The Artists

Tom Roberts


Born England 1856, Arrived Australia 1869, Died 1931

oil on canvas 30.8 x 61.2 cm
Felton Bequest Fund 1940
Collection: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

This work was painted by Tom Roberts in the summer of 1886-87, and was first exhibited under the title 'The Sunny South' in March 1887. Over the years it became popularly known as 'Boys Bathing', as it depicts a group of naked young boys bathing at what people now call Ricketts Point, Beaumaris.

Although bathing restrictions were fairly strict at beach resorts, where baths only allowed segregated bathing at allotted times, it was not uncommon for the artists of the Heidelberg School to paint nude bathers in their works. Arthur Streeton painted nude bathers in 1890 in his work 'Spring', and again in 1891 in his work 'The bathers', and Charles Conder painted nude bathers in 1890 in his work 'The Yarra, Heidelberg'.

The site of 'The Sunny South' is now the picnic area in front of and a little to the north of the Tea House Kiosk, (Ricketts Point) which is approximately half a kilometre north west of the true Ricketts Point. The site retains much of its original vegetation, including the coastal banksias, and much of the beauty and atmosphere as captured by Tom Roberts in this work.

Roberts and his fellow artists at this time were trying to capture the intensity of the Australian summer light by painting plein air, rather than in their studios. In this work, Tom Roberts captures the bright sunlight on the beach and the shoreline, and provides us with a view across Port Phillip Bay towards the You Yangs.

The You Yangs derived their name from the Aboriginal terms 'ude youang' or 'wurdi yowang' meaning 'big hill' and 'anakie youang' or 'anakie yowang' meaning 'little hill'.

Ricketts Point is situated on Port Philip Bay approximately 23 kilometres south east of Melbourne in the bayside suburb of Beaumaris. The origin of the name 'Ricketts Point' is not recorded, however Beaumaris was named after the Welsh coastal resort where Edward I built Beau Marais Castle (ie: on a fine fen or marsh).

The earlier name for the area was Spring Grove. Only a short distance to the south east of Ricketts Point, down the coast of Port Phillip Bay is Table Rock Point, beyond which is Beaumaris Bay, supposedly named after a bay of the same name situated in Anglesey, Wales near Bagnor.

Tom Roberts depicted Beaumaris Bay in another work that he painted in that summer of 1886-87, which he named 'Slumbering sea, Mentone'. Frederick McCubbin also produced a work of Beaumaris Bay that summer, which he named 'Moyes Bay, Beaumaris'.

During the summer of 1886-87, Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin rented a house with Louis Abrahams in nearby Mentone.

Mentone had first been called Dover Slopes by J.H. Knipe, and until 1884, the Railway Station at Mentone was known as Balcombe. During the 1880's, the area was subdivided and named 'Mentone' by a land development company, after the French health resort on the Mediterranean Sea, situated near the Italian border.

The three artists, Roberts, McCubbin and Abrahams, were joined that summer by the young Arthur Streeton, who was already well known to Frederick McCubbin as he was one of the students in McCubbin's Drawing Class at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Two years later, in the summer of 1888-89, and again in the following summer, Charles Conder also produced works depicting the coast in this area. The stretch of the coastline of Port Phillip Bay from Brighton to Mentone became a popular painting site for many artists, and part of the popularity of the area was that it was easy to access.

This ease of access was heightened with the opening of the railway line from Melbourne to Brighton and its extension to Sandringham in 1882. It was only a short distance for the artists to walk from the Sandringham Railway Station to the beach at Sandringham, and Ricketts Point was only another six kilometres further down the coast.

Artists other than Tom Roberts who painted along the coastline in this area in the later part of the Nineteenth Century included Walter Withers, Charles Conder, Girolamo Nerli, Arthur Streeton, Louis Abrahams, William Short Snr., John Ford Paterson, Elizabeth Parsons, John Mather, and Frederick McCubbin. Many more followed in their footsteps.

A more detailed entry on the life and works of Tom Roberts can be located under the 'Artists of the Heidelberg School' on this Internet site.

Andrew Mackenzie

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Left: Arthur Streeton - Above Us The Great Grave Sky, 1890
Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

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