Rediscovered Tom Roberts painting leads Melbourne art auction

Author: Richard Brewster | Posted: 1st November, 2001

Australian painter Tom Roberts (1856-1931) has long been regarded as one of the country’s finest 19th and early 20th century landscape and pastoralist artists with major works on display in the National Gallery of Victoria and other significant museums.

Now a rediscovered and repatriated painting from a private French collection entitled A Modern Andromeda,1891-92 (lot 31) is being auctioned in the Melbourne rooms of Deutscher and Hackett from 7pm Wednesday November 10 at 105 Commercial Road, South Yarra with a catalogue estimate of $400,000-$600,000.

Of considerable historical significance, the painting features a young Lena Brasch, sister to Sydney clothing manufacturer and retailer Reuben Brasch whom Roberts had befriended, on one of the long narrow “drapers panels” he mainly supplied for the Australian Naturalists’ (and particularly fellow artist Arthur Streeton’s) Sydney Harbour images.  

An attractive, vivacious, talented young woman who would later make a name for herself on the London stage, Lena also was a talented pianist and probably became known to pianist, composer and teacher Henry Kowalski – a Polish heritage Breton-born, Paris-trained musician who had performed in Brussels, London and the United States before coming to Australia as a judge for the Fine Arts section of the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition and to give concert performances.

Roberts loved music and got to know Kowalski after he returned to Australia in 1885 for a 12-year stint, playing an active role in Sydney’s music scene of the day.

Lena may have been one of the 45 pupils who signed an illuminated address presented in October 1892 to him by the Mayor of Sydney. In any event, Kowalski purchased the painting presumably after seeing it at the Art Society of New South Wales Spring Exhibition of 1892, and eventually took it back to France.

From there, it was on display at Château du Chêne-Vert at Plouër-sur-Rance as it was handed down through various family members for more than a century.

The November 10 auction is a testimonial to important Australian women artists such as Margaret Preston (1875-1963) who have made a significant contribution to the country’s art genre.

While several of her paintings are in the auction, of particular note is Australian Native Pear, Etc, 1942 (lot 4) belonging to suite of works that are among her most challenging and all drawn from Australian indigenous art.

Joining her are Nora Heysen (1911-2003) with Still Life Study, 1931 (lot 5) and Vida Lahey (1882-1968) Early Morning, Brisbane River, 1932 (lot 6).

Among the pricier works are Bessie Davidson’s (1879-1965) Lecture Au Jardin, c1935 (lot 10), with a catalogue estimate of $280,000-$350,000, and Grace Cossington Smith’s (1892-1984) Still Life with Chair, 1962 (lot 13 - $300,000-$400,000).

Iconic Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-1996) also gets a guernsey with her Untitled (Yam), 1996 (lot 24) – one of her remarkable late paintings that is an acknowledged masterpiece of strength and simplicity.

One of auction’s strong attractions is the works formerly owned by newspaper magnate the late Sir Keith and Dame Elisabeth Murdoch (whose son Rupert is a well-known international media tycoon).

These include Scottish painter Samuel John Peploe’s (1871-1935) A Breezy Day, Iona c1924 (lot 41) which was acquired from his wife in 1939.

Charles Condor (1868-1909) also features with, among other works, The Three Cows, 1889 (lot 30) that carries a catalogue estimate of $350,000-$450,000 and Charles Blackman (1928-2018) with Sleeping Figure, 1959 (lot 52).

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