In the late 1880s, Melbourne’s entertainment district was concentrated in and around the eastern end of Bourke Street. Hemmed in by grog houses, coffee palaces and shops selling ‘notions and novelties’, theatres still carried a whiff of impropriety but the city’s significant playhouses—the Princess, the Alexandra, the Theatre Royal and the Bijou—were becoming ‘more respectable’ and equal to anything seen in London. Their interiors, replete with statuary and urns, chandeliers and elaborately chased spittoons, all telegraphed High Art aspirations. ‘The artisan in the ‘Gods’ attended much the same plays and operas as the merchant in his box and the shopkeeper in the stalls,’ writes urban historian Graeme Davison. But ticket prices established a definite pecking order: a private box cost five guineas, a reserved stalls seat was five shillings and one shilling bought a ‘standing room’ place in the upper circle.
McCubbin could probably have afforded a box—he was appointed acting master and instructor at the National Gallery School of Design in 1886 with an annual salary of 300 pounds a year—but such extravagance was out of the question for a newly married man. Roberts, best man at McCubbin’s wedding, was still supporting his art with part time work as a photographer’s assistant. A reserved stalls seat suited him ... not that this 32-year-old bachelor would often have been spending his own money. By the autumn of 1889, Roberts was the only Melbourne artist on the Government House reception list.
Melbourne theatregoers were spoiled for choice. As Easter loomed in 1889, they could enjoy arias at the Prince of Wales Opera House, comic opera (The Yeomen of the Guard) at the Princess, patriotic drama (Bland Holt’s Union Jack) at the Theatre Royal, and—if they were lucky enough to snare a ticket—Robbery Under Arms at the Alexandra. Only the Bijou was ‘dark’, awaiting the return of Brough and Boucicault’s company of players. When they did re-open, it was only for one night: the Bijou burnt down on 11 April. Spong lost sketches and photographs in the Easter Monday blaze but sets stored close by were rescued and hauled north. The whole organisation relocated to Sydney’s Criterion Theatre and Money—featuring Roberts’ Old Master ‘paintings’—was ‘announced’ as a new season highlight. Preoccupied with preparations for a Melbourne exhibition of small ‘impressions’, Roberts was not present for the play’s opening night in June but his absence did nothing to diminish his reputation with Brough and Boucicault. The duo promptly engaged him to co-design an act drop for Melbourne’s soon to be rebuilt Bijou.
The act drop—the scene that fell to hide the stage between theatre acts—remained in constant view of the audience during intervals in the performance and was created without deference to the demands of plot, actors, costuming or lighting. The act drop was complete in itself, the scene artists’ diploma of merit. Boucicault set his team a tight deadline—5 April 1890, in time for the delayed Melbourne premiere of Money—but in a January 1890 letter to James Smith, he expressed confidence in their abilities: ‘I think with Roberts on the figures, Spong will be able to make a pretty picture’.
Only five months earlier, Smith—a pillar of Melbourne’s Anglophile Establishment—had savaged Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton in print. Reviewing The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, at Buxton’s Rooms, the Argus critic took issue with their attempt to show ‘effects of a fleeting character’ and described the sketchy scenes on show as ‘a pain the eye’. One scene, Streeton’s Princess & ‘Burke & Wills’ (1889), offered a view of the Burke and Wills monument in front of the Princess Theatre in Spring Street. To Smith, these cameos on cigar box lids were marked by ‘slap dash brushwork’ and ‘sleight of hand methods of execution’, redolent of paint pots being ‘accidentally upset’ over panels.
Smith, nudging 70, wished to see ‘proper’ pictures combining realism—the ‘correctness’ of a photograph—with poetic expression and a fine finish. In other words, the easel equivalent of stage scenery. Roberts responded like a canny theatre promoter and pinned the Argus review to the door at Buxton’s. In came the crowds, eager ‘to view the dreadful paintings’. Smith had his supporters. Even Spong thought ‘the works [in the 9 by 5 Exhibition] could not bear comparison with the slightest sketch by a genuine artist-craftsman’ but his admiration for Roberts’ versatility ran deep. Visiting Grosvenor Chambers in the first half of 1889, he would have seen the big ‘history painting’ his friend was working on (later known as Shearing the Rams) and another large story painting titled Jealousy (1889). Both canvases—shown in the company of a new McCubbin work titled Down on his Luck—confirmed Roberts’ compositional skills and ability to orchestrate multiple figures.
The central observing figure in Jealousy has been identified as the actress, Alfreda Bevan. Roberts called on her talents again for Cream and Black (1889), a smaller work where Bevan was shown reclining on a chair in layers of white chiffon. Art historian Angus Trumble admires ‘the ease with which Roberts handles the textures of feathers, lace and the sheen of stiff bombazine’ in his 1888 portrait of private school mistress Madame Pfund. Robert Hughes has also noted how ‘he [Roberts] enjoyed the transparency of veils, the texture of silk, fur and feathers, and complicated lights on hair’.
This sympathy for fabrics, and the very correct adornment of female figures, perhaps explains why Brough and Boucicault invited Roberts to design costumes ‘of the seventeenth century’ for a ‘new romantic drama’ titled Devotion. It was a tricky commission, requiring ‘an elegance of deportment such as only to be found in great French theatre’. This seems at odds with the wristy studies he was making in mustering yards along the Murray but as Manning Clark has pointed out, Roberts was accustomed to leading a double life: ‘By day in the bush or on the beach ... corks were to be seen dangling from his hat in the style of a swaggie. By night, he patronised the pleasures of the city’s bourgeoisie, wearing the top hat, white tie and swallow tail coat of high society’.
‘Sketches in the new Bijou Theatre’ showing 1. Proscenium boxes. 2. The stalls entrance, 3. A portion of the ceiling ventilation, 4. Front of the dress circle, 5. A bit of the upper circles, 6. The proscenium [showing act drop], 7. The staircase (main entrance); from the Australasian, 12 April 1890.
National Library of Australia, Canberra
Accustomed to this freedom of movement, Roberts must have chafed against restrictions imposed on him in the design of the Bijou’s act drop. Artists tackling such a prestigious commission were expected to paint either classical allusions or ‘souvenirs of imaginary Grand Tours’ such as temples and pastoral scenes. Boucicault admitted: ‘A new subject is hard to find as the field is so limited’. On this occasion, he favoured a decorative composition combining classic theatre signatures (a mask, a musical instrument) and insisted ‘the colouring must be bright’. Boucicault, a fastidious man, even had a title in mind: ‘Comedy banishing Melancholy’. We have only a crude black and white drawing from the Australasian newspaper to suggest the finished product but it is possible to make out sketchily drawn figures reclining or taking flight amongst Doric columns and swagged drapes. Certainly, no expense was spared. The ‘beautiful and commodious’ new Bijou was rebuilt at a cost of 32,000 pounds, the act drop alone costing 350 pounds. How much of that Roberts pocketed for himself remains a mystery but distracted by ill health and ‘preoccupied with the shearing shed canvas’, he would have welcomed his fee.
Going Through a Stage
Roberts missed the act drop ‘reveal’—he was away again, on a painting trip in Tasmania—but by the time he returned to Melbourne in May 1890, the Bijou was back in business. So was he. In July, Roberts sold Shearing the Rams to a stock and station agent for 350 guineas. This sale enabled him to give up his photographic studio job. Frustratingly, Roberts was still unable to interest the National Gallery of Victoria in any of his paintings.
Streeton had more luck in April 1890 when the National Gallery of New South Wales agreed to purchase ‘Still Glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’. This was the first of his works to enter a public collection and buoyed by the interest shown, he travelled to Sydney in June. It did not go well financially. ‘Things are very slow here,’ he reported to Roberts in a letter signed ‘Wretched Smike’, adding, ‘Victorian people I think are a bit quicker to feel Art’.
Streeton’s Sydney sojourn at least sated his appetite for live theatre. ‘I have seen ‘Frou Frou’, ‘Macbeth’, Dolls House [sic],’ he crowed ... all starring the respected English actress Janet Achurch. Touring Australasia at the time with actor-husband Charles Charrington, Achurch befriended Streeton and bought one of his harbourside studies. ‘I go & dine at Charringtons [sic] at Woollahra very often,’ he boasted. ‘They are fine people’.
Streeton was even invited to attend a lavish ‘At Home’ soiree inside Her Majesty’s theatre in Sydney, noting how she ‘arranged the stage beautifully with Carpets & Chairs Umbrellas & lounges draperies lights ... music in full swing in the dress circle’.
Melbourne’s ‘Impressionists’ were stirred by a similar visual sense when they stage managed The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition. Inspired by a landmark London exhibition displaying ‘small atmospheric sketches’ by James McNeill Whistler, they hung ‘scarves and draperies of soft clinging silk’ from redwood picture frames and arranged ‘Japanese umbrellas, screens and handsome jardinières’ to create a ‘most harmonious arrangement of colour’.
Roberts’ flair for showmanship was paramount. Visiting Grosvenor Chambers in 1889, Nancy Elmhurst Goode remembered, ‘there was always a bowl of gum [leaf] tips ... and tall bulrushes in an Ali Baba jar’. Another visitor in the early 1890s marvelled at how ‘the walls are draped from frieze to floor with china blue muslin ... leopard skins, large vases filled with feathery grasses’.
Streeton occupied Roberts’ studio in the first half of 1891 and confessed: ‘Since you’ve been away [in the Riverina] I seem to have only painted one thing & that I did in a few days’. This lean period coincided with his scene painting work at the Bijou, and a good deal of socialising with the ‘theatrical set’. A January jotting noted: ‘Just had lunch & back from Williamstown & Queens Whf. [sic]’ in the company of ‘[Robert] Brough & all the rest’ which included Walter Spong, Mrs Spong and their budding actress-daughter Hilda‘ (‘Very fine and charming’). March saw him at the ‘Austral salon’—a newly formed Collins Street club for women advancing cultural pursuits—where ‘they had lots of pretty people there & some music’. Then, in June, he delighted in hearing Charles Cartwright—a celebrated English dramatic actor—‘rehersing [sic]’ a ‘song of his downstairs on stage ... Ive [sic] met him nice chap’.
In the same letter, probably dated the second week of June 1891, he wrote: ‘Just met [character actor, George] Anson, [artist Julian] Ashton making sketches of him here’. Then there was Janet Achurch, back in Melbourne for a return season. ‘I see Miss Achurch a good deal,’ he reported, adding ‘her acting is very splendid & great’.
Streeton relished the company of actors and musicians. ‘A man whose eyes were misty with spiritual longings’, he would have found them responsive to his ruminations on classical music and romantic literature. And if their chatter was ‘tinged with a certain degree of ‘shoppiness’, to quote Robert Whitworth (Velvet and Rags), ‘members of the [acting] profession’ were said to be ‘far more entertaining than that heard at the bar of military mess’.
Whitworth believed theatre people were ‘imbued with a kind of civilised nomadic instinct’, living ‘as it were’ in ‘a world of their own, half of which is as unreal as the other half is a matter of fact and actual’. The Heidelberg School painters were nomads as well. Their lives were equally uncertain and, like actors, they knew they were only as good as their last show. There was one other less tangible connection. Devotees of Impressionism sought to capture fleeting atmospheric effects by painting in front of a specific motif at a particular time of day. As Roberts explained: ‘Two half hours are never the same’. He could just as easily have been talking about theatre. Every audience was different, every performance subject to the vagaries of chance, and Streeton was forcibly reminded of this when he saw Sarah Bernhardt in Melbourne. The legendary French tragedienne—described by devoted fans as the ‘Queen of Actresses’—visited Australia in the winter of 1891 and had audiences ‘hoorooing [sic] from the stalls’. Bernhardt’s ‘Governor’s Night’ performance of La Tosca at the Princess Theatre on 3 June was disorderly if Streeton’s account is accurate:
The Evening of Sara [sic] La Tosca. Some boys started singing Clementine. People did not like it & kicked up a row—but twas [sic] long time to wait and it was going jolly—then the Gov. came in Orchestra God save her nibs & all the house standing – the boys make it ‘Jolly good fellow & c’ Such a picnic. Smike
Describing Madame Bernhardt’s performance, Streeton swooned like a teenager: ‘She herself is splendid Oh Grand’.
Grandest of all was Shakespeare. Explaining his lifelong devotion to the Bard, McCubbin harked back to his student days when ‘Bible subjects, then Shakespeare’s plays ... were the two great sources of our inspiration’. As usual, Streeton was more emphatic: ‘Great God or Shakespeare, where’s the difference it should be written on our brows—to keep us firm & to our purpose’. Impresario George Coppin claimed ‘he always lost money by Shakespeare’, without a star, but the Bard’s plays—revered for their ‘literary and moral virtues’—were a pillar of mid-nineteenth century theatre. Hamlet was Melbourne’s most performed play in the 1860s.
Much Ado About Nothing was another favourite. Notable productions, all at the Theatre Royal, featured Barry Sullivan in 1865 and the W.J. Holloway company in 1888. Inspired by an acclaimed Henry Irving production in London, Brough and Boucicault ‘announced’ their own Much Ado for the reopening of the Bijou. The cast list included two familiar names in Streeton’s letters: ‘Miss Hilda Spong’, as Ursula, and ‘Mr G.W. Anson’ as Dogberry. But, as the Australasian reported, ‘there were too many difficulties in the way for its production at the time and eventually Money was played in its stead’.
Work on Much Ado’s 15 scenes, all set in Sicily, commenced in the second half of 1890. Spong was said to be ‘painting now and then ... sometimes getting a week’s work at it without a break.’ ‘It gradually grew and as each scene, or portion of a scene, was completed it was stored away carefully till wanted’. Art historians Geoffrey Smith and Humphrey McQueen date the involvement of Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton from around October that year. Callaway prefers to put them in the Bijou frame from mid-1891: ‘Although the production had been in preparation for some time, a waiting period of 14 months seems unlikely’.
By January 1891, a journalist was describing ‘some of the biggest cloths yet painted for the Bijou’ and telling readers how Spong and Churchward, his chief assistant, were close to having ‘the marble floor for the ballroom scene finished at last ... getting out the perspective alone took nearly a fortnight’.
By mid-year, major work would have been well advanced, perhaps awaiting the addition of human figures by ‘local artists’. Streeton was certainly available. In a June 1891 letter to Roberts, describing his routine, he jotted: ‘11.30am Monday morning Bijou Theatre’. The time of day indicates a work commitment, not a front-of-house occasion. Roberts was still up on the Murray River, working on a companion picture to Shearing the Rams titled A Break Away! He would not return to Melbourne until the end of the month.
‘With his fastidiously trimmed beard and his leather bound copies of Shelley and Ruskin, he [Roberts] must have cut an odd bohemian figure around shearing sheds,’ writes Davison. But being ‘erudite, stylish, Academy trained, French speaking and a literary aficionado’, he could ‘always immerse himself in the context of his present surroundings’. Writing to the Argus in July 1890, Roberts relayed the ‘delight and fascination’ he felt ‘lying on piled-up wool bales, and hearing and seeing the troops come pattering into their pens’. Perhaps he found the same ‘subdued hum of hard fast working’ in the Bijou paint room, another unpretentious environment where the slap of wet brooms replaced the ‘rhythmic click of shears’, where the winching of coloured cloth was heard instead of the ‘screwing of presses’.
Were Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton ever in the room together? We know all three were in Melbourne in July 1891 but can only imagine the scene. Bearded and bespectacled ‘Bulldog’, pressing his spatula-like thumb onto paint-smeared cloth; eager young ‘Smike’ moving back and forth with a fine bristle brush to get his ‘eye’ in; and the avuncular ‘Prof’, muttering and whistling Wagner the way he always did at Box Hill. No wattle blossom backstage, of course. At the Bijou, they were splodgers. Not smudgers.
Out in the field, Roberts urged fellow easel artists to open their eyes to natural wonders, to the ‘exquisite delicate variations in colour and glow in the sky at sunset and the cosy flush of the afterglow’.
The theatre world was different. Subtler effects of nature were lost in the artificial glare with gaudy sunrises and bright blue skies outgunning the quiet greys of dawn. But scene artists were becoming more sophisticated. Previewing Much Ado at the Bijou, the Australasian noted how ‘the audiences of today have been educated up to such a standard, both in dresses and scenery, that the simple sets of years gone by ... which could be drawn back or pushed forward at pleasure, would be howled out’.
Theatre reviews in 1891 confirm it. Reporting on a refurbished Theatre Royal in July, the Age relished John Brunton’s ‘beautiful’ new ‘act drop scene’ of Stratford-upon-Avon, ‘surmounted by a medallion of the divine bard’, and lavished ‘nothing but praise’ on the ‘scenery and general stage effects’ in its new drama The Dancing Girl. Theatregoers were particularly enchanted with a seascape showing ‘bold jutting cliffs, flowing into the blue waters of a peaceful bay’.
Spong’s scenery in Devotion, opening at the Bijou in August, was described as ‘charming’ but ‘dresses designed by Mr. T. Roberts’, and judged to be ‘correct in detail and very handsome’, attracted special kudos. As it turned out, Devotion was a misfire and closed early. Brough and Boucicault’s Melbourne contingent travelled to Sydney’s Criterion, presumably leaving Spong to complete his epic backdrops for Much Ado. At the play’s full dress rehearsal on Christmas Eve, he was said to look ‘thoroughly fagged’ and still fussing over ripples in a painted garden lake. He need not have worried. When the Bijou’s curtain finally rose on Boxing Day, ‘round after round of applause acknowledged the skill of the artist’.
Cover of Much Ado About Nothing, the illustrated play script of the Brough-Boucicault production, published by Wm Marshall & Co., 1891
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Reviewing Much Ado, the Age critic remarked on the ‘unprecedented gorgeousness’ of the ‘magnificent tableaux’ which ‘for brilliant effect and elaborate fidelity has not been remotely approached in this country previously’. The Sicilian setting, he added, was of such ‘unusual merit’ that it took some time for ‘the artistic sense of the house’ to ‘recover from the first glamour of an impression’ and ‘centre, once more, on the performance’. ‘In saying this ... our aim is to insist that the brilliant work of the scenic artist must be considered after the intelligent and brilliant acting of the company’. In other words, the man from the Age walked out of the Bijou humming the scenery. What he failed to do was credit the three Heidelberg School painters who had helped Spong work his magic.
Two weeks before Melbourne’s best and brightest attended the opening of Much Ado, another show quietly closed. This Great City—a new home grown drama by Alfred Dampier—had opened on 21 November at the Alexandra and was promoted in the press as a ‘powerful attraction’ ... but not powerful enough. Dampier—who had prospered with Robbery Under Arms and another Boldrewood adaptation, The Miner’s Right—was in financial strife and brought the curtain down on 11 December. By June 1892, he was insolvent. Rallying to his aid, the ‘whole of the theatrical profession’—including Coppin, Williamson, Musgrove, Brough, Boucicault and Hennings—organised a ‘complimentary matinee’ for his benefit. It was a show of force but with Melbourne newspapers pronouncing ‘The End of the Boom’, every theatre manager had reason to fear for the future.
In early 1892, crime was rampant in the ‘Queen City of the South’. Unemployment was soaring. ‘Commotion and anxiety prevailed in the business world’. With the end of its material prosperity, Melbourne’s ‘culture’ evaporated as well. ’Oriel’ of the Argus forlornly noted: ‘I pass down Bourke Street every day and see the doors of the [Theatre] Royal hermetically sealed’.
Starved of lucrative portrait commissions and struggling to sell weekend ‘impressions’, artists left town too. Roberts and Streeton were among the first to leave, steaming out of Port Phillip Bay in early September 1891, bound for Sydney. Streeton explained: ‘I want to stay here [in Australia] but not in Melb. ... I intend to head straight inland ... and create some things entirely new’.
By December, Streeton was west of Sydney and observing the construction of a zig-zagging railway line across the Blue Mountains. His painting, Fire’s On, depicted real on-the-spot human drama—the death of a railway worker in a dynamite explosion in the Lapstone Tunnel—and was exhibited at the VAS in May 1892. Displayed nearby was A Break Away! , Roberts’ long awaited painting of a stockman vainly trying to stop a mob of thirsty sheep. McCubbin, still resident in Melbourne, considered A Break Away! ‘strongest all-round picture in the show’ but conceded Fire’s On ‘has a fuller quality’.
Roberts’ reply is not known. Instead of returning to Depression-ravaged Melbourne, as Streeton did, he boarded a ketch and sailed up the coast to Cape York. Another Bijou opening (Much Ado) came and went without him but, somehow, Roberts retained good relations with the people who employed him as an occasional scene artist. In 1895-96, he painted separate portraits of Brough and Boucicault—one gazing back at the artist, the other leaning nonchalantly on a cane. These cameos on cedar panels were intended for a set of images billed as Familiar Faces and Figures and had a longer shelf life than Roberts’ Bijou act drop. In April 1893, barely 18 months after it was painted, the Argus reported ‘the slightly anemic muse set down by Tom Roberts in the midst of [Walter] Spong’s pleasantly wooded background’ was being ‘packed up with the rest of the old props’. Sure enough, by May, ‘Comedy banishing Melancholy’ had ‘given way to a new scene by Mr Spong, representing a pleasant spot in the Forest of Arden’.
McCubbin, the miniature scene maker of yore, had the last laugh. In 1895, Down on his Luck was brought to life at the Princess Theatre as one of a sequence of ‘living pictures’. An actor wearing the same ‘woebgone expression’ as McCubbin’s redoubtable swaggie fronted an ‘atmospheric bush setting’ painted by George Gordon. In the audience on opening night, McCubbin was reportedly ‘delighted with the fidelity with which it [his painting] had been reproduced’. The success of any tableaux vivant, the term for this style of presentation, relied on broad familiarity with the artwork being acted out. Down on his Luck was an obvious choice. McCubbin’s beloved picture, an emblem of loneliness and fortitude, was widely exhibited after 1889 and circulated as a popular photographic print.
How ironic that more people probably saw it on stage than on a wall.
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Elisabeth Kumm, The Busy Bees: a theatrical biography of Robert Brough, Dion Boucicault Jnr and their circle, unpublished manuscript
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National Gallery of Victoria, Australian Impressionism: NGV Education Resource, ngv.vic.gov.au
Roger Neill, ‘H. Walter Barnett and Falk Studios’ in The Falk Studios: the theatrical portrait photography of H. Walter Barnett, Theatre Heritage Australia, Melbourne, 2021
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Juliette Peers, ‘Two tenants of Number 9 Collins Street: Tom Roberts and Kate Keziah Eeles’, press-files, anu.edu.au
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Arthur Streeton, ‘Eaglemont in the ‘Eighties’, Argus (Melbourne), 16 October 1934
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Robert Percy Whitworth, ‘Behind the footlights’ in Velvet and Rags: a series of theatrical stories, 1886, digital.slv.vic.go.au
With special thanks to Claudia Funder (Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne) and Elisabeth Kumm (Theatre Heritage Australia)