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Tom Roberts’ ‘The Big Picture’

Tom Roberts (1856–1931) 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. Image courtesy of the Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra, ACT and the Royal Collection Trust. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.


Tom Roberts’ ‘Big Picture’—officially titled The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall and York, 9 May 1901—is perhaps one of the most famous paintings on public display in Parliament House.

As the name suggests, it depicts the first-ever sitting of the Australian Parliament, held not in Canberra, but at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne.

The development of Canberra as the nation’s capital was still many years away.

The painting is on permanent loan from the Royal Collection to the Parliament of Australia. After many years of not having a permanent home, it was relocated to the newly constructed Parliament House in 1988.

It is on permanent display to the public in a specially constructed space in the Foyer of the Main Committee Room.

    Charles Nuttall (1872–1934) The Duke of Cornwall and York opening the First Commonwealth Parliament of Australia, May 9th 1901, 1902.
Gifts Collection, Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra, ACT.


The painting that was a mixed blessing for the artist

The ‘Big Picture’ includes 269 portraits of the people who attended the historic occasion, including the Governor-General, the members of the Senate and House of Representatives, and Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton.

Roberts had a well-established reputation as a portrait artist, and to achieve all of these likenesses, he travelled to Sydney and London to make individual sketches of the key figures in the painting. He noted each person's height, weight, and even hat size.

Roberts received a handsome fee of 1,000 guineas to complete the work, and the commission appealed to his sense of history.

Nevertheless, two years of work to complete the painting took their toll, damaging his eyesight and health.