Tom Roberts (1856 -1931)

Title: Thames Barges

Date: 1917 

Signed, Artist’s monogram Oil on Canvas  

9 X 12 in. (64 X 58cm)

Tom Roberts (1856 –1931) was an English-born Australian artist and key member of the  Heidelberg School Art Movement – also known as Australian Impressionism. After attending  art schools in Melbourne, Roberts travelled to Europe in 1881 to further his training, returning home to Australia in 1885. In 1883, together with Australian artist John Russell,  Roberts met Spanish artist Laureano Barrau and Ramon Casa who introduced him to the  principles of Impressionism and plein air painting. While in London and Paris, he also  took in the progressing influence of painters Jules Bastien Lepage and James Abbott  Whistler. A leading proponent of painting en plein air, Roberts joined Frederick McCubbin in founding the Box Hill Artist’s Camp, the first of several plein air camps frequented by  members of the Heidelberg School. In 1885 he started painting and sketching excursions, to what would later become outer suburbs, creating camps at Box Hill and Heidelberg where he worked alongside McCubbin, Arthur Streeton and Charles Condor, working on  representing Australia’s light, heat, space, and distance. Roberts is best known today for  his national narratives, among them Shearing the Rams (1890), A Break Away (1891) and  Bailed (1891), he also earned a living as a portraitist.


London Barges, 1917 L R Lance (Corporal) Roberts

Tom Roberts sometimes dated and signed his  initials T.R (1889)

Tom Roberts: T.R 1924

Roberts signed London Barges 1917 with his military rank & initials

L R – Lance (Corporal) Roberts.

The artist sometimes dated and signed his paintings with the monogram T.R – compare
image of initials on Thames Barges, 1917 and other known works by Tom Roberts.


In 1915 at the age of 59 Roberts enlisted in World War I with several other Australian  artists, as an orderly undertaking menial tasks in the 3rd London General Hospital, Wandsworth. He was soon promoted to Lance Corporal (LCpl or formerly L/Cpl) and then  Sergeant, in charge of the dental department, where he helped with facial reconstruction  until 1918. The title Lance Corporal (L/Cpl) is used by many armed forces worldwide, and  by some police forces and other uniformed organisations. Roberts took pride in his work  at the hospital and his military position – signing his 1917 painting, London Barges with  his military rank initials L R – Lance (Corporal) Roberts. The artist sometimes dated and  signed his paintings with the monogram T.R (Tom Roberts) – compare images of initials on Thames Barges, 1917 and other known works by Roberts. While other Australian artists  painted battle subjects, living, and working in London in during WWI, Roberts was  provided the opportunity to extend his gaze beyond his immediate position as a hospital  worker to produce this sensitive and poetic painting, Thames Barges 1917

After Roberts spent World War I in England assisting at the hospital, he returned to  Australia in December 1919, stayed for a year, and held exhibitions in Melbourne and  Sydney, where success encouraged him to return to London once again. He returned to Melbourne early in 1923, then Roberts and his wife settled at Kallista (Dandenong’s), in  a small cottage they named Talisman. He was particularly fond of the countryside and returned to painting small formal landscapes in a low-key tonal Impressionism, rediscovered in earlier works like Thames Barges 1917 and Australian Sydney Harbour c.1920’s

In London Roberts was especially influenced by a variety of regional groups who  eventually formed the nucleus of the New English Arts Club in 1886; these artists from  centres such as Newlyn and Glasgow rejected the strictly historicizing Academy style.  Other strong influences were Whistler and the popular plein air painters such as Bastien  Lepage and his British followers. Roberts toured Spain in 1883 with the future Labor 

politician Dr William Maloney and fellow artist John Peter Russell. Although he spent  only a few weeks in Spain it was a joyous and formative experience which encouraged his  naturalistic style. Two Spanish painters he met in Granada, Lorreano Barrau and Ramon  Casas, emphasized certain popular notions of Impressionism and plein air principles. In  1884 Roberts continued his pursuit of momentary effects in small studies of the seascape  and several figure studies painted during a holiday at Venice—small exercises in a  Whistlerian mode.  

Many of Roberts’ paintings were landscapes or ideas done on small canvases that he did  very quickly, such as his show at the famous 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition in Melbourne 1889. The exhibition Included contributors, Streeton and Conder and McCubbin, which further  defined the Heidelberg movement in the public mind. The 182 small panels, of which  Roberts contributed 62, were all painted on 9 X 5-inch cigar-box lids and uniformly  framed in flat wide lengths of kauri wood. Roberts had brought home a few 9 x 5  impressions painted in London: the first item in the catalogue was one of his Thames-side  studies. The catalogue of the Impressions Exhibition had quoted Gérôme: ‘When you draw,  form is the important thing; but in painting the first thing to look for is the general  impression of colour’.


Tom Roberts, Australian Sydney Harbour C.1 circa 1920’s Oil on wood panel 16.5 X 8.5cm, Provenance Macquarie Galleries, Sydney
Tom Roberts, Detail: Thames Barges 1917
(9 X 5 in) Oil on canvas
Tom Roberts, Detail: Thames Barges 1917
(9 X 5 in) Oil on canvas
Tom Roberts, Detail: Australian Sydney Harbour c1920’s
Tom Roberts, Detail: Thames Barges, 1917
Tom Roberts, Detail: Hutt Valley 1900s

In 1900 Roberts exhibited a series of twenty-three informal panel-portraits, influenced by  the artist Whistler. 1903 he embarked for England to complete the ‘Big Picture’ (1570 sq.  feet, 518 cm x 305 cm). After Roberts arrived back in London in May 1903, he painted  several modest landscapes in a restricted palette, with Whistlerian nuances, such as The  Towpath, Putney 1904. Unlike Whistler, Roberts did not adopt a radical viewpoint for his  composition, Thames Barges 1917, instead the artist sought a subtle harmony of muted  tones, using complementary touches of grey to convey mood and atmosphere, evoking  the Thames enveloped in mist

Tonal painting was popular around the turn of the twentieth century, coinciding with a  renewed appreciation of the dark-toned seventeenth-century subjects of Velasquez  (1599–1660) and Rembrandt (1606–1669). A descendent of this tradition was a dominant  form of low-toned painting taught in Melbourne, whereby the painted surface is  progressively and slowly built up, working in part from dark to light, and influential in 

Roberts’ Thames Barges 1917. Tonalism arrived in Melbourne in 1919 in the form of a  large group exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery: the sheer immediacy of its technique,  its modest subject matter and the subtle appearance of the paintings fundamentally  challenged well-established, nationalistic sentiments. 

The main form in Thames Barges is sharply painted creating an effect of realism, typically  seen in Roberts’ painting. Rather than appearing highly detailed and photographic, the  work is more generalised, and identified by a soft-focus, tonal atmospheric aesthetic. Its  intention is to create an exact illusion of nature: introspective and monochromatic. Tom  Roberts variously explored the gentle atmospheric effects of Tonalism in Thames Barges

the work involves no under drawing and is based on the rapid and direct recording of  tonal impressions (generalised massed areas of light and dark) onto the canvas, in the  order the impressions meet the eye of the artist. The blocked-in tonal transition in this painting is slow to unfold and demand time and physical distance from the viewer, as  the fields of tone optically shift and lock into focus to create the desired three dimensional illusionary effect within a unified tonal pitch.

Roberts worked quickly to capture the spontaneous essence of the scene in Thames Barges  1917, recording its impressions with broad, responsive brushstrokes, that lend the work a  sketchy quality. It was not just the delights of a specific place like London, but also  Roberts’ individual perceptions of general effects – such as the softness, atmospheric sky,  quietness of the last moments of a setting sun and presence of the Thames’ majestic vessels.  London Barges is a stunning testament to the artist’s plein-air impressionist techniques. 

Tom Roberts was at heart a realist painter, but this croqueton oil sketch, Thames Barges, 1917 reveals a work rich in light and tonalist colour treatment. This composition has  great depth and atmosphere and a sense of movement and energy. The plein air study is  looser and impressionist in style, characterised by distinctive brushstrokes, subtle  contrasts of edges, and a muted natural palette. The tonalist palette contrasts with many  of Roberts’ contemporaries, who often used vibrant colours in their shadows: Thames  Barges is painted in warm, neutral tones that resonate, even though the tones are very  similar. Roberts uses loose short brushstrokes and scumbles of warm grey mixture, tinted  with red accents, to indicate a luminous sky behind the barges. The sky is overcast, suggesting the sun is setting on another day of full cargoes and heavy work. He uses  daubs and swathes of muted down umber/ red browns to gesture the groupings of barges  in the background – creating a clever focus, where the observer’s eyes can complete the  image where the formation is suggested. A simple narrative with a simple palette, yet  under the astute brushwork of Roberts, the grace of Thames Barges is inspiring. The artist  uses monochromatic tones to heighten the sense of majesty and strength of the vessels,  and pulls us into the dream-like, misty scene, as if we are in a film.

Thames Barges, 1917 is a small-scale study that demonstrates a painting system that  strengthened and simplified the artist’s approach while exhibiting an important advance  in tonal plein-air painting (since Roberts’ Impressionism of the 1880s). The work is an  example of a most luminous and minimal scene, with the Barges displayed in elegant  groupings that collectively resonate. The work is one of Roberts most engaging and  unexpected paintings, distinguished by a wonderful command of space and feeling for  colour. Thames Barges is a synthesis of formal elements, related to the artists pioneering  semi-abstract colour music studies and the softened forms of Tonalism. The delicate tonal  quality in London Barges is remarkable for its brevity and spatial penetration, with rapid  application of broken areas of restricted tone. Roberts created a work of extraordinary,  light, space, and simplification of form, in recessive space. Tonalism also inadvertently  sharpened the artists receptivity to modernism, while the work demonstrated in this early  reductive painting is significant today for prefiguring the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s  Minimalist interpretations. 


Roberts was an expert maker of picture frames, and during the period 1903–1914,  when he painted relatively little, much of his income apparently came from this work.  The artist’s wife, Elizabeth (Lillie) Roberts, became well known for her handsome  carved frames and received acclaim for her creations. 

Tom and Lillie Robert’s handcrafted frames – which represented a radical departure  from late-nineteenth-century conservative framing practice in Australia – were  designed with a view to achieving visual harmony with the paintings they housed. This  factor, together with the consistent attention to rusticity, strongly suggests that  Roberts considered frames integral, and not merely incidental, to the way in which  works were presented and displayed. The artist would no doubt have been influenced  by the theories of Whistler and, specifically, by his views relating to decorative unity. The well-suited Oak Frame housing Thames Barges is decorated with characteristic gold  trim – an effect Roberts used in his earlier 9 X 5 Exhibition, where the artist splashed  gold paint trim on the frames.

Thames Barges

Tom Roberts, Detail: Australian Sydney Harbour c1920’s
Tom Roberts, Detail: Thames Barges, 1917
Tom Roberts, Detail: Hutt Valley 1900s

The main barge depicted in the painting, Thames Barges, is wooden hulled (red oak) with  a topsail above the large mainsail. The mizzen, a much smaller mast on which was set a single sail, whose main purpose was to aid steering when tacking, can be seen as an  impression of a triangle at the back of the boat. The rig on this barge allows a relatively  large sail area on the upper part of the mast, to catch wind when moored ships, buildings  or trees blocked wind on the water’s surface. The typical, rusty-red, or red-brown colour  of the flax sails in Thames Barges, was due to the dressing used to treat the sails that were  permanently aloft (traditionally made from red ochre, cod oil, urine, and seawater). The  red ochre was there to block the ultra-violet in the sunlight from degrading the sails. No auxiliary power was used originally but many barges were fitted with engines in later  years. The barges played an important part during the First World War, carrying supplies from England to the Continent and would’ve been part of Roberts’ inspiration for  choosing this subject matter.

A Thames sailing barge is a type of commercial sailing boat once common on the River  Thames in London and the Port of London. The barges were built for strength, perfectly  adapted to the Thames Estuary, with their shallow waters and narrow tributary rivers. Certain features made the craft extremely versatile and economical, such as the flat bottomed hull, allowing vessels to be easily beached or lie on the river mud. Barges were  rigged to allow them to be operated by two men and possibly a ‘lad’ (like the one seen  perched at the helm in Thames Barges). Barges could float in as little as 3 ft (0.91 m) of  water and could dry out in the tidal waters without heeling over: this allowed them to  visit the narrow tributaries and creeks of the Thames to load farm cargoes, or to dry out  on the sand banks and mudflats to load materials for building and brickmaking (it was  no coincidence that their use peaked while London was expanding rapidly). The larger  barges were seaworthy vessels and were the largest sailing vessel to be handled by just  two men. When the barges reached London Bridge, the mast was lowered with the help  of Hufflers (‘spare strong blokes’), so they could pass under to wharfs in the Pool of  London or further upstream to Westminster or beyond. The barge could carry 80 to 150  tons, although 120 was the most common tonnage. Cut barges were smaller so they could  pass into the Regent’s and Surrey canals. The larger estuary barges (seaworthy craft), worked the Kent and Essex coasts, while Coasters also traded much further afield to the  north of England, the South Coast, the Bristol Channel and to continental European  ports. Cargoes varied enormously: bricks, cement, hay, rubbish, sand, coal, grain, and  gunpowder. Timber, bricks, and hay were stacked on the deck, while cement and grain  were carried loose in the hold. Following the Second World War, the coastal barge trade  diminished as the nation became more mechanised.

Thames Barge Races

Kathleen was a typical grain barge built at Gravesend in 1901. She became notable by featuring in reference books, where her measurements were published in detail. Over time her rig was changed to suit commercial conditions.
Still active, The oldest little ship, Greta Barge since 1892, iconic Dunkirk Barge

The Barges sailed the Medway and Thames in a ponderous way for two hundred years, then in the 1860s a series of barge races were started, the barges’ design improved as  vessels were built with better lines to win. They were begun in 1863 by a wealthy owner  called Henry Dodd. Dodd was a plough boy from Hackney, London, who made his  fortune carrying the city’s waste to the country on the barges. He may well have been  the model for Charles Dickens’s character the Golden Dustman in Our Mutual Friend. On  his death in 1881, Dodd left £5000 for future match prizes.  

The Thames barge races are the world’s second oldest sailing competition, second to the  America’s Cup. 1863, 1864 and 1865 saw the first Thames Barge Races, these continued  unbroken until 1938. The aim of the founder William Henry Dodd, “The Golden Dustman“,  was to raise the status of the Bargemen, and to improve the performance of the barges.  There were two classes, one for Stumpies (under 80 tons) and one for heavier (under 100  tons) topsail barges. These were fiercely competitive – and soon new barges were being  built, using the improved techniques, to win the next year’s race. The Medway Races  started in 1880 – their heyday came at the turn of the 20th century, when over 2000 were  on the registry. That century saw a steady decline in their numbers, with the last wooden  built barge SB Cabby was built in 1928. The barges’ performance was perfected through  the annual sailing matches, in which they competed for trophies and cash prizes. The  matches are credited with encouraging improvements in design, leading to the craft’s  highly efficient final form. 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Thames Match, there  was a full programme of races in 2017 on the Medway and Thames.