One Summer Again
A three part series on Tom Roberts and the Heidelberg School.
At 29,Tom Roberts has returned from London determined to carve out a reputation as a portraitist in the Melbourne of the mid-1880s. At the same time, he experiments on the side with the little- understood techniques of impressionism, but adapts them to local circumstances. While his portraits bring him wealthy patronage, and some more intimate rewards, the landscapes excite the interest of local artists such as his old friend Fred McCubbin, and the students Jane Sutherland and Arthur Streeton. Roberts finds himself torn between the two camps, each group looking to make him their champion. In the end, artistic integrity appears to triumph over social opportunism, but the complexity of Roberts' motives promises difficulties ahead.
Tom Roberts has found success in the money-mad boom years of 'Marvellous Melbourne' in the late 1880s. He is now the undisputed centre of the leading coterie, the 'Heidelberg School'. This elegant bohemian group is joined by the charming young aesthete Charles Conder,whom Roberts had discovered in Sydney. A curious power struggle develops as Conder's excesses lure the younger artists away from Roberts' more austere concerns. Roberts retreats to the country. Fired up with the idea of an exhibition, Roberts returns to the 'camp' at Heidelberg and reasserts his leadership by organising the first exhibition of Australian impressionism. This is also the first time he will publicly declare himself to be an impressionist. The exhibition - the now famous '9 x 5' - is a success. Roberts once again triumphs in the name of artistic integrity. But shadows fall across the bright canvas. His deliberate failure to invite the women painters to exhibit destroys his relationship with Jane Sutherland and the cause of Conder's growing melancholia is revealed.
The boom in Melbourne has collapsed into disastrous depression and the art market has collapsed with it. The 'Heidelberg School' is coming apart at the seams. The heady days are gone. Conder has fled to Paris and Streeton to Sydney. Roberts,too,would like to cut and run but stays behind, caught in the grip of an obsession to sell his masterpiece 'The Shearing of the Rams'. Rejected by the National Gallery, he desperately cultivates the rapidly-shrinking corner of remaining private wealth in the hope of selling it there. His remaining friendships suffer. Concentrating on his own financial and artistic survival, he cannot give emotional support to his old friend Louis Abrahms nor even sustain a reasonable friendship with Jane Sutherland. He sells the picture, but at considerable moral expense. Finally he abandons Melbourne for Sydney,in the hope of making a fresh start with Streeton. But he finds himself in much the same quandary he faced on his return from London six years earlier.
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