Important Australian + International Fine Art
14 September 2022


(1856 - 1931)

oil on canvas

42.0 x 33.5 cm

signed lower right: Tom Roberts

Private sale

Private collection, Sydney
Lawsons, Sydney, 15 November 1994, lot 154
Private collection, Sydney

Catalogue text

We are grateful to Brenda Martin Thomas, wife of the late David Thomas AM, for kindly allowing us to reproduce David's research and writing in this catalogue entry.

Writing from London to his close friend, S.W. Pring, sometime honorary secretary of the Society of Arts, Sydney, Tom Roberts included a pen sketch of himself at his easel painting this portrait of his only son, Caleb (1898 – 1965).1

Named after his maternal grandfather, Caleb Williamson, he made his appearance in his father’s art shortly after his birth on 31 January 1898, in a series of pencil sketches, including some gently intimate moments with his mother.2 Roberts also drew a separate pencil study of a big-eyed baby; a pastel of a less happy moment; and a full pastel portrait. In the same vein as the latter pastel, the present Portrait of Caleb Roberts, c.1899 similarly captures that characteristic directness of gaze of the young, combined with that special look that belongs to a new life, so innocent and appealing. By 1905, when Caleb – or ‘Ca’ as he was called – would have been seven years old, Roberts painted his son again, this time as a young schoolboy, whose face is still dominated by his eyes and direct look, a childhood innocence now touched by experience. While self-portraits provide fascinating insights into the personalities of the artists who paint themselves, those of artists’ children are invariably touching in their own intimacy. And so, it is with Portrait of Caleb Roberts, c.1899, for Roberts was particularly gifted at portraying children and young people – his pastel Elizabeth and Carmen Pinschoff, 1900 (National Gallery of Victoria) being among his very best.

With all the attention paid to the big subject pictures of Tom Roberts, there is a tendency to overlook the fact that he was a very good painter of portraits. Roberts painted fellow artists and musicians, charming ladies, the very highly placed, and some engaging images of his wife and son. In the Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1901 – 03, he portrayed the whole galaxy of Australian political talent. During the early 1900s, Roberts’ chief source of income came from painting portraits. Furthermore, artists often used members of their families as models, including Roberts’ life-long friend, Frederick McCubbin, who also frequently used his wife and children in his subject and landscape paintings. Soon after another oil portrait of Caleb in 1905, Roberts made a plaster relief of his wife, Lillie, followed by the oil painting of c.1906 in the collection of the Art Gallery of Western Australia. In between, he completed the large and formal portrait of Rt. Hon. Marquis Linlithgow, c.1905, now in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. His last portrait of Caleb was another plaster cast of about 1907. A posthumous bronze cast of this sculpture is housed in the collection of Monash University, Melbourne.

1. This pen sketch is illustrated in Topliss, H., Tom Roberts, 1856 – 1931: A Catalogue Raisonné, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, 2 vols; see vol. I, p. 61, pl. 72
2. Ibid., p. 246, sketchbook X