The old Sacramento 1885 signed 'TOM ROBERTS.' lower right oil on wood panel 26.5 x 34.5cm (10 7/16 x 13 9/16in).
PROVENANCE Possibly Gemmell, Tuckett & Co., Melbourne, 4 or 5 December 1890, lot 20 Private collection, Melbourne Fine Australian and European Paintings, Sotheby's, Melbourne, 28 April 1998, lot 100 (illus.) The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1998
EXHIBITED Sixteenth Exhibition of the Victorian Academy of Arts, Melbourne, 3 April 1886, cat. no. 19 Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 31 March 8 July 2007, cat. no. 2.4
LITERATURE Once a month ; a magazine for Australasia, June 1886, p. 560 Humphrey McQueen, Tom Roberts, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1996, p. 163 (mistakenly identified as 'a Spanish scene') Terence Lane, et al, Australian Impressionism, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007, pp. 31, 41 (illus.), 315
Tom Roberts' picture of an old convict hulk, the Sacramento, presents an intriguing, alternative vision of Melbourne in the 1880s. The artist focuses not on the bustling, modern metropolis that the city had become, but instead on a scene representing 'a bit of Old Melbourne'. The image is gently nostalgic for the city's colonial past that was being swept away by the relentless progress of modernity. Having returned to Melbourne in April 1885, Roberts would have been especially responsive to rapid changes wrought on the city during his four year absence abroad.
The Sacramento was one of five vessels purchased by the Victorian Government between 1852-55 to serve as prison hulks when the rapid increase of the gold rush population led to a shortage of prison accommodation.1 From 1854, she was moored off Williamstown where she served, alongside other hulks, as a public prison for over two decades, being de-commissioned in 1878. 2 No longer required as prisons, the Sacramento and another former prison hulk, the Deborah (seen lying behind the Sacramento in Roberts' picture), were next employed as store-ships for torpedoes in conjunction with the Torpedo Depot at Williamstown. 3
In the early 1880s, the two ships finally succumbed to the encroachment of urban progress when the newly formed Melbourne Harbour Trust systematically reclaimed
water-laden land along the lower Yarra as it constructed a direct ship-canal to the river mouth. A newspaper report of 1882 on the reclamation works establishes the site of Roberts' scene as that of Greenwich Bay, 'an area of about 50 acres' of shallow water on the Williamstown side of the river at the northern end of The Strand: 'The old prison hulks, when they were utilised as torpedo stores, were moored in this bay, and before reclamation work was commenced, they floated at high water. Now they stand high and dry on a bank of silt some 6 ft. above the water level. Inside of them there is still a sheet of water some 20 acres in extent.' 4 In 1885, the year prior to Roberts showing his painting at the Victorian Academy of the Arts, the Government ordered the prison hulks be destroyed and work began on breaking them up. 5
The story of Victoria's five prison hulks forms a bleak yet colourful episode in the colony's history. The bushranger 'Captain Moonlite' (Andrew George Scott) apparently served time on one of them; the 18-year-old Ned Kelly spent several months as an inmate of the Sacramento in 1873. 6 Conditions for prisoners were harsh and sometimes so appalling that they resorted to mutiny and murder: in a famous incident of 1857, the inspector-general of prisons, John Price, was set upon and viciously murdered by a party of convicts. 7 In the late nineteenth century the story of the prison hulks thus became part of a much wider literary and historical tradition which emphasised the cruelty and brutality of the early convict system.
In The old Sacramento, Roberts eschews the drama and violence popularly associated with the early convict era in favour of detached, first hand observation of the present day scene. The picture is deftly painted in the close-toned, plein air naturalist style he had mastered abroad. Its mood is quiet and reflective, though not without a sense of irony at the fate that has befallen these relics of the past. Roberts does not hesitate to record their diminished circumstances. The indecorous addition of a hut on the forward deck of the Sacramento is plainly visible; the ship's mast, soon to be dismantled, stands isolated against the sky, a reminder perhaps of the imminent passing of the role of the sailing ship from history. In the left foreground a workman possibly the lone keeper of the hulks mentioned in one contemporary account lends a solitary human presence to the sparse landscape. 8 Only in the mid-distance is the stillness disturbed by boats, engines, steam and smoke, proclaiming the lower Yarra as the locus of trade and industry. The city skyline beyond, marked by the identifiable silhouette of the dome of the new Exhibition Building, registers the existence of the flourishing metropolis that propelled changes that spelt the end of the old convict hulks.
1 A concise summary of existing research on the Sacramento may be found at the Victorian Heritage Database, [available online] VHR no. S602. For the Deborah, see VHR no. S163 2 William H. Elsum, The History of Williamstown from its First Settlement to a City, 1834-1934, Williamstown Vic. : Williamstown City Council, 1985, (facsimile reprint of 1934 ed.), pp. 30-32 3 'Torpedo Explosion', Bendigo Advertiser, 22 December 1879, p. 2, confirms the link of the Deborah (and by implication the Sacramento) with the Torpedo Depot. For the Williamstown Naval Torpedo Depot, see the Victorian Heritage Database, HI no. H7822-0556 4 'Reclamation Works at Greenwich Bay', Argus, 22 August 1882, p. 9 5 'The Lower Yarra from the Falls to the Mouth', Illustrated Australian News, 28 April1888, p.76, depicts the Sacramento still intact and the Deborah mostly broken up, but the text to the image (p. 82) states, 'The last relics of the Sacramento and Deborah, long used as timber hulks, but now broken up, exist now no longer, except as transmitted by the artist...' 6 John Molony, Ned Kelly, Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2001, pp.52-3, 209; Ian Jones, Ned Kelly: A Short Life, South Melbourne, Vic.: Lothian Books, 2003, pp. 65-6, 377 7 John V. Barry, 'Price, John Giles (1808-1857)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2, Carlton, Vic. : Melbourne University Press, 1979, pp. 351-2. In his famous convict novel, His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke employed Price as the model for the character of Maurice Frere. 8 'The Old Hobson's Bay Convict Hulks', Australasian Sketcher, 8 April 1885, p. 5 (text). The illustration is on the cover page.