Feel the physicality of the sheep-shearers in Tom Roberts epic painting ‘The Golden Fleece’ (1894), now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Perhaps the greatest of the Australian realist artists, Roberts originally entitled the picture ‘Shearing at Newstead’, after working with the shearers of north New South Wales for several months in order to stage the scene, and perfect the structure and colouring of the image. Roberts changed the title later after talking with his friend, the classically educated Duncan Anderson (who appears as a shadowy, non-labouring figure in a suit and hat, second to the right).
The renaming was partly a response to the heroic, almost idyllic way in which the sensual aspects as well as the hardness of the labour are evoked. Roberts befriended every one of the shearers, and all their names have been recorded. It is ‘epic’ in the national sense, since the wealth from sheep-farming had done much to turn Australia into an economic success internationally. But the scene is also ‘heroic’ in that it almost nostalgically memorializes a form of labour that was about to become part of history with the introduction of mechanization. Electric shears were soon to intervene between the sinews and skin of man and animal. Roberts’s heroic Australian Argonauts tear the wealth-producing fleece from the animal hide by metal tools powered solely by human muscle.