Sketch for a Tom Roberts painting

This is a black-and-white photograph of a colour oil sketch made by the celebrated Australian artist Tom Roberts (1856-1931) at the opening of the first federal parliament in Melbourne's Royal Exhibition Building on 9 May 1901. It shows the grandeur and formality of the scene in impressionistic style. The faces of the subjects are generally not recognisable, although the figure at the front of the stage is clearly the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V).

Educational value

  • demonstrates how, with a few simple brush strokes, the artist was able to capture the sense of splendour and importance of the occasion.
  • shows a preliminary sketch for a painting entitled 'Opening of the first Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by HRH the Duke of Cornwall and York (later HM King George V) May 9 1901', which took over two years to paint and contains the likenesses of 269 people – the finished painting, known as 'The big picture', now hangs in Parliament House in Canberra.
  • shows the Royal Exhibition Building, which was built in 1879–80 to display cultural, industrial and technological achievements from around the world in Melbourne's first International Exhibition (1880) – it is the first Australian building to gain a place on the World Heritage list.
  • illustrates that, when the federal parliament met for the first time in 1901, Melbourne was the centre of the new Commonwealth of Australia – it remained so until the establishment of Canberra as Australia's capital and seat of the federal parliament in 1927.
  • shows the Duke of Cornwall and York, representing King Edward VII, opening Australia's first parliament – this highly symbolic act marked the point from which Australia could regard itself as truly self-governing.
  • shows a work by Tom Roberts, an Australian painter famous for his depictions of bush landscapes, whose best-known works include 'Shearing the rams' and 'Bailed up' – he is regarded as the father of Australian impressionism.
  • illustrates an example of impressionism – a style of painting that developed in France during the 1870s, characterised by concentration on the immediate visual impression produced by a scene, and by the use of unmixed primary colours and small strokes to simulate actual reflected light.
  • illustrates a problem facing an artist in 1901 who needed to capture the colours of a scene to be painted later – as colour film did not exist in 1901, and Roberts had been commissioned to produce an accurate commemorative painting, the sketch served as his record of the colours of the scene and supplemented photographs taken by him at the same time.
  • demonstrates the difficulty of capturing the effect and impact of a colour original painting in a black-and-white photograph – converse to the problem facing Roberts himself in 1901.
  • illustrates some of the pomp and ceremony that accompanied Federation in 1901.