Important Australian + International Fine Art
16 April 2008

Tom Roberts

(1856 - 1931)

oil on canvas

183.0 x 97.0 cm

signed and inscribed lower left: Tom Roberts / To Hessel Linsley

$300,000 - 500,000
Sold for $312,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 4 - 16 April 2008, Melbourne

Probably commissioned by Hilda Spong and gifted by her to Hessel Linsley
Sir Arthur Streeton
Mrs John Lewis (the sitter's niece) 1929
Rudy Komon, Sydney, 1968
Christie's, Sydney, 24 September 1969, lot 58
Owner unknown, 1969
Leonard Joel, Melbourne, 20 April 1972, lot 165
The Estate of Pro Hart, Broken Hill, New South Wales


Spring Exhibition, Art Society of New South Wales, Sydney, September 1893, cat. 274, as 'Practising the Minuet (Miss Hilda Spong)', at £105


Sydney Morning Herald, 1 September 1893, p. 6
Croll, R. H., Smike to Bulldog: Letters from Sir Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1946, p. 37
Spate, V., Tom Roberts, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1972, p. 115
Ingram, T., A Matter of Taste: Investing in Australian Art, Collins, Sydney, 1976, p. 41 & facing p. 112 (illus.)
 Topliss, H., Tom Roberts 1856-1931: A Catalogue raissoné, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, vol. I, cat. 204, p. 128 as 'Practising the Minuet (Miss Hilda Spong)' & vol.II, plate 93 (illus.)
McQueen, H., Tom Roberts, Macmillan, Sydney, 1996, p. 373

Catalogue text

When Tom Roberts exhibited his portrait of Hilda Spong in the Spring Exhibition of the Art Society of New South Wales in 1893, it was hailed as one of the best in the show.1 This was no small claim, for the exhibition included a number of paintings which are nowadays regarded as masterpieces of Australian art, such as A Breakaway (Art Gallery of South Australia), one of Roberts' finest paintings, and Streeton's 'Fire's on' (Lapstone Tunnel), purchased from the show by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. For good measure, Streeton added The Railway Station, now in the same Gallery's collection, and Circular Quay, one of several paintings of the subject, fine examples of which are in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria. Hailing Streeton as 'a tower of strength', our critic described A Breakaway (Art Gallery of South Australia) as 'a characteristically Australian scene', and noted that it 'forms a new departure for this artist.' Nevertheless, his choice of the six most memorable paintings were Roberts' stylish portrait of Hilda Spong, a portrait of Judge Dowling, Streeton's 'Fire's On', works by A.J. Hanson, W. Lister Lister, and W.C. Piguenit's 'On the Break'o Day Plains'. The reviewer considered the Spong painting to be Roberts 'chief work', and described it as having been 'drawn with masterly grace and harmoniously coloured.' He continued,

'The figure, which is life-size, stands back in the canvas, the pose that of the beginning of the dance, the fine eyes full of animation, and the draperies of old gold so treated that the general scheme of colour - with the sage green curtain behind and the rich brown floor underfoot - is refreshingly quiet.'2

Hilda Spong was an English-born actress of international fame who gained acclaim in both the theatre and the cinema. Born in London on 14 May 1875, she came to Australia with her parents in 1886, made her theatre debut at the age of fifteen at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney and was soon playing leading roles with visiting British stars. She then appeared on the New York stage in late 1898, quickly making a name for herself. Years later, she spent a further period in Australia, where her brothers were living, before returning to America, which she came to regard as home. In 1921 she sponsored a retrospective exhibition of her gifted father's work at the Anderson Galleries, New York, the show being given a lengthy and favourable review by The New York Times. She died at Norwalk, Connecticut, USA, on 16 May 1955.
Roberts' painting of Hilda Spong captures her youthful enthusiasm at the launch of her career. It belongs to a particularly fruitful time for Roberts, when he painted numerous portraits of theatrical figures and prominent personalities of the time, including musicians, writers and artists such as George Coppin, the violinist Johann Kruse, Andrew Garran, the composer, and pianist Henri Kowalski. Dating from about the same time as the Spong portrait is one of George Gordon, a friend of Roberts and Streeton, who was the first scenic painter for Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney.
Roberts had known the Spong family for a number of years, probably meeting Hilda Spong's father, Walter Brookes Spong (1851-1929) soon after his arrival in Melbourne in 1886. Prior to coming to Australia, Spong established himself as a scenic artist of note in London, working for such prestigious theatres as Sadlers' Wells, and with Richard D'Oyly Carte, and exhibiting at the Royal Academy during the early 1880s. He was invited to Australia by Robert Brough to be the chief scenery painter for the Brough and Boucicault Comedy Company at the Bijou Theatre in Melbourne and the Criterion, Sydney. (Roberts painted both Brough's and Dion Boucicault's portraits in the mid-1890s.) Once settled in Melbourne, Spong became a noted watercolourist, and was active in Melbourne art circles. Along with Roberts, Streeton and Frederick McCubbin, he was a foundation and exhibiting member of the Australian Artists' Association, and a member of the inaugural Council of its successor, the Victorian Artists' Society. He also exhibited with the Art Society of New South Wales from 1889. Spong returned to London in 1898. In Australia, he is represented in a number of prominent collections including the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
The Spongs were good friends of both Roberts and Streeton, and Roberts also painted a portrait of Hilda Spong's mother, Mrs W.B. (Elizabeth) Spong, in 1888 (Topliss cat. 115). During 1890 Streeton joined Spong painting scenery at Melbourne's Bijou Theatre.3 The closeness of his friendship with the Spongs is illustrated by a letter Streeton wrote to Roberts in Sydney in 1890,

'Down at Spong's on Sunday evening. M. M. Hall, Cosgrove, Lawrence, Greenaway, etc. All well. Miss S. pouring out the tea and looking very charming; she's only a young maid, but seems to wish to appear older - a woman, an actress of experience, and I think she's hardly natural enough just now. Yes, she looked very pretty.'4
A study portrait of Hilda Spong was painted by Julian Ashton and exhibited in Melbourne in 1890.5 In 1898, Walter Sickert painted her in the role of Imogen Parrott in Trelawny of the Wells, the portrait being in the collection of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. A smaller version was acquired by the Fine Art Society, London. Another portrait in drypoint, The Fan, was exhibited in New York in 1921 by the young American artist, Howard Leigh.
1. 'Art Society's Exhibition. First Notice', Sydney Morning Herald, 1 September 1890, p. 6
2. ibid
3. Table Talk, Melbourne, 28 November 1890, p. 3
4. Croll, op.cit., p. 37
5. Melbourne Punch, 30 October 1890, p. 276