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Tom Roberts – Sharing the Shed Dream

For love of Australian shearing sheds, and the golden light that is showcased in many of Australia’s iconic paintings, artist Ivan Durrant shears shares the shed dream.

My opinion of this historic and heroic painting, and of Tom Robert’s relevance, has varied spectacularly over time. In the last two years of high school, my art teacher prattled on about the importance of Tom Roberts and how his Shearing of the rams told us so much about the real Australia: its people, its industry and the true colour of the landscape. Our art room had a sun-bleached, almost colourless reproduction of Shearing the ams on the wall, and my one and only textbook had a tiny black and white, or should I say poorly printed grey and white, reproduction, so there’s no way I could have had faith in my teacher’s assessment of Mr Roberts’s work. Now, I’d been in farm sheds and shearing sheds, albeit empty ones, throughout my youth while billeted out during school holidays as a farm worker from the Melbourne Orphanage. Knowing them well, I was convinced Roberts, having painted such an insipid work, couldn’t have stepped into any shed.

It wasn’t until early 1968 when I went to see a Fred William’s painting at the National Gallery of Victoria that I spotted Shearing the rams in the flesh. Wow – did I change my mind! There’s no doubt Roberts knew what he was doing.

At first glance it wasn’t the busy shearing activity that impressed me, but the comforting warm reflected light on the walls and ceiling. Its source was a sliver of almost white light from a tiny opening at the back of the shed, and from the larger bled-out landscape on the right. It struck a nerve; here was something familiar. I knew this light from my childhood sheds and the small hessian-sided huts we boys used to make in the grounds of the orphanage – dark, safe places with warm life-giving flickers and glows of sunlight on the walls and ceiling.

Most impressive of all was the small, almost insignificant oil bottle hanging from a post, its brilliant translucent gold contrasting with the other half’s contents in the shadows – here Roberts appears to have painted real light: a switched-on bulb beaming out, a touch of magic. In fact my very first exhibition in 1970, at Tolarno Galleries in St Kilda, paid homage to Robert’s bottled light. Aptly named The Bathroom, the scene had a half-lit shampoo bottle on a glass shelf in front of a mirror near a window.

In a way, Shearing the rams could appear to be a fly on the wall documentation of industry at the time including child labour and low-paid Chinese workers seen in the distant darkness of the shed. But not so: almost bang in the middle of the canvas is a small boy wearing a hat staring out and smiling directly at me. Why, I don’t know, but I’ve always called him Tommy McGraw. The irresistible connection between our eyes put me in the painting – what a trick. Roberts directed me to accept his depiction as representing the truth with me, the onlooker, as an on-the-spot witness.

However, what bothered me then, and still does, is the soft pink and white striped shirt on the central figure – a strong young brute of a man with thick arms of steel, chunky fists and cemented to the floor under his weight and power. A sweat-stained flannel shirt I could accept, but these stripes just seem to be out of place and more fitting to wallpaper in a genteel drawing room or to a lady’s bonnet.

In the past couple of years I’ve become very fond of John Peter Russell, an Australian painter who worked in France alongside Rodin, Van Gogh, Monet, and almost every famous Impressionist of the time. In 1883 Russell led an expedition with his brother Percy, Dr Will Maloney and Tom Roberts, travelling through Spain painting outside (en plein air), camping and roughing it, quite often to the initial displeasure of Roberts, who was never really the outdoor type. While Russell stayed in France working on Impressionism, Roberts hightailed it back to Australia where, influenced by his adventures with Russell, he set up the Heidelberg School painting group with the likes of Fred McCubbin, camping out at Eaglehawk. As Roberts explained to Russell, he was better off back in Australia where he could make a living painting portraits and landscapes for the rich squatters – and he did it well.

Russell, a committed colourist and being a little frustrated with Robert’s dedication to the bleached-out browns and yellows of his Australian landscapes, sent a painting back to Australia: a portrait of his friend Dr Maloney, instructing that it be shown to Roberts in order to get him to lift his game with colour. Russell even went to the extent of sending Roberts a letter with instructions and lists of particular colours. In the portrait Maloney wears a pink and white striped shirt, thickly painted almost raw from the tube. No doubt Roberts took this to heart, adding a softer and slicker version of this shirt to his shearer. Not his usual palette; the stripes were probably an afterthought, and I expect that’s why they feel a little out-of-place to me.

For many years I revisited Shearing the rams and came close to tackling the subject myself. But it wasn’t until 1989, when shifting to the hot, dry sheep country of Northeast Victoria outside Benalla, that I stepped into an unused and dilapidated shearing shed and was smitten: there it was, the old familiar reflected glow of light on the corrugated iron, split-log walls and roof rafters. The blinding white light from the cracks and small windows together with brilliant starlight diamond flickers from nail holes in the walls delivered a combination of warmth, safety, and the mesmerising beauty of fireflies in a Disneyland of river caves, and all for free.

I wish I could have taken Tom Roberts to Benalla to show him how beautiful light can be inside a quiet, empty shed. Then again, my paintings are a reflection of our times where sheep have lost their importance in the economy, and many shearing sheds are no longer a place of toil, but admired for their historic past and raw construction: antiques – objects of beauty. No doubt, artists see things differently. The main thing is, good art moves people. Tom, you’ve sure moved me.

Good on you Tom, I love your work.

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Federation Square, Melbourne, Victoria
www.ngv.vic.gov.au

Image credit:
Tom Roberts, Shearing the Rams, 1888-90
Painted at Brocklesby station, Corowa, NSW and Melbourne
Oil on canvas mounted on board 121.9 x 182.6 cm