Purchased through the Joseph Brown Fund, 1979
Accession No: NGA 79.2543

‘A native of Australia, a beautiful girl in a pink gown’; so Madame Elmhurst Goode described Tom Roberts’s An Australian native in her reminiscences.[1] Roberts was Australia’s foremost portrait painter in the late 1880s and 1890s. He was the leader of the group of artists who exhibited ‘9 by 5 Impressions’ in 1889 and became known as the Australian Impressionists, and the painter of patriotic images of ‘heroic masculine labour’ such as Shearing the rams 1890. He exhibited Australian native at an open day in his studio in July 1888, and later at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1888–89.

Roberts’s title, ‘An Australian native’, suggests he considered his subject to be a type, a young ‘native-born’ woman of Anglo-Celtic descent. In the years immediately before Federation, when Australia was still a group of colonies, there was a degree of national fervour. As Humphrey McQueen has observed, in portraiture this manifested itself through ‘the creation of a physical type: healthy and vigorous young Australian-born men and women, capable of producing strong children’.[2] In 1885 Roberts returned to Melbourne after having studied and travelled abroad. He was particularly interested in promoting a national ‘home-grown’ culture and in the 1890s he painted a series of informal portraits on wood panels. He regarded these as being ‘Australian’ types or characters, ‘familiar faces and figures’ from the arts and society.

But An Australian native is more than an image of a type, it presents an individual with a distinctive character, and demonstrates Roberts’s ‘wondrously tender manner with women’. This slim, dark-haired woman is dressed in her best clothes; soft pink gown, brown gloves and feather hat. She has a sweet face and a pensive, almost wistful, expression.

Among the many possible models for the portrait is the Australian contralto singer, Ada Crossley (1871–1929), who was a member of the Austral Salon of Music, Literature and the Arts, from whom the portrait was purchased.[3] What is more, photographs support this attribution. Ada Crossley had auburn-brown hair and dark eyes, a long nose, full cheeks and smiling mouth, and would have been aged seventeen at the time. She was just at the beginning her career. She described herself as ‘a regular bush youngster’, and was later described in the Evening Post, Wellington, New Zealand (1903) as ‘an Australian native’.

Anne Gray

[1] Roberts papers, ML A2481, SLNSW; quoted in Mary Eagle, The oil paintings of Tom Roberts in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1997, pp 51–4.

[2] H McQueen, ‘An Australian native’, in A Gray, Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002, p 82.

[3] When An Australian native was purchased in 1979 from the women’s club, the Melbourne-based Austral Salon, the subject was thought to be Lillie Williamson, Roberts’s wife-to-be. But, as Mary Eagle has pointed out (above), Lillie had fair hair, a square jaw and wore glasses. Eagle also discusses a number of possible contenders.


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

Portraiture earned Tom Roberts his living, 40 per cent of his oeuvre being in this genre which he held in low regard. Yet when he was truly engaged with his subject – especially if a beautiful lady – his portraits resulted in some of his most striking achievements. In An Australian native,his ‘wondrous soft way with women’1 is apparent in the lady’s wistful gaze and in her delicate and translucent finery.

The adopted title An Australian native invokes the Australian-born of Anglo-Celtic descent who were asserting themselves during the Centennial celebrations of 1888 and in the run-up to Federation. The Federation Movement had to build a bridge between attachment to the colony and loyalty to the British Empire. In portraiture, this manifested itself in the creation of a national physical type: healthy and vigorous young Australian-born men and women, capable of producing strong children. This is one of many such portraits made in the colony.

Humphrey McQueen 2002

1John Peter Russell to Tom Roberts, 24 September 1884, Tom Roberts (papers) State Library of New South Wales, ML MS A2479


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002