State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 7 April 1971


Letters from Tom Roberts to Frederick McCubbin

These dozen letters from Tom Roberts (1856–1931) to Frederick McCubbin (1855–1917) are of major importance to art historians and are also warm human documents of great biographical interest. They were presented to the La Trobe Library in 1967 by Hugh McCubbin Esq.
The first letter was written in 1895 during Roberts’ period in New South Wales and the remaining eleven during his long second visit to England from 1903 to 1920. McCubbin (‘The Prof’) was Master of the School of Design at the National Gallery from 1886 to 1917 and made his one brief visit to Europe in 1907. The close friendship of the two artists dated back to the 1870s.
The letters are here reproduced faithfully, except for occasional rough pen-sketches (including representations of a bulldog — Roberts’ nick-name — by the signature).
C/- Duncan Anderson
Inverell N.S.W.
My dear old Prof
I hope you are feeling more happy & brighter now. I want to hear from you.
Of course the Don showed you my note to him — There isn't much for me to add to that about my movements. I was very happy to come back to the scene of former work. Anderson seemed very pleased to see me up, & is very kind all through & is keen about my working. He is the swell cornet player — I'm sitting in the bright light in the drawing room & he's playing — you know that “Oh Marguerita”. He does play the Schubert “Adieu”. T'would be splendid to get him & Hall to meet. M.H. [Marshall Hall] would write something for him I think.
About my work there's nothing yet. & yours — isn't it consolation? Why do we work —. There's a must somehow or somewhere. Even if the results are as nothing. My dear old boy what a time ago when we used to draw of [?] in “the Gallery” — and at your house or coming up to the school you'd sing “When I touch my mandoline”.
I always feel light hearted & think of you & all happy times when I hum that
“To lands fair & foreign
we gypsies oft wander”
The milk we drank one of those nights along the beach. Then that was a fine afternoon oh — lots of them — I dont know if you'll be over in Sydney — it would do you both a world of good if you could manage it — but I should want to be there.
From my youth send me word how you are — Paint firm & be jolly.
With best wishes to you both affectionately yours Tom Roberts
Oh by the way my 2 copies of Dulgabeena. 2 lots stamps enclosed Send me one & give Dick the other will you?
39a Harrington Road,S.W.
My dear old Prof.
Thanks for the “Age” — that's a good leader and just expresses what I think about your work and some other things — We only hope that long before this you
have sold your painting & are thinking of making a visit to this side. Remember we have a truckle bed for you & if you can make a couple of months with us, we shall feel it a great pleasure.—You could do it very cheaply. But I wonder, first if Mrs. Prof can spare you away for so long a time & then if you would be content to be away. This is of course assuming that you would only be able to manage the journey alone, knowing how very much more expensive even proportionately it is, with a lady. I only hope you are so in funds that you can make a tour of it together and do things as so many Australians, who havent worked half so well or so hard as you both have. (By the way do you remember the Royal Review at Flemington?)
We had a short trip to Holland, and were taken to a place, and we had our first holiday away together. 8 miles from Rotterdam (Webbs) and it was 23/- per week, a studio in the hotel, and they helped one to get anything in the way of models, we went for a rest and spell, but I got to work at once and got what I am sure is the best painting work I've done so far — It's very pleasant to have the things in the studio.
I told you in my last of starting that subject, from the Arabian Nights? done in the sketch club years ago. It's always been my dream to do it, & after a lot of doubtings & reading & thinking, it got started, & the pleasure is really splendid; it's looking a bit piffling to me today & yesterday but until then it seemed quite good, so I'll put it away for a while. Have had good luck with some of the models & costumes.—An Eastern Authority is to come along & have a look at me — (What ho!)
Doing this work reminds me of our early companionship & the way we had to try out things — how we were led and misled, and did the best in our innocence, and how we come back to that after all. And I think how interesting it would be to you here to see the great works of the men we revere.
Interesting — even to hear people talk, to hear a lot of fellows talking, that is of course inside the circle, one would imagine, nobody could paint at all except their particular fancy.
At the Hague — Potter's Bull. I seemed to have seen it before — all there is; And the Lesson in anatomy — well Prof I hadn't seen that before. The effect of light is so that I thought it was “faked” from the window. It's painted very straight, and I dont think has the romance of painting that is in other works, probably later of his. It's a great uplifting to see this — The men are such personalities and you felt that Art is worth all thats thought & felt by us about it in our times of elation — There's a very fine Vandyck there “Sir Sheffield”. By Jove, fine portraiture. Simple, ample and character —
By the way there's a man at the Chelsea Art Club doing some copies of Sergeant's “Sir — Swetenham” quite deceptively. He says they're easy to do, because the original hasn't any “method” or any of the finesse of painting — just straight out work without respect for the medium — (of course you keep this private, such things do get back) — But the unerringness of it all is most interesting, & then to see the same thing done by the copyist (except almost in the head—) He's (S) a great draftsman & paints the thing, puts it down & leaves it, where other masters have said something more — Mind I havent seen his best work, & this of Swetenham is the worst I have seen — it's a little vulgar — but the drawing & the grip is there — missing in other works more beautiful being done.
He was copying too a replica by Herkomer, Colouring — strident and coarse. The whole telling right up at you on a dark retiring background, — but full of personality & a certain power — & here
again it was most interesting to watch the work of an able man.
You'll think by all this I'm taken up with method? Well not altogether — but a fine thing must be finely expressed — As Full-wood (Uncle Remus) says, “a bald statement never made fine art Sir”. He's great on scumbles scrapes & glass, and I go with him to look at a Turner — St. Michaels Mount — There was nothing in method that he wasnt familiar with. So great arguments go on — but its really a great help to note how things are done, and it seems to make one work freer knowing how things can be modified, with an added quality —
And by the way possibly you know the Millais brush? it's a beauty. I must ask Roberson's to send you a sample couple “none o’ your postage stamp touch”. “Well well — a great mon this Roberts in an oot o the toon”)
Really Prof I havent blown off steam like this for a long time.
Well to resume, how are you all you & Mrs. Prof & the kids & how is Farmer, & why doesnt she write, & send some blue gum leaves? — her last is still on the mirror — we want some to burn of a Sunday — or when its dark and foggy — Its October and light has been very good so far.
The Missis is wood carving and gilding — is doing the frame for my “gem”. She has come out — begins to think London an interesting place.
Good bye to you all Sincerely yours Tom Roberts
Many thanks for sending on the Laurie “gem”. I'll write later about that —
39a Harrington Road. S.W.
My dear old Prof.
We are delighted to hear that you really are coming. Send us word as soon as you can about when you will be here & then let us know the ship & her date.
We are very glad Mrs. McCubbin is better with the little daughter. Give her our kindest wishes & congratulations. Smike [Streeton] wrote of being with you. It seems a great pleasure to him to be back with you all. He had been looking forward to steering the “Old Prof” about London — well we must do our best.
Miss Goode has just gone over to Germany — Miss Vale is remaining in Chelsea — I saw Miss Mueller this afternoon as I was in the Old King's Road — I think of sending a “gem” to have a try at the Salon. I'm working hard & getting my “Arabian night” thing through — it's been a great delight to do — & between whiles a little modelling has been a recreation.
I'm not going to write much, we can have talks when you are over here. We are in the best of health.
Our kindest regards to you all. Sincerely your chum Tom Roberts.
Mr. M. Marks came to see me, he was coming to stop with us but was prevented & returned in a few days afterwards. He seemed a very nice man, I was sorry not to see him again —
A Merry Christmas & a Happy new Year 1 Bigwood Road, Hampstead Garden
Nov 14.9
My dear old Prof —
We were delighted to hear that you had sold to the Gallery — Good & more power & success to your elbow. I haven't yet seen reproduction. Withers too — I'm very delighted — For all news about these things I must wait till you write — In the meantime our congratulations.
Now I must tell what news there is from here. Miss Goode will have told you something of our new house. We are very
content in it, & doing a bit of gardening with the smell of the fresh earth is like a tonic. We've put in only 80 fruit trees (cordons) & bushes raspberry currant & gooseberry, so havent spent so much time in studio — This last is a great pleasure. 25ft long & side light to the ceiling, am just beginning two portraits & have a great chance.
About my work — a great change has come — at last. & the trying time that was still on when you were here seems to have gone. Have done a fair amount of out door work — Have often thought of your — = “you must put your love to the test.” The indoor things have hardly yet come up to the other, but it's coming — Ease & certainty. There's one thing — if your idea isn't accepted aright & set down so, no working it up will make it worth anything. Quinn helped me very much by suggesting the simple range of
y ochre
Lt Red white so that one isn't & Black
deceived by the brilliance of the pigment, into thinking you've got light.
Coates & I have been doing copies of the Phillip IV head. Oh my dear chap — I have the same experience each week — on Friday evening I think to have got something but alas! on the next Thursday morning—! however I think it will look pretty well up on a wall — but, the subtlety of it & the way the pigments have been floated & flickered on I grasp all that the painter meant, no brush work no cleverness! — My hat — its a lesson.
Did I tell you of picking up for £1, a panel of 3 figures by Etty? It's a great find the back of the middle figure & her leg is finished & is like the great Venetians. Here again the simplicity & subtlety are surprising — nothing very near white in the flesh & nothing near black anywhere & — it tells really splendidly.
Remember old Horne telling us how Etty worked?
Of course you've read of the old masters’ show at the Grafton Gallery. I went with S. G. Simpson and Mrs S. By George it is a great treat — I think that in one portrait Titian includes the lot.
Claude's drawings — Watteau's & Hals is done just “marvilliously” — you could measure the depth into the canvas from the hand to far shoulder & the ruff looks the same colour all over. White; it goes round the neck you can have no doubt as to any portion of it, & yet its put in with sweeps freer than my pen & ink marks — Speaking of these great works leads me naturally — to tell of a barn, I got it in Norfolk worked on it here. They hung it at the Institute for which I was dashed grateful — & a couple of artists wrote me compliments about it — fancy as old Horne said What! Me? and a provincial gallery has [?] the same. By the way Smike was over the other Sat.y afternoon looking first rate. Dunn was here too & Remus & one of his boys — odd wasn't it.
Saw Barnett the other evening & had an evening with him & Mrs B — dinner Music Hall & Taxi home — swagger no end & lost my brown paper packet of brushes I'd been working with, in all the splendour & confusion — Well our love to you all. Tell us what you you are doing & Mrs Mac & the children. I hear theyre all dears —
Good bye old chap
from Tom Roberts
I Bigwood Road Hampstead Garden Suburb London.
Jan. 6.10
My dear old Prof
That's a splendid idea of sending the work of Australians in Europe to combine
with yours.
The men here are very appreciative.
Streeton & Longstaff will do anything to help & I think generally there will be enthusiasm about it altogether.
I mentioned the proposal last evening at the Council of the R.B.C. Society of whom I am one. & I am instructed to inform you that the Society, will do anything in their power on this side to help the affair, & entirely on your own suggested purely Australian lines.
They thought Lauries scheme a very handsome one.
I think the help of the Society if you like to take it, would be valuable. Of course, the collecting & judging must be done at some place central — The packing & forwarding needs to be done under direction; & the Secretary of the Society who has great experience in these matters would I think be able to do things for you (& as) cheaper & better than anyone else — His time might have to be paid, (I do not know,) but it would not be more than a few guineas.
You would of course make your own instructions & limitations limits of size — sculpture etc.
I have only time to write this now.
Your letter to me was delayed being at the Club. Address me to Bigwood Road.
Chin Chin to all the men (& the ladies)
From Tom Roberts. N.B. The R.A. closes 1st Monday in Aug most of the men have their best efforts sent there.
27 Bedford Road, Golders Green London June 30.12
My dear old chap,
It's years since I wrote you. So now I am going to give myself a treat — I've not been in the mood this long while for writing & so do try to forgive me.
I'm very glad to hear such good accounts of your work & about the portraits — that must be very satisfactory to you & then its a lucrative side of the work —
It's remarkable how as one gets older, the great number of the works that hold you are just “portraits” (& something other) The intense feeling of humanity holds all through.
All the same we shall try to do something besides. I'm working again on that old Arabian night idea — you saw one attempt — the Cole 'ole at Harrington Road studio — I'm getting it better but not yet nearly good enough — Prof we ought to have had just the little help in our early days — of seeing things being done — just a little direction, & the idea that we could do anything anyhow & so come through — Its so fine to see the young men put on things, freely boldly saying to themselves — well thats what I see & feel & damme here goes — not thinking of Velasquez Turner “Corry” & how they'd have done it but just shewing them how they should have gone to work — Oh we see too much & wonder if we shouldnt be working on the Venetian decorative scheme rather than like Rembrandt & the northerners —
I've got the devil in my work that won't let me keep my lights simple — see too much damned “modelling” in 'em.
I went over to Belgium a fortnight ago — & at Ghent saw the Van Eyck altar piece — a master. The reality & simplicity of it all & he “got” the colours rich — but reds glowing & right in their place (if you isolated them with a peep through your hand, they looked very subdued). I think the best lesson I've had for years — the Rubens & Van Dycks fine as they were looked uninteresting afterwards.
The concentration of the old man was so impressive & I think you get the same in
At Antwerp — you remember J. Van Beers (he had an Exhibition in Bond St. in 84 —) at the gallery there were 4 of his works done about that time — a portrait of a middle age man & another of Henri Rochefort. Small say 14 × 12 & very fine — they held up against anything — he had the early mens method, simple, influencing him. With all the finish they were broad & were a great pleasure — An attendant seeing me interested said a show of his later work was on & I went — & 'twas one of the saddest of experiences — = piffle & pot boil — An expert there I was introduced to was sad over the “change of manner” & said “this is what he can sell” — (something more than that in it —) but he has produced big stuff — Saw too — 2 works of Alfred Stevens — one I think of Mdme Rembrandt Young — not holding — the other “a Parisian Sphinx” a young woman in flowered muslin, against a darkish background light coming from behind her. a beauty. These were masteries of technique as we know it. One work there by a name I dont know of a peasant funeral. Everything had been drawn with pencil trees figures path the colour rubbed thinly over. Effect, rich dark gloomy. (Archaic)
Those painted “Pardons” & corteges (lots of 'em) all looked, machines — Cottet etc.
Well Prof where are we?
Which way are we going? damme
I only tell you what I saw, & felt — that the way of doing a thing must be perfect somehow, yet second to the stuff that is the thought.
Prof when we're young again we'll know all these things — In the meantime we'll work all we know & love.
To resume — a little lady (miniatures) Miss George came over last week.
I hear Wheeler is here. Am away from the movement out here & spend much time in the garden which just now is very satisfying our 100 roses are very gracious & beautiful & poppies & violas & pansies spread half wild as they will through everything except the roses that claim their reserve.
The Mrs. picked a couple of pounds of raspberries this morning — the gooblers [?] are nearly ripe, and the currants —
Try my hand at budding & layering the roses & they seem to like it. Our first bloom of Frau Karl Druschki the queen of whites was from my own cutting — a budding of Mdme Ravany has shoots of 2 ½ feet in one season.
Now Prof our very kind regards to you & your kind lady & the family — I hear of Louis’ work & congratulate him & you. We felt very pleased to have the visit from your son. nice chap — Haven't seen Jim lately — he's about due with Christian.
Good bye old chap — your old chum Tom Roberts.
& write
27 Bigwood Road Golders Green N.W. Mar 26.13
My dear old Prof.
It's just 3 days before sending in to the R.A. & I take a spell this morning to have a yarn with you. I'm sending in two portraits, one of a child a little fair one, grandchild of Brett A.R.A. it's done very simply & came in 3 sittings & is the best I've got so far.
Another is of Wade an architect. An unusual man who dresses of an evening in 1800. It does'nt look a “fancy” dress — dark blue coat background low in tone & warm.
You will smile surely for up goes my “Sleeper awakened” I've been having great fun with it — for remember the horror I had in Kensington, of which you kindly
never said a word —
Well I've done him, mostly on my own, & have had models only this month. I'ts very little value — I know the whole business is old fashioned & out of date. It wants the swish of 25.— they'll probably kick it out immediately; never mind, up it goes.
I've learnt much on it: what one can do in painting even in losing, in modifying, in losing your model & getting or trying to get the idea. To place 2 or 3 figures on a canvas, in a way other than putting 'em up together & painting them, is a big problem, & when you get 'em hopping around on their pink toes & one can scarcely do a touch direct from life, it's “wot o!”
The general colour is agreeable — it's simplicity that ain't there. I've got the cripples placed, but it wants ease & unconsciousness. That setting a subject on to a canvas to look as if it just came there — that's the problem. (It isn't brilliant painting) All the great works look so, just in their own way.
Rembrandt has it — you know he swabbed [?] for it — but saw it ahead all the time — & got to his end. never losing his central idea or expression — 30th I see I was on the flute last week! got my ‘gems’ away on Saturday. Had a ripping last two days on 'em — great fun, & feel a bit sorry its over — the next thing is the note with The President etc regret etc. & take 'em away quickly”.
Friday evening two or three who had helped me came along. Remus Fullwood & Daplyn dined & we had great yarns. Barnett & his wife motored over later. & you can guess we were not quiet. The whiskey just lasted out. Tonight I go to the Club, being the last day, & shall probably hear things from the men.
Quinn has accepted the painting mastership of the London School of Art — 2 days weekly, after young Orchardson — a very good thing & particularly for them. I find him the best teacher.
He has been to me a kind of eye & mind opener.
Have seen very little of the work being sent up — through attending to my own little stunt — of course you know Coates can't leave, being full of work after his fine stuff of last Season — He's a dear fellow.
Well I hope you're going strong & painting form best — I hear very good accounts always of you & your work — The work which is the great delight of life —
Our kindest regards to Mrs McCubbin & chin chin to the family & with every good wish believe me Sincerely from old Chum
Tom Roberts
F. McCubbin
Havent seen Jim for a long time — The Christians were over a couple of months ago — Have lost touch with Alec Leman cant get a word from them & we are sorry — T.R. Kindest remembrances to your family, brothers etc.
27 Bigwood Road, Golders Green. N.W. Nov. 14.13
My dear old Prof
Your letter came, very welcome (after many weary months of waiting)!!! Here its a dull grey day, & after a little work I'm having a kind of review of my things in hand — I seem to have begun to find my way & the working is a great delight — Very likely you heard, of my being this last summer in Italy (of blessed memory), & of a short visit to Rome — now its a time of getting ready for a show in Feb. Bond St. and neck or nothing — In this, a most remarkable lot of help has come from different friends & the backing bucks me up for the attempt. The ex will only be
open a week, so the spasm will be short. Pray for good weather. They tell me a week of rain kills any selling —
For my Italian stuff, by great luck we've struck a framing of carved & gilded that helps the painting by its character & design more than anything I had found before & its handsome enough in itself to go with any decoration —
Then I'll have some English work included, with a few drawings which seem to help.
Well well to be sure!
I say Prof there's great activity here amongst the painters — trials & attempts at all sorts of things. A show with post impressionist canvases & August John up against the well worn outlooks, makes you think — You may not quite accept either of the above but the painted grass of fields & painted trees & painted folds of drapery (done in the highest style of the art) won't do — they look silly. Nothing but the broadest outlook & simplicity will stand against 'em & its right.
The great works are so simple — & so right. I wish we were together to have yarns about it all. I suppose its inevitable to feel one ought to have known in early years what one gets hold of now. However its just — buck in — I havent seen any of the men lately except Remus & Quinn — ought to have a studio more central — it helps me so much to compare notes — Quinn is always a great help — & he's a beautiful painter — I hope you are having the best of times — your boy never wrote to me but give him my chin chin — the painter & the other & indeed all. Our very kindest regards to you & Mrs. Prof with best wishes for this Xmas & the New Year — Health & good work —
from us Sincerely your old Chum Tom Roberts
F. McCubbin Esq.
The Christians were over the other Sunday — Haven't seen Jim lately.
27 Bigwood Road Golders Green. N.W.
Dec. 31.14
Mr dear old Prof —
Your kind letter was a great pleasure to us. This is the last day of 1914. The great year, & this brings you all best wishes to you all & safety & honour to your dear ones doing their duty for the country & the people who can only work quietly & wait. Good fortune to you.
I had a visit from Gilbert the Melbourne sculptor the other day, & he was speaking most highly of all your late work, especially, Thats very good to have the best wine at the last. I wish I could run out & see it.—What yarns we should have.
It seems long away now.
Jim came over with Christian, 4 or 5 weeks ago. he thinks of me & brings a plug of tobacco from America. He was looking well, & we had talks about sailing the Atlantic in war time. Spong was up a Sunday ago with Miss Hilda — & ‘twas very merry, I went down to his place & varnished a small portrait I did of Mrs. Spong, in that place in William St years ago. It looked well. That's long ago.
In the middle of the month we had the A. Artists dinner, at the 6 Bells in Chelsea, a very pleasant & very quiet gathering this time, & fewer of us this grave month & year.
About my work, it is better, the time of doubt & fumbling which you saw, is passing — I hope, passed — Quinn says I've made a leap in the past 3 months. Anyway the painting, the doing of it, is a great joy. And I find the men look at the results with some interest — one knows directly — However, wish me luck —
The worst is, the years slip on so fast and — nothing done —
Quinn has helped me very much. He is
painting very finely.
Remus & his boys come to us to feast tomorrow.
Mrs R & the boy are well, she has not done much carving lately …
I saw Mrs Abrahams, & of the dear old Don's children at Mrs Wyatt's (Lena Brasch) a little while ago — it brought back old times to me.
You remember the evenings we sat at the Camp, the last light of the sun on the ti tree in the creek — the smell of the chop — & the gum twigs — the mopoke.
a happy time.
We send kindest wishes & regards to you & to Mrs Prof & the children.
Louis has not written — naughty boy — Well good bye dear old Prof from your old Chum Tom Roberts.
F. McCubbin Esq
[Stray pages follow from three letters, date unknown.]
(Hanson something like this)
Very beautiful the sea seemed to me as good as Hook. I recall it always with a sense of delight.
I sent along Breakaway & a head which I think I told you of, all black but the face & poppy & some portrait heads one new which the Don saw in its early state called ‘Mountain Muster’.
I worked well & hard on it — ‘twas too soon after, for me to know how it stands; but it surprised me at looking so well at the judging fuller in colour than I had hoped.
I'd like very much to have six months painting in Melbourne.
Fox's portrait of Tucker-girl child a gem. The Trustees want it. Give him my compliments. S. J. Tucker much the best I've seen the men were very pleased.
You all sent your best this time. & what interest we shall all feel in the first accounts of the London show.
All the trouble by that time forgotten & just the wanting to know. The Trustees here have subscribed to two press cutting agencies, Smike didn't feel too enthusiastic thought possibly the best stuff might be passed by very quietly there — however we'll see. I wish you had got the “Down on his luck” & the “burial” — Now my dear old chap our very kindest wishes in every way for you & Mrs. Prof & the family.
Good work good success Sincerely yours as always Tom Roberts
kd regards to all the boys
I thought I was going to write to you quite chummy like, but Bill & his wife & the last baby came in thinking I was lonely — She said 10 years ago she staid here, soon after her marriage, a fortnight quite alone, & no white woman within 10 miles.
I heard her the other day — “Stop that walz! that blooming concertina do make me feel so lonesome.
Well I'll turn in.
It must be nearly 9, everything, bar the crickets is quiet good night, Prof.
Regards to Mrs. Prof & the children.
David Davies was at the club last Monday looking splendid. They told me his work is finer than ever, he will probably have a show in London. Remus had one at a small gallery. H. Barnett has opened off Piccadilly & did well. Do you know that men dont expect as a rule to make out of these ex’ except indirectly — luckily I came off well — the notices were very good & the money satisfactory — Italy & the colour there seemed to give me some certainty, & Longstaff told me the other night, he himself would have bought, if he'd been “in funds”.
That's a compliment that pleases one.
Was at the R.A. last week; splendid work there — muddled & crammed & vulgarly hung — The place isn't adequate for the great position of England's art. & the sculpture was like an overcrowded cemetery, a great pity — it hurts all the movement, for the Academy represents Art — to the mass. & the whole thing is lowered in their estimation.
Clauscen's Primavera is very fine. Light, a simple design, in dead paint, hammered out to the last — but yet he's come on to his very best, a portrait too got to the last, & simple & telling.
The very opposite to Titian's way. I think the old man's way is the one though, for the quality of oil is that it gives suggestion — naturally that is it's danger. Like a speaker who, fluent — is easily empty. & eventually you'd listen to the half stutterer who means every sought out word that is meant. Well well we've to go our own way — life is so short for it —
Glad to hear about you all Mrs. Prof & the family — Louis never wrote to me — Australian in that, few write though they feel quite in sympathy.
The Summer is exquisite & we have Roses — a delight. Raspberries galore every day. Mrs. had hay fever but is now better…
Now old chap good bye & our kindest regards & wishes to you all Sincerely your old chum Tom Roberts