Tom Roberts
'Allegro con brio, Bourke Street west' c. 1885–86, with additions 1890
National Library of Australia and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Allegro con brio is the musical term for ‘lively with fire’, appropriate to this searing streetscape. Allegro con brio was also Beethoven’s marking for the first movement of his Eroica symphony, a work which Tom Roberts and his confrères interpreted as asserting the value of art over commerce and politics. However, those latter forces inhabit Roberts’s painting.

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street west expressed the globalising of the Imperial bourgeoisie, albeit portrayed from the perspective of a self-employed painter enjoying the elevation of a first-floor window. At the western end of Bourke Street was the General Post Office, almost out of sight in his painting, its extensions appearing in the girder to the far right. The building was important for Melburnians because a succession of flags above the clock tower signalled the progress of the overseas mails, indicating when the steamer had been sighted off Albany (WA) through to the completion of the sorting. The Post Office corner was a hub of commerce, not only for business correspondence but also for its savings bank and money orders. A third of the canvas contains images of buildings, with verandahs as prominent as the advertising on the walls. Although ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ had become one of the world’s great metropolises, Roberts later disparaged its architecture as ‘expensive vulgarity’, (1) wrapped in styles as borrowed as the money that built them.

The small scale of this work for so large a subject suggests that it was a draft for a larger and more sharply delineated work, one which Roberts had hoped to send to the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London. Had he done so, he would have had to work the painting up in greater detail before varnishing it, as demanded by the academic standards to which he subscribed. However, he set the painting aside and later altered it into a high-keyed, bright ‘impression’.

The word ‘impression’ was then synonymous with sketch and, in the Melbourne of the 1880s, was associated more with the ‘nocturnes’ of James McNeill Whistler than with the Impressionism of Monet. A possible source was the work of the Austrian painter, Franz Richard Unterberger, one of whose Italian scenes had been acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne in 1875, the year Roberts commenced his studies there. Three more Unterbergers went on sale just before Roberts commenced his canvas, which a contemporary critic would compare with the Austrian’s streetscapes.

The line of cabs down the middle of Bourke Street and the stables to the left add to the bustle. The cabs gave way to the laying of track for the cable trams that ran from August 1887. Staid as those vehicles now appear, late in 1885 their drivers were a point of social disturbance, striking for unionised wage-rates and shorter hours. Three-quarters of the 150 figures are dabs or single strokes, as if shadows blurred by the long exposures needed for photography. Nonetheless, Roberts detailed street life in the shoeshine man on the south-east corner.

Urban subjects were less popular than bush scenes because cities were seen as sites for crime, revolt and sickness. Moreover, late Victorian art-lovers preferred paintings that told a story with a moral; painterliness was a secondary concern. Roberts wanted to convey an impression of the glare of the sun and the scorching northerly wind, ‘the brickfielder’, against which women carry parasols; the word ‘ICE’ on the cart in the dead centre emphasises this aspect of the subject while promising relief. Thus, Allegro con brio, without a straightforward narrative, would have perplexed those Victorian viewers accustomed to looking at story paintings. At best, this streetscape offered a tableau vivant for which they could supply their own tale of letters and packets.

Five days before Roberts first exhibited Allegro con brio, on 3 December 1890, he posed three women so he could paint their bright frocks over the top of a black cab which was then in the lower left corner. His use of models underlined the fact that he could not rely on recollected experience, let alone on his imagination. This brightening of the bottom left corner altered the chromatic balance of the whole, leaving open the possibility that he added the white bars to the cab roofs and inserted the French flag as a visual accent.

In 1903, unable to find a buyer, Roberts handed the canvas to his friend and colleague Frederick McCubbin, whose widow sold it in 1918 to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library for 20 guineas, which she forwarded to Roberts in London.

Humphrey McQueen 2002

(1) Tom Roberts, ‘The Loan Collection of Victorian Artists’,Melbourne Argus, 30 September 1893, p.14.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002

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