Edward Roper

Painter, illustrator, lithographer, writer and traveller, is said to have been born in England and studied art in Paris, although little is known of his origins. An indefatigable traveller, Roper’s first recorded voyage was made in 1847 when, aged 15, he went to Canada with his father. He claimed Canada had been his home ‘nearly ever since’ in a book published by his ‘Graphotyping Company’ and presented to the Deptford Emigration Society on 8 February 1870, What Emigration Really Is, By a Resident in Canada and Australia with Illustrations by the Author(London 1870). However, he certainly visited Australia in c.1857, was in Victoria in 1866-1868 and returned in 1870-1873 (and possibly again in the late 1880s if he was also C. Roper – which is most likely, due perhaps to an initial misreading of his signature being continued in subsequent engraving work [Note: this has been questioned]). Edward Roper did ‘Graphotype’ cartoons in Graphic News of Australasia circa 1873.
Edward Roper was in Victoria by 1857. A surviving watercolour over pencil drawing titled Water Fowling , signed ‘E. ROPER Septr. 26(?) 1857’, was apparently made there as was an ink sketch on linen, The Quartz Reef Pleasant Creek [Stawell] from the Hill back of Messrs. Blunder Wainwright and Cos. Camp , clearly initialled ‘E.R.’ and dated 1857. Four undated watercolours of Victorian scenes accompanied by a trial proof of a print taken from one, Wilson’s Promontory Most Southerly Pt. of Australia , were presumably other souvenirs of this visit. Although all are far cruder than the oil paintings for which Edward Roper is known, it seems that all his oils were not worked up from earlier sketches until the 1880s, even though several, including a large-scale view of the gold-diggings at Ararat (Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW), incorporate an 1850s date below the signature and location.

Edward Roper took ‘A Voyage round the World in the Ship “Newcastle” 1870-1871’, commemorated in an album of this title containing photographs of Australian scenes (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW). When he reached London, he published his lecture with his ‘Graphotyping Company’, then returned to Melbourne. In 1871-1872 Edward Roper established the Melbourne Graphotype Engraving Company, claiming that his process cut the time of plate-making in comparison with wood-engraving from a week to two hours. Obviously, he was then producing prints as well as sketches, but his illustrations, together with various articles he is said to have written about Victoria and New Zealand, are still, as they were in 1927, ‘buried in the periodical magazines of the time’.

His private residence was 138 Church Street, Richmond, from which address Mrs Edward Roper sent ‘Ornamental Wood, formed of Cones, Seeds and of Australian Trees and Plants’ to the 1872 Victorian Intercolonial and the following London International exhibitions, while Roper himself showed a collection of materials exemplifying ‘the Art of Graphotype Engraving’ from his business address, 19 Little Collins Street West. After the business failed, Roper, his wife and daughter left the colony in 1873. Evidence of any subsequent visit to Australia is slight. An annotation attached to an 1886 catalogue entry of a New Zealand view implies that he was here in 1883, and in 1927 descendants claimed that Edward Roper had ‘stayed in the colony [of Victoria] for a long time’, then lived in New Zealand ‘for nearly three years’ immediately afterwards (which chiefly suggests he was C. Roper).

Instead of making another lengthy visit in the 1880s, however, it is more likely that paintings, drawings and engravings made on earlier trips to Australia, such as a kangaroo-hunting scene in the Grampians (Victoria), were the sources of the Australian subjects among the 50 oil and watercolour paintings he exhibited at the Burlington Gallery, Old Bond Street, London, in 1886. It is these London works, together with others made afterwards, which comprise the bulk of his known work. A large family collection of Roper’s Victorian and New Zealand oil and watercolour paintings sold from London’s Museum Book Store in 1927, all with attributed dates of c.1888-1890 though undoubtedly based on earlier sketches, and the vast majority were of the same Australian, New Zealand, South Sea Island and Canadian subjects shown in the 1886 London group exhibition. Roper was by far the largest single Australasian contribution and seems to have produced replicas for years afterwards.

Some of the works in Roper’s posthumous sale were certainly copies (a favourite activity causing headaches in dating when several identical pictures exist). An oil entitled Chasing an Emu, Plains near Ararat, Victoria , for instance, was said to be inscribed by the artist verso as representing a scene in Victoria about 1855 – but not painted then – and other undated watercolours of the same subject survive (Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW; private collections). Also shown in London in 1886 was A Run after Emu, on the Plains near the Wimmeraand Wallaby Point, the Grampians, Victoria (‘showing one way of getting a shot at Emu, the hunter envelopes himself in a red blanket in the haunt of the Birds, they, from curiosity, approach near enough for a shot…’). Cutting down a Giant Australian Gum Tree, State Forest, Dandenong Range (dated c.1888 in 1927, oil, 46 × 32 inches – 107 × 81 cm) had a description said to have been taken from the catalogue ‘when the painting was exhibited’ stating: ‘This tree was drawn in the Dandenong Ranges, not far from Melbourne… Baron von Mueller [q.v.], the Government Botanist, states that they are met with 480 feet high, and are believed often to attain the altitude of 500 feet … the method adopted for felling a big one is shown’. Five men are starting to cut this one down and there is a felled tree, equally large, lying beside it. This is also the subject of one of a large collection of oil sketches of Australian bush and gold-digging scenes painted by Roper as Christmas cards, which undoubtedly date from the 1870s or 1880s (National Library of Australia, Canberra, ACT). Cutting down and Cutting up the Australian Giants, Dandenong Ranges, Victoria was the title given to an oil in the 1886 catalogue with a similar caption except that Baron von Mueller is not mentioned.

Other subjects exhibited in 1886 and sold in 1927 include Caffraes Swamp, Now Called Lake Lonsdale, near Stawell, Victoria – another watercolour annotated as representing an 1855 scene (private collection, WA?) – A Kangaroo Chase in Gippsland, Victoria and its companion An Emu Hunt (watercolours, Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW), two Fern Tree Gully paintings (a watercolour done in Gippsland and an oil of the Dandenongs) and several other kangaroo-hunt pictures and bush scenes set among the splitters’ huts. A Kangaroo Hunt under Mount Zero, the Grampians, Victoria (1880, oil on canvas) is probably the work now in the National Library although again there are replicas in private collections. Bringing down the Wool from a Murray Station (oil, dated c.1888 when sold in 1927) was described as showing two ox-drawn waggons passing two shepherds’ huts with a flagstaff flying a red shirt in front of them, a description applicable to two known oil paintings (National Library of Australia, Canberra, ACT & ICI House, Melbourne, Vic).
The Mitchell Library holds some black and white works by Roper but the vast majority of his comic illustrations were watercolours. Five watercolours painted in the late 1880s (private collection), including a kangaroo and an emu hunt, are inscribed verso, ‘Copyright reserved, Edward Roper’, suggesting that they were intended for publication as a set. One gives Roper’s address as Sutton Valence, Staplehurst (UK). Roper’s New Zealand paintings exhibited in 1886 and sold in 1927 included scenes at Dunedin, Nelson, Mount Cook and Dusky Sound as well as North Island bush views. The National Library holds an oil sketch of a pioneer farmer’s home in northern New Zealand which precisely fits the description of one stated in 1927 to be an illustration of a scene in Delisle Hay’s Brighter Britain (vol.1, ch. 5) and is inscribed thus verso.

In 1883, 1887 and again in 1890 Roper was in Canada, afterwards publishing an illustrated book, By Track and Trail through Canada (London 1891). He followed it with three more travel books, none held by Australian libraries. By then he had (more or less) settled in England where he produced bookplates, ink sketches and comical illustrations as well as paintings. In 1889 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London, and was described in their records as an artist living at The Limes, Sutton Valence, Staplehurst, Kent. He remained a member until 1902, living at Ontario, The Newlands, Bexhill-on-Sea in 1898, then at Lincoln Lodge, Grange Road, Lewes. He died in 1909.

Australian Dictionary of Biography – written by Joan Kerr and Shar Jones 1992.