If you were to nominate one painting as Australia’s greatest, what would it be?
Curator Barry Pearce of the Art Gallery of New South Wales explains why Tom Roberts’ Bailed Up would be a contender.
Warren Brown ponders the extraordinary lengths to which Roberts went to complete his famous artwork and how close we once came to losing this national treasure.
Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown is also available for purchase from the NFSA Online Shop.
Creating art can drive you crazy. Sometimes inspiration can just hit you. And other times it can take forever. But there's one National Treasure that took more than 30 years to complete. That treasure is here at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is Bailed Up, which was painted by one of our greatest artists, Tom Roberts.
Now, Roberts was the driving force behind the Heidelberg School — a group of artists whose depiction of the Australian landscape and light revolutionised art in this country. You see, up until the late 19th century, artists depicted Australia in a kind of English sense with muted tones and soft light, which is not what Australia is like at all. Bailed Up is about bushrangers. But it depicts the beauty of the Australian bush so well, you can almost hear the cicadas. Barry Pearce is an expert on Australian art.
It's one of our most famous paintings. Is it the best Australian painting?
That's always a matter of opinion. My opinion is that it is the greatest Australian painting. When the Heidelberg School was happening, Australians were moving very strongly towards defining their national identity. And I think in Bailed Up , it's everything that's best about the Australian landscape — its magic stillness, its timelessness, its sense of being an old country but also the sense that we are discovering something new at the same time. And it's got a bit of our pioneering past thrown in to boot. I think the laconic nature of it is very Australian, actually.
Roberts went to extraordinary lengths to get just the right perspective for Bailed Up . He actually built a platform up a nearby tree and spent three weeks perched up there painting. And believe me, that's not easy. But after all that, he still wasn't happy. In the bottom corner, you can see the year 1895 which was when Roberts painted it. But there's another year, 1927. Why the two dates?
Well, it doesn't indicate that he was working on it over 32 years. He actually started working on it in 1927 afresh. It's been one of the big puzzles of art history. But we think from the X-ray photographs we've made of it that he simplified it a hell of a lot. He made the image a lot flatter than it was originally. And the interesting thing is in 1927, of course, he was in the age of modernism, and his painting became abstract and flatter. And he's made Bailed Up a painting for the 20th century, rather than the 19th century.
Bailed Up was one National Treasure we almost lost. In 1956, it was being taken to Melbourne for an Olympic Games exhibition when it literally fell off the back of a truck. And even though it was damaged, it was successfully restored. And this iconic work of art is one of our National Treasures.