Shearing the Rams
|Type||oil on canvas on composition board|
|Dimensions||122.4 cm × 183.3 cm (48.2 in × 72.2 in)|
|Location||National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne|
Shearing the Rams is an 1890 painting by the Australian artist Tom Roberts. The painting depicts sheep shearers plying their trade in a timber shearing shed. Distinctly Australian in character, the painting is a celebration of pastoral life and work, especially "strong, masculine labour" and recognises the role that wool-growing played in the development of the country.
One of the most well known and loved paintings in Australia, Shearing the Rams has been described as a "masterpiece of Australian impressionism" and "the great icon of Australian popular art history". The painting is part of the National Gallery of Victoria Australian art collection.
Roberts modelled his painting on a shearing shed at what is now called "Killeneen", an outstation of the 24,000-hectare (59,000-acre) "Brocklesby" sheep station, near Corowa in the Riverina region of New South Wales. The property was owned by the Anderson family, distant relations to Roberts, who first visited the station in 1886 to attend a family wedding. Having decided on shearing as the subject for a painting, Roberts arrived at Brocklesby in the spring of 1888, making around 70 preliminary sketches. The following shearing season, he returned to the station with his canvas. Roberts' work was noted by the local press with reports of him "dressed in blue shirt and moleskins ... giving the last finishing touches to a picture in oils about 5ft by 4ft."
Art historians had previously thought Roberts completed most of the painting in his studio, using the sketches drawn in his time at Brocklesby. In 2003 however, art critic and historian Paul Johnson wrote: "Tom Roberts spent two years, on the spot, painting Shearing the Rams". New evidence was brought to light in 2006 that suggested that Roberts painted much of the work en plein air at the shearing shed itself. In 2006, The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) conducted a scientific examination of paint left on a piece of timber salvaged from the now-destroyed shed, where it was thought that Roberts cleaned his brushes. The study confirmed that the paint, in a number of different shades, precisely matched the paint used in the painting. The senior curator of art at the NGV, Terence Lane, believes this is strong evidence that much of the work was done on location, "For me, that's evidence of a lot of time spent in that woolshed ... all those paint marks and the selection of colours indicates he spent so much time en plein air".
In a seeming anachronism, the painting shows sheep being shorn with blade shears rather than the machine shears which started to enter Australian shearing sheds in the late 1880s. The young man carrying the fleece on the left of the painting alludes to the figure of Esau in Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise at the Florence Baptistry. The model for the tar-boy, a smiling figure in the centre of the picture was actually a girl, Susan Davis, who lived until 1979. She also assisted Roberts by kicking up dust in the shed to allow him to capture some of the atmosphere.
An x-ray study of the painting in 2007, taken while the painting was being cleaned, unveiled Roberts' original sketch of the central shearer. In that original sketch, the shearer was lacking a beard and was more upright; the change to a stooping figure makes the shearer appear more in control of the sheep, improving his role as the painting's focus.
John Thallon, a Melbourne frame-maker, provided the frame for many of Roberts' paintings, including this one.
Roberts was born in England in 1856 and migrated to Australia as a boy in 1873, settling in Collingwood, a working class suburb of Melbourne. A talented artist, Roberts returned to England in 1881 when he was selected to study at the Royal Academy of Arts. While in Europe, Roberts imbued the principles of impressionism and plein air principles and brought them back with him to Melbourne when he returned in 1885. With like-minded artists, he was involved in the development of the "Heidelberg School" movement, a group of artists painting en plein air in the impressionist tradition, with nationalist and regionalist overtones.
In 1888, the Australian colonies celebrated the 100th anniversary of European settlement. Seeking to develop a national art, Roberts chose a subject that would symbolise the embryonic nation over the past century since the arrival of the First Fleet. In the late 19th-century, wool was a major source of wealth for the colonies, with over 80 million sheep in Australia in 1888. In addition, Roberts aimed to record some the historic agricultural and pastoral methods used over that period in Australia, especially those involving "strong masculine labour". Historian Geoffrey Blainey states that shearers of that era, like Jackie Howe, were seen almost as "folk heroes" with shearing tallies reported in local newspapers in a similar manner to sports scores. According to Paul Johnson, the painting, like works by Arthur Streeton, illustrates the tribute paid by Australian artists to their country: "[they] saw the country as a place where hard work and determination were making it the world's paradise". Shearing the Rams itself is described by Johnson as a celebration of "the industry which produced the wealth" of Australia.
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 [...] So lying on wool-bales ... it seemed that I had there the best expression of my subject, a subject noble 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 in the whole scene.— Tom Roberts, 1890, 
Roberts finished Shearing the Rams in May 1890 and unveiled it at his studio on Collins Street, Melbourne. Roberts wished to sell the painting to the NGV, however this was opposed by key people at the gallery, including the director and one of the trustees. Eventually he sold the painting to a local stock and station agent for 350 guineas; the agent displayed it in his office in Melbourne. The NGV finally acquired the painting in 1932—one year after Roberts' death—using funds from the Felton Bequest.
The painting was rehung in a new, wider frame in 2002; according to the NGV conservators this was in line with Roberts' original frame, which had been trimmed down over the years as framing fashion changed. In 2006, the NGV began a major restoration of the picture, the first in over 80 years. The painting had slowly lost its cover as the natural resin used in the previous restoration gradually degraded. The restoration revealed much of Roberts original colour palette as well as background details previously not recognised. After the painting was cleaned, Lane claimed that he "could see the way the space and light flowed across the back reaches of the shearing shed in a way we really hadn't been aware of before." The painting is currently displayed with the NGV's Australian art collection in the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square in Melbourne.
The painting was initially generally well received with Melbourne newspaper The Age reported that the painting was a "most important work of a distinctly Australian character". However more conservative elements were critical with The Argus critic James Smith commenting that the picture was too naturalistic: "art should be of all times, not of one time, of all places, not of one place", adding "we do not go to an art gallery to see how sheep are shorn". Roberts defended his choice of subject responding that "by making art the perfect expression of one time and one place, it becomes for all time and of all places". Later critics have remarked that it presents an idealised and nostalgic view of pastoral life in Australia, with no sign of the ongoing conflict then taking place between the nascent newly unionised shearers and the squatters. However, the painting would eventually be considered as "the definitive image of an emerging national identity."
In 2010, Singer/Songwriter Neil Higgins composed a song titled "Shearing the Rams" that portrayed as a tribute to the great Tom Roberts painting. It also pays as a tribute to the early shearing industry. Neil's song was awarded the winner of the Original Song Award in the Victorian Bush Poets & Music annual awards for excellence in cultural songs and songwriting.
Shearing the Rams became one of the most well known and loved paintings in the history of Australian art. The picture is widely recognised from "schoolbooks, calendars, jigsaw puzzles, matchboxes and postage stamps." Parodies of the painting have been used in advertising campaigns for items such as hardware and underwear to express what one person described as "promoting what it means to be Australian today". The Australian cartoonist and social commentator Michael Leunig drew a reinterpration of the painting called Ramming the shears said to be "humourous (sic) and thought provoking in the questions it raises about Australian national identity". The masculine and "self-consciously nationalist" image has been appropriated by other artists on behalf of several excluded groups, including women and immigrants and the Nyoongar artist Dianne Jones made an indigenous claim for inclusion by inserting her father and cousin into the iconic painting.
The photorealist Marcus Beilby won the Sir John Sulman Prize in 1987 with his work Crutching the ewes. Like Shearing the Rams, the painting also depicts men working in a shearing shed, this time in a modern shed using machine shears with overhead gear. Beilby was consciously inspired by Roberts' painting when creating his own updated version. Beilby gave his work the name Crutching the ewes to differentiate it from the earlier painting, despite the fact that it does not depict men crutching sheep but rather shearing them. The cinematography in the 1975 film Sunday Too Far Away was heavily influenced by Shearing the Rams among other Australian paintings.
The shearing shed featured in the painting burned down in a bushfire in 1965, a replica was constructed by the local community on a nearby reserve. A re-enactment of the scene from the painting took place at North Tuppal station near Tocumwal, New South Wales in June 2010.
- The Golden Fleece - a later (1894) work on a similar theme.
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- Shearing the Rams — National Gallery of Victoria collection
- Culture Victoria – images and video about the restoration of “Shearing the Rams”