Australia opens its first parliament in Melbourne.
The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York, May 9, 1901, more commonly known in Australia as The Big Picture, is a 1903 painting by the Australian artist Tom Roberts. The painting, measuring 304.5 by 509.2 centimetres, or roughly 10 by 17 feet, depicts the opening of the first Parliament of Australia at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne on 9 May 1901.
The painting is part of the Royal Collection but has been on permanent loan to the Parliament of Australia since 1957. The work, currently on display in Parliament House, Canberra, has been described as “undoubtedly the principal work of art recording Australia’s Parliamentary History.”
On 1 January 1901, after years of debate, the various colonies in Australia joined in a federation. While the new Constitution of Australia called for a new capital to be constructed, away from the major cities, until that time Melbourne would act as the seat of government of the new nation. Elections were held for the first Parliament of Australia and on 9 May 1901, the new parliament was sworn in at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne.
The opening of the new parliament was seen as a historic and momentous occasion with King Edward VII’s son, the Duke of Cornwall and York coming to Australia to officially open the new parliament on behalf of the King. To appropriately capture the occasion, the “Australian Art Association”, a consortium of private benefactors, sought to commission a painting of the event as a “gift to the nation”. Their motives were not entirely altruistic; the consortium hoped to profit by selling prints. Roberts was not the consortium’s first choice, with J. C. Waite initially preferred.
he painting was first exhibited in the Royal Academy in London before being presented to King Edward VII by the Commonwealth Government in 1904. It was then moved to St. James’s Palace where it remained on display until 1957. That year, Robert Menzies, the Prime Minister of Australia requested the permanent loan of the painting from Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen consented and the picture returned to Australia in 1958.
The picture was to be exhibited in the King’s Hall of the then Parliament House with the other historic records of events as the opening of the first Parliament in Canberra in 1927 and the Royal opening of Parliament in 1954, however it was too big for the available space. The decision was made to store the painting at the Australian War Memorial after a tour of the various state galleries. In 1969, the painting was moved to the Parliament House basement where it remained until 1980.
As a result of its travels, the picture had deteriorated considerably and required major restoration work.
The picture had long been unprotected from changes in temperature and humidity, it had been constantly rolled and unrolled and untacked from its stretcher frame. At one stage it was even folded in half for transport. All this seriously affected the canvas. It gradually sagged, undulated and malformed and was in danger of becoming completely dilapidated.
—?Katrina Rumley, quoted in Mackenzie.
The School of Materials Conservation at the Canberra College of Advanced Education started restoration work in 1980. The work included infra-red and ultra-violet photography to determine the condition of the painting followed by removal of old varnish and grime, repairs to the tacking margin and restoration of some small areas of paint. The work was completed in time for it to be taken to the new High Court of Australia building for its official opening by the Queen in 1981.
The designers of the new Parliament House were mindful of the need to provide an appropriate space to display The Big Picture in the new building. The Joint Standing Committee responsible for the new building made the decision to place the painting in the Main Committee Room Foyer. The architects worked to ensure that major design elements in the room such as the skylight and balustrade around the work allowed for the integration of the painting with the available space. Because the fragile state of the picture prevented it from being rolled, moving the painting from the High Court to Parliament House was a major logistical exercise. The move required removal of some windows at the High Court, the construction of a special carrying frame and scaffolding and a system of winches to support the picture in place. The painting remains in this specially designed location to this day.
On the occasion of the centenary of Federation in 2001, the Premier of Victoria Steve Bracks led a call for ownership of the painting to be formally transferred from the British Royal Collection to the Australian Crown. This was opposed as being both impracticable and unnecessary, as the Queen or her successors were unlikely to request its return.