Tom Roberts' Big Picture

Tom Roberts, Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (Later King George V), May 9, 1901, 1903, oil on canvas.

Tom Roberts, Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (Later King George V), May 9, 1901, 1903, oil on canvas

 On permanent loan to the Parliament of Australia from the British Royal Collection

One of the most historically important and frequently reproduced paintings in the Parliament House Art Collection is Tom Roberts’ painting The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall and York, 9 May 1901.

The painting is widely known as the "Big Picture" in recognition of its grand scale. Measuring 5.65 metres across, and 3.6 metres tall, it is painted on three separate pieces of canvas, stitched together.

Tom Roberts was already one of Australia’s best known artists, well regarded for his landscapes and portraits, when he commenced work on this painting in late May 1901. The commission presented enormous challenges and took two years to complete. He had to travel extensively within Australia and to London to produce individual portrait sketches in oils and pencil. Under the terms of the commissioning contract Roberts was required to include:

“correct representations of the Duke and Duchess of York, the Governor-General, the Governors of each of the States, the members of both Federal Houses of Parliament, and distinguished guests to the number of not less than 250”. 

Soon after its completion, the painting was presented to King Edward VII, and sent to England. It remained there for many years, hanging in St James’s Palace until 1957, when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II agreed to return the painting to Australia on permanent loan.

The painting was too large for its intended home at Old Parliament House in Canberra, and for many years it was in storage and only occasionally displayed. In 1981, after a major conservation project, it was hung in the new High Court of Australia building in Canberra.

When the new Parliament House was designed, a dedicated space for the painting was included in the foyer to the Main Committee Room, at the very heart of the building. This area includes architectural features such as a skylight and balustrade that were designed to echo Roberts’ original composition, and connects the painting with other artworks from the Historic Memorials Collection. The Big Picture has been on permanent public display there since 1988.

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