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Object: Hutt Valley

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Title Hutt Valley
Production Roberts, Tom (artist), 1900, Wellington
Medium summary oil on panel
Materials oil paint, panels
Classification paintings
Dimensions Image: 103mm (Height) x 191mm (Width)
Frame: 345mm (Height) x 425mm (Width) x 30mm (Depth)
Credit line Purchased 2005
Registration number 2006-0005-1

The Australian impressionist Tom Roberts painted Hutt Valley and In quarantine, Wellington during an unexpected quarantine in Wellington Harbour. The two tiny oils are the only paintings he is known to have completed during a week in March 1900 when the Monowai, the Sydney-to-Wellington steamer on which he was a passenger, was forced to anchor at Matiu-Somes Island as a precaution against the spread of bubonic plague from Sydney. To pass the time in quarantine, Roberts also helped write, illustrate and publish The Monowai Rat, a humorous sixteen-page magazine that was sold as a fundraiser for the Boer War effort.

Roberts was already regarded as the father of Australian painting. For more than fifteen years his large paintings of heroic labourers in the landscape, as well as his small impressionist landscapes, had captured that golden land of opportunity. Such images resonated among an increasingly nationalistic Australian public in the years leading up to the country’s federation in 1901.

Clearly not bleached-ochre Australian scenes, these two paintings are typical of Roberts’ impressionist work in that they are rapidly painted on the spot with streaks of thick impasto. Their cool palette of greys and blues captures Days Bay and the lights of Petone township, and echoes Roberts’ perception of New Zealand as ‘that land of Cool Air, Purple Mountains and Lakes’.(1) Their luscious brushstrokes, influenced by James McNeill Whistler, demonstrate how the quickly applied paint was more important than detailed scenery. Both works are painted on small wooden panels, probably cigar-box lids, which were a favourite medium for the Australian impressionists, whose famous 9 by 5 Impression exhibition in Melbourne in 1889 referred to the dimension of the panels in inches.

Once ashore in Wellington, Roberts was hosted by Wellington lawyer Joseph Tripe, a fellow traveller and editor of The Monowai Rat, to whom he gave the paintings, possibly as a wedding present for Tripe’s forthcoming marriage to portraitist Mary Elizabeth Richardson. Thereafter Roberts travelled in New Zealand for seven weeks with his patron, Australian runholder Duncan S Anderson, in whose shearing shed he had painted one of his best-known works, The golden fleece, 1894 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney).

Jane Vial

Adapted from an essayoriginally published in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).

1. Cited in Robert H Croll, Tom Roberts: Father of Australian landscape painting, Robertson Mullens, Melbourne, 1935, p. 59.

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