Sydney Harbour c.1898 signed 'Tom Roberts' lower left oil on drapers panel 14 x 69.7cm (5 1/2 x 27 7/16in).
PROVENANCE: Tom Roberts Miss H.W. Boyes (sister of Jean Boyes, Roberts' second wife) Park Galleries, Melbourne Private Collection, Melbourne Australian Paintings, Prints and Books, Christies, 12 April 1987, lot 344 Private Collection, Sydney
LITERATURE: Helen Topliss, Tom Roberts (1856-1931): A Catalgoue Raisonné, cat. no. 282, volume 1, p. 152, volume 2, pl. 162 fig, 282 (illus).
Tom Roberts, like his fellow Melbourne artists, was greatly attracted by Sydney, especially its brilliant sunlight, vivid blue harbour waters, and sandy yellow beaches. Its overall physicality appealed to them. During a visit in the autumn of 1888, Roberts met Charles Conder. They painted together at Coogee. Roberts's Holiday Sketch at Coogee in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Conder's Coogee Bay in Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria are among the little gems of Australian Impressionist painting. Arthur Streeton followed in 1890, his Sunny South Coogee (private collection, Melbourne) being a painted homage from the same spot chosen by Roberts and Conder. Another early, masterly work, 'Sunlight Sweet' Coogee (private collection, New South Wales), dates from the same year. Streeton was so impressed with this 'very jolly place' that he wrote to fellow Melbourne artist Walter Withers, 'I'll come here to die I think, ... some day.'1
Roberts and Streeton painted many scenes of the harbour during the 1890s when they lived at the Curlew Camp on Little Sirius Cove. They shared subjects and influences. They also introduced Sydney artists to the Impressionist 'craze' with all its brighter colours, purple shadows, and transient atmospheric effects. As in Melbourne, Roberts soon emerged as a leading figure, his nickname 'Bulldog' acknowledging his strength of character, and the numerous portrait commissions his popularity in Sydney society. Marriage added to his standing. He was at the forefront in the establishment of the professional breakaway group, the Society of Artists of New South Wales, becoming its first president.
Like Streeton, Roberts's Sydney Harbour c.1898 makes effective use of the narrow, horizontal panel on which it is painted, increasing the panoramic effect, especially the sense of the broad expanse of water. Harbour waters provide the prominent feature, sky and water much in balance. These narrow, rectangular panels were favoured by Roberts and Streeton, a horizontal version of the japoniste vertical format and oriental in spirit. There is also the slightest decorative strain that came from Conder, via Streeton. Sydney Harbour was probably painted from Sirius Cove, its distant features showing Fort Denison, Farm Cove, and Lady Macquarie's Chair, and the even more distant city buildings. Breadth of technique creates a mood of informality, an immediate response to the transient effects of nature, so beloved by all the Impressionist masters worldwide. This casual mood is well suited to capturing the open, outdoor atmospheric airiness of the scene, painted in the best tradition of en plein air. Roberts and Streeton produced many little masterpieces of understatement on the subject of Sydney Harbour, its great appeal, and enticing coves and vistas. Helen Topliss, in her ever-helpful catalogue raisonné, lists those works of this time painted by Roberts on narrow wood panels and related in subject, style, and format. They include The Convent at Rose Bay 1898 (Topliss 281); another Sydney Harbour 1898 (Topliss 285); and Circular Quay c.1898 (Topliss 286).2 While Roberts's An Autumn Morning, Milson's Point 1888 and The Camp, Sirius Cove c.1899, both in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, offer more formal and beautifully finished compositions, Sydney Harbour c.1898 has an informality and intimacy that is impossible to resist.
David Thomas 1 Undated letter to Walter Withers, Latrobe Collection, State Library of Victoria, quoted in Anne Galbally, Arthur Streeton, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1979, pp. 25 - 27 2 Topliss, op. cit., vol.1, p. 152