Shearing the rams

Tom Roberts1890

National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne, Australia

Tom Roberts is quoted in the Argus in 1890 as saying:

It seems to me that one of the best words spoken to an artist is, ‘Paint what you love and love what you paint’, and on that I have worked; and so it came that being in the bush and feeling the delight and fascination of the great pastoral life and work I have tried to express it. If I had been a poet instead of a worker with the brush, I should have described the scattered flocks on the sunlit plains and gum-covered ranges, the coming of spring, the gradual massing of the sheep towards that one centre, the woolshed, through which the accumulated growth and wealth of the year is carried; the shouts of the men, the galloping of horses and the barking of dogs as the thousands are driven, half seen, through the hot dust cloud, to the yards; then the final act, and the dispersion of the denuded sheep; but being circumscribed by my art it was only possible to take one view, to give expression to one portion of all this. So, lying on piled up wool-bales, and hearing and seeing the troops come pattering into their pens, the quick running of the wool-carriers, the screwing of the presses, the subdued hum of hard, fast working, and the rhythmic click of the shears, the whole lit warm with the reflection of Australian sunlight, it seemed that I had there the best expression of my subject, a subject noble enough and worthy enough if I could express the meaning and spirit – of strong masculine labour, the patience of the animals whose year’s growth is being stripped from them for man’s use, and the great human interest of the whole scene. (Argus, 4 July 1890, p. 10)


  • Title: Shearing the rams
  • Creator: Tom Roberts
  • Creator Lifespan: 09 March 1856 - 14 September 1931
  • Creator Nationality: English
  • Creator Gender: Male
  • Creator Death Place: Kallista, Victoria
  • Creator Birth Place: Dorchester, Dorset, England
  • Date Created: 1890
  • Location Created: "Corowa, New South Wales; Melbourne, Victoria", Australia
  • Physical Dimensions: 122.4 x 183.3 cm (Unframed)
  • Type: Paintings
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1932, =A9 National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: oil on canvas on composition board
  • Provenance: Purchased from the artist by Edward Trenchard (1848–1927), of Edward Trenchard & Co., Queen Street, Melbourne, from July 1890; by descent to C. W. Trenchard, until 1932; from whom purchased for the Felton Bequest, 1932.
  • Place Part Of: Australia
  • Additional information: Roberts started work on this painting at Brocklesby Station, near Corowa, in the spring of 1888. It was in progress while he was painting his portraits of Melbourne society, pioneering a new Australian landscape, and masterminding The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition. Often hailed as a masterpiece of Australian impressionism, it is, in fact, one of Roberts’ most academic paintings, painstakingly composed, with over seventy preparatory drawings and many pentimenti – the angle of the ringer’s left leg, for example, was changed from a vertical to a diagonal. There are many references, too, in the composition and individual figures, to classical and Renaissance art – the pose of the boy on the left, for example, was borrowed from the figure of Esau in Ghiberti’s Florence Baptistry doors. In 1888 the Australian colonies celebrated the centenary of European settlement at Sydney Cove. Roberts was one of the first artists who sought to mark the occasion by painting grand images of Australian life – Australian history paintings. With McCubbin, Streeton and others, he gave visual expression to the nascent nationalism of the day.

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