By 1882 a railway had been constructed between Melbourne and the township of Box Hill, and in 1885 Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams first visited the area to paint. The artists set up camp on land owned by a local farmer and friend to the artists, David Houston.1 Along with other artists, including Arthur Streeton and Jane Sutherland, the group painted the local bushland. Roberts made a number of works in this area, such as his well known The artist’s camp 1886, while Streeton painted Evening with bathers 1888 (both in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne).
In A Sunday afternoon Roberts depicts an intimate picnic. Framed by spindly gums and bathed in dappled light, a young couple relax in the bush, the woman reading to her companion from a newspaper. A belief in the health benefits of the country air was becoming popular with city dwellers who sought recreational activities in the bush or by the ocean. Roberts’s observant eye has resulted in such small details in this scene as the trail of smoke from the man’s pipe, the dark wine bottle on the crisp white cloth and the light falling softly on the leaves of the eucalypts.
1 Leigh Astbury, ‘Memory and desire: Box Hill 1855–88’, in Terence Lane (ed.), Australian impressionism, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2007, p. 51.