Tom Roberts – April Girl

(Portrait of Miss Nettie Hollander)

Few could imagine the thoughts and attitudes of today’s society during the Victorian and Edwardian times. Australia was an isolated continent and England was still considered to be the homeland. London was the centre of the universe to all but a few and images of “the homeland” were much preferred by the public rather than images of the rugged Australian bush.

Tom Roberts - April Girl
Tom Roberts – April Girl

To the artists of the time their thoughts were focussed on England, to have their works hung in the Royal Academy seasonal exhibitions and to hang on the line was the high ideal of all practising Australian artists of the time.

Tom Roberts had a number of reasons for travelling to London in 1903, he had to complete his iconic painting, the Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. To finalise the work he required portrait sittings from the new Prince and Princess of Wales and other British dignitaries who were in attendance before the task was completed.

He arrived in London in April 1903 and had finished the Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia (or The Big Picture as it became generally known) by the following November. At the kings request it was hung at the Royal Academy in April 1904.

The Big Picture did not dazzle the London art world and received polite reviews out of respect for the King to whom the picture was to be presented.

Roberts craved the esteem of his peers and to have a work hung in the Royal Academy on its own merits – rather than royal decree – was his overriding desire. He had no doubts that he was to the standard required.

His Australian colleagues Streeton, McKennal and Longstaff were regular exhibitors at the academy shows and he had been chosen above them all, to paint the Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Following the academy showing, Roberts remained in England to further his artistic career. And while he may have expected early acceptance into the Royal Academy exhibitions, it was not for another six years before that honour he so keenly craved was awarded to him.

April Girl was the work that finally saw him accepted by his peers. The subject was a friend of the Roberts family, Miss Nettie Hollander. Not only was this picture accepted by the Academy for the 1910 exhibition, it actually hung on the line, which was the position reserved for the better works of the exhibition.

This is the work that Roberts took six years to paint and was probably the one that gave him the most satisfaction. His paintings had been accepted by the Royal Academy selection committee on his own merits.

Two of Roberts works were exhibited in the Royal Academy exhibition in 1909, the other Madame Hartl is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. April Girl is in a private collection in Western Australia.