A painting bought for $1 at a clearance sale in 1973 is likely the work of the great Australian artist Tom Roberts (pictured)
A dirty old canvas bought for $1 at a clearance sale in 1973 is likely the work of the great Australian artist Tom Roberts and could be worth $50,000.
The painting, known as Portrait of a Woman, sat abandoned in a shed in the New South Wales Hunter Valley for perhaps 45 years and until recently its sitter remained a mystery.
Now a retired lawyer from Newcastle believes she has identified the woman in the portrait, as well as dispelling any doubts it was Roberts who painted her in the 1890s.
Roberts is regarded as one of Australia’s foremost artists, famed for his landscapes and responsible for iconic works including Bailed Up, Shearing the Rams and The Golden Fleece.
He was also a noted portraitist and was commissioned to recreate the 1901 opening of the first Federal Parliament in a huge painting known as The Big Picture.
Margaret McMahon hopes Portrait of a Woman can be added to the Roberts canon after undertaking 12 months of intensive research.
‘Everybody who has looked at it has been quite confident it is a Tom Roberts,’ she told Daily Mail Australia. ‘The real problem has been the provenance.’
When Patti Graham bought Portrait of a Woman at Raworth, near Morpeth in the NSW Hunter Valley, 46 years ago it was the unframed, dirty and torn. She is pictured holding the painting with daughter Vanessa Howe
Portrait of a Woman sat abandoned in this shed for decades after the death of Gertrude Atkins, who author Margaret McMahon believes was painted by Tom Roberts in 1899
Tom Roberts is regarded as one of Australia’s foremost artists, famed for his landscapes and responsible for iconic works including Bailed Up, Shearing the Rams and The Golden Fleece. Bailed Up, painted while Roberts was visiting friends near Inverell in northern NSW is pictured
Ms McMahon is convinced the sitter was Gertrude May Atkins and she got to know Roberts while working behind the counter of her family’s post office and general store at Hinton, near Maitland.
Gertrude’s face would have been unknown to Sydney and Melbourne audiences used to Roberts portraits of sophisticated, fashionable and famous young women.
Ms McMahon suspects the vastly different backgrounds and lifestyles of Roberts and Gertrude were part of the reason no one had looked to find the sitter for Portrait of a Woman on the banks of the Hunter River.
She further believes a portrait known as Adagio, which is recognised as having been painted by Roberts and exhibited in August 1899 was also of Gertrude.
The background of Adagio, which is unsigned and undated, features a winding river which could have been painted around Hinton.
While experts who viewed Portrait of a Woman over the years believed it was likely the work of Roberts, history had not recorded his presence in the Maitland region.
Roberts was known to regularly frequent northern NSW where he painted Bailed Up (1895) and The Golden Fleece (1894) while staying at his friend Duncan Anderson’s property Newstead near Inverell.
Margaret McMahon is convinced the sitter for Portrait of a Woman was Gertrude Atkins, who got to know Roberts while working behind the counter of her family’s store at Hinton, near Maitland. Gertrude’s face would have been unknown to Sydney and Melbourne audiences
Margaret McMahon believes a portrait known as Adagio (pictured) and recognised as having been painted by Tom Roberts was also of Gertrude Atkins. The background of Adagio, which is unsigned and undated, features a winding river which could have been painted around Hinton
The artist stayed with the Anderson family at Newstead Station for at least four Christmases and Gertrude Atkins had uncles who lived and worked in the area.
Ms McMahon has shown the only convenient way for Roberts to have travelled to Inverell from Sydney was by steamer to the Hunter River ports of Morpeth or Hinton, then by rail north from Maitland for most of the journey.
The most suitable hotel for whisky drinker and raconteur Roberts to stay was the popular Victoria Inn at Hinton, where the Hunter River is joined by the Paterson.
McMahon believes Roberts was probably a regular customer at the hotel, built in 1840 and still standing, and would inevitably have met Gertrude, watching her grow from a teenager into a young woman.
The Atkins shop, just a block from the pub in Paterson Street, would have been an obvious place for Roberts to buy provisions before embarking on his more northerly journeys.
Ms McMahon thinks Roberts would have encountered Gertrude, the eldest of ten children, at Hinton by the time of his first trip to Inverell about 1893 when she would have been 14 or 15.
The most suitable hotel for whisky drinker and raconteur Roberts to stay was the popular Victoria Inn (pictured) at Hinton, where the Hunter River is joined by the Paterson
Margaret McMahon believes Roberts was probably a regular customer at the Victoria (pictured in December) and would inevitably have met Gertrude Atkins at her family’s nearby shop
It is probable Gertrude’s father James Atkins, who was about the same age as Roberts, drank at the Victoria and could have struck up a friendship with the pipe-smoking city visitor.
Ms McMahon believes Gertrude might have been flattered by the interest of an older man of Roberts’ stature, and her family would have welcomed their association, at least initially.
Roberts has sometimes been described as a ‘bounder’. He was 22 years older than Gertrude and particularly attracted to dark-haired women under 25 with exotic appearances.
Gertrude Atkins’s mother Louisa (pictured) inherited some of her slave ancestor’s features
Gertrude’s great-grandmother had been a slave stolen from Madagascar and later transported from Mauritius to Sydney as a convict.
While there is no known photograph of Gertrude, a picture of her mother Louisa shows she inherited her slave ancestor’s frizzy dark hair, which is also evident in Portrait of a Woman.
The pose of the portrait’s sitter suggests a familiarity with the painter and possibly some flirtation, or a hint of disappointment.
Ms McMahon believes the painting ‘indicates that they might have had a relationship of some sort but not the one that Gertrude was imagining or hoping for.’
‘It seems more like a young girl’s crush on a charming older man,’ she writes in a self-published book, Tom Roberts and the Girl Behind the Canvas.
Dr Jane Cotter, the author of Tom Roberts and the Art of Portraiture, examined Portrait of a Woman and prepared a report on it in April 2019.
‘There are many aspects of the work that suggest that the work is by Tom Roberts,’ she wrote.
The green background, cream dress, and soft pink cheeks were typical of Roberts and Portrait of a Woman displayed an intimacy with the sitter.
‘The main problem is locating Roberts in the Maitland region,’ Dr Cotter concluded.
Tom Roberts (1856-1931) was born in England and sailed to Victoria with his family when he was about 13. He was a key member of the Heidelberg School art movement, also known as Australian impressionism. Roberts is pictured
There can now be no doubt Roberts spent time in the lower Hunter Valley, which was then still the gateway to the Northern Tablelands, Western Slopes and New England districts.
Ms McMahon has firmly located Roberts at Singleton, 45km north-west of Maitland, to judge fine art and needlework at the 1899 Northern Agricultural Association show.
Who was Tom Roberts?
Tom Roberts (1856-1931) was born in England and sailed to Victoria with his family when he was about 13. He was a key member of the Heidelberg School art movement, also known as Australian impressionism.
After attending art schools in Melbourne he travelled to Europe in 1881 to further his training and returned home in 1885.
He worked alongside Arthur Street, Frederick McCubbin and Charles Condor, capturing Australia’s distinctive light, heat, space and distance.
In 1896 he married 36-year-old Elizabeth (Lillie) Williamson and they had one son, Caleb.
A leading proponent of painting en plein air, Roberts is best known for his ‘national narratives’, including Shearing the Rams, A break away!, Bailed Up and The Golden Fleece.
Roberts earned most of his living as a portraitist and in 1903 finished The Big Picture, portraying the opening of the first federal parliament.
The appearance of the ‘well-known Sydney artist’ was reported in the Maitland Mercury and Muswellbrook Chronicle on August 16 and 19 respectively.
Ms McMahon believes Portrait of a Woman could have been painted at the Atkins home during Roberts’ trip to the Singleton show.
The back of the house would have been relatively private, with a good view of the river and surrounding hills.
Gertrude would have been about 21, while Roberts was married with a toddler son.
The portrait could have been a birthday gift or a parting memento before a voyage Roberts had planned to England before he was commissioned to paint The Big Picture.
Jane Messenger is one of Australia’s leading art valuers and director of Messenger Art Advisory, which has offices in Melbourne and Sydney.
‘If we accept the portrait to be by Tom Roberts, one could expect an average market valuation of $50,000,’ she said.
‘In many respects, the greater value would be located in the historical significance of the painting, providing richer insights into the artist’s movements during the late 1890s, his working method and relationship with Gertrude Atkins.’
Ms McMahon’s interest in Portrait of a Woman began when she met 84-year-old Patti Graham at an exercise class in Newcastle in 2019.
The next week over coffee Ms Graham showed Ms McMahon a photograph of an unsigned and undated portrait she had bought 46 years earlier.
Experts had told Ms Graham it was probably by Tom Roberts but she would have to prove its authenticity by establishing a chain of evidence from the artist’s hand to her taking possession.
Unfortunately it did not appear on lists of Roberts’ output, in inventories of collectors or auction catalogues, and no contemporary descriptions of the work existed.
Patti Graham bought a pair of rose glass lamps and a cedar Victorian dressing table from Nancy Hardes in this shed (near fence line) before spotting a filthy torn canvas she liked
The Muswellbrook Chronicle recorded Tom Roberts judging fine art and needlework at the Northern Agricultural Association Show at Singleton in its August 19, 1899 edition (pictured)
Ms McMahon would have to start her detective work from events in 1973.
That year a woman had come into Ms Graham’s antiques shop at Islington in Newcastle and asked if she wanted to view the contents of a shed at Raworth, near Morpeth.
The pair met at the dirt-floored shed and Ms Graham bought a pair of rose glass lamps and a cedar Victorian dressing table before spotting a filthy torn canvas she liked.
‘The woman, whose name wasn’t given, said she wanted to get rid of all the old stuff that had belonged to her granny and sold it to me for a dollar,’ Ms Graham told Ms McMahon.
The woman, aged in her 50s, said the furniture and other bric-a-brac had been in the shed since ‘Granny’s’ death but did not state when that had been.
A couple of days later Ms Graham took the unframed canvas to the Art Gallery of NSW where she was told it appeared to be an unfinished Tom Roberts.
Ms Graham had the canvas cleaned and repaired and hung it on her wall where it stayed for almost four decades.
Tom Roberts painted The Golden Fleece in 1894 while staying at his friend Duncan Anderson’s property Newstead near Inverell. Roberts made regular trips to the property in the 1890s
Roberts worked alongside Arthur Street, Frederick McCubbin and Charles Condor, capturing Australia’s distinctive light, heat, space and distance. A break away! (pictured) is one of his best-known works
She gave it to her daughter Vanessa Howe when she was downsizing in 2011.
Ms Howe had the painting further restored in 2018. It was originally 35cm by 45cm and is now 41cm x 32cm.
Over the years various experts have told Ms Graham and Ms Howe the painting looked to be by Tom Roberts but its provenance could not be established.
Ms Howe had already amassed a large bundle of reports, photographs and emails when Ms McMahon took on the job of establishing the painting’s origins.
Ms McMahon searched family trees, examined legal documents, pored over local history records and interviewed Hinton and Morpeth identities.
In 2019 Ms Graham could no longer identify exactly where the shed had stood but Ms McMahon used property records to reveal it had once belonged to dairy farmer Thomas Hardes.
Hardes had moved to the property in 1928 with his wife Gertrude, after living with her at nearby Nelsons Plains for 20 years.
The couple had one child, Bertha, who died in 1966, without having her own children. Gertrude had died in 1939 and Harold in 1971.
The woman who sold the painting to Ms Graham has been identified as Nancy Hardes, one of Thomas Hardes’ nieces, who had referred to Gertrude as ‘Granny’.
‘The part that Gertrude would have played in Tom Roberts’ life would have been fleeting and inconsequential,’ Margaret McMahon has written. ‘But for this young girl from Hinton, it would have been an unforgettable occasion.’ The Victoria Hotel at Hinton is pictured
The Hardes home had been demolished in the 1970s but the shed was moved and still stood.
Ms McMahon thinks Gertrude took Portrait of a Woman from her childhood home at Hinton to Nelsons Plains when she married, then Raworth, where it sat in the shed for almost half a century.
She speculates Harold may not have known of the painting’s existence or its significance to his wife, or it could have caused some tension between the pair.
The fact it was unframed suggested it had never been hung.
Ms McMahon feels she has come to know Gertrude Atkins, more than 120 years after the shop girl encountered the great artist.
‘The part that Gertrude would have played in Tom Roberts’ life would have been fleeting and inconsequential,’ she wrote. ‘But for this young girl from Hinton, it would have been an unforgettable occasion.
‘Gertrude was at a very vulnerable stage in her life and had probably fallen heavily for Roberts.’
In 2013 an Australian couple paid £7500 ($12,000) for this painting, purportedly signed by Roberts, but doubts emerged about its authenticity. In 2017 experts from the BBC TV program Fake or Fortune determined it was real
Ms Howe has sent Ms McMahon’s findings back to the Roberts experts to see if Portrait of a Woman is accepted as his work.
In 2013 an Australian couple paid £7500 ($12,000) in an online auction for a painting purportedly signed by Roberts but doubts emerged about its authenticity.
Joe Natoli, a former mayor of Maroochy Shire on the Queensland Sunshine Coast, and his Channel Seven presenter wife Rosanna Natoli did not give up easily.
The couple took the small oil on canvas work, called Rejected and painted about 1883, to the BBC TV program Fake or Fortune where it was determined to be real.
Rejected was later submitted for sale with a price tag of $650,000.
What the experts say about Portrait of a Woman and artist Tom Roberts
Dr Jane Cotter, the author of Tom Roberts and the Art of Portraiture, examined Portrait of a Woman and wrote a report for its owner Vanessa Howe in 2019.
‘There are many aspects of the work that suggest that the work is by Tom Roberts,’ she found.
‘It is a confidently painted picture; your investigations show that it was directly painted onto the canvas, and there is no or very little pencil work underneath.
‘Roberts was interested in a complex record of women in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century and this work appears to date from the 1890s.’
The green background, cream dress, and soft pink cheeks were typical of Roberts and a similar gaze looking down from a three-quarter profile could be found in his Portrait of a Lady from the 1880s.
‘He produced many sketch portraits of family and female friends due to his interest in the modern portrait – they can be distinguished from the majority of the previous Australian portraiture of women.
‘The portraits engage with signs of modernity through fashionable costumes, but it is in the interior reflections that result from the intimacy of the artist, and subject interaction that sets them apart.
His portraits reflected an interaction with the sitter. Portrait of a Woman displays all of these characteristics.’
Dr Cotter wrote that the subject for Portrait of a Woman looked similar to Eileen Tooker and Lina Brasch, both of whom sat for Roberts.
‘The main problem is locating Roberts in the Maitland region. In checking Humphrey McQueen’s biography of Roberts, which is very thorough, I could not find a mention.’
Melbourne art conservator Raye Collins told Ms Howe: ‘In terms of the brushwork in your painting I certainly agree that it is reminiscent of the brushwork in other Tom Roberts portraits… ‘