Tom Roberts1856 - 1931 Circular Quay, Sydney 1898
- oil on wood panel
Visiting Sydney in 1873, Joseph Conrad described Circular Quay as 'no walled prison house of a dock, but an integral part of one of the finest, most beautiful, vast and safe bays the sun ever shone upon'. Roberts clearly shared Conrad's delight in the grand vista of Circular Quay as he would paint the subject in a series of atmospheric impressions between 1898 and 1901 never in more clarity and detail than in this most petite of his harbour studies.
On a piece of cedar drapers' board, smaller again than the diminutive cigar box lids used by the artist and his circle of friends in their famous Nine by Five Exhibition, Roberts offers us the sweeping panorama of the Quay, bathed in dazzling sunlight and resplendent with elegant buildings. He may well have been thinking of Canaletto's scenes of Venice, bedecked in graceful architecture, its waterways alive with commercial activity, as he painted this image of Sydney Harbour on the cusp of a new century - a hub of commuter activity, trade and industry connecting Australia to the world. With a feeling for the symbolism embedded in the fabric of the port city, he shows us many of Sydney's most important buildings of the period. The noticeably fresh, clean sandstone facades are picked out in crisp detail against soft purple shadows and their height and grandeur is accentuated by contrast with the long low band of loosely sketched-in ferry terminals and watercraft that line the water's edge. At the far left of the scene is the Mort & Co woolshed which later became the Farmers and Graziers building and extending across the arc of the quay we see Customs House, the Harrison Jones and Devlin Wool Stores distinctive if only for the lack of windows through which to appreciate the view - and at the far right can be seen the Department of Lands building, easily identified by its soaring clock tower. This is a painting of bricks and mortar, commerce and trade, city streets and harbour activity, yet it is also a study of light and movement. Roberts gives an ultimately lyrical account of the city shimmering between the cloud-streaked skies above and glassy, reflective waters below. And like musical accents across the composition of the pictorial score, the occasional white plume of steam from the moored ferries wafts up into the cerulean sky.