Tom Roberts’ painting of Bourke Street in Melbourne, created around 1885, is a treasure of the National Library of Australia’s Pictures Collection. The painting was probably a study for an unrealised larger work and was reworked by Roberts in 1890. Today, Bourke Street is partially blocked off to traffic. It is filled with pedestrians and buskers, and intersected by trams running up and down its length. In the 1880s, when Roberts created his painting, trams had not been introduced to the streets of Melbourne, and Bourke Street’s pedestrians navigated their way between horse-drawn carriages and carts.

Painting the street from an elevated position, Roberts provides a ‘bird’s eye’ view of the city. His original title for the painting, Allegro con Brio, is an Italian term, commonly used as a music direction, meaning to ‘play quickly with brilliance'. In naming his picture, Roberts meant to imply that the same spirit was at work on the street in front of him. 

1. Display Roberts’ painting for your students and use the Harvard visible thinking routine, ‘See Think Wonder’, to explore the picture. Ask students to analyse the painting (as a class or in small groups) using the following prompts:

  • What do you see?
  • What does it make you think about?
  • What does it make you wonder?

Following this activity, use the background information to tell the students more about the painting.

2. The following images depict Bourke Street at different periods since Roberts created his painting.

Ask your students to analyse each of the three photographs and identify the changes that have occurred over time. Students should compare each image to Allegro con Brio and list things that are the same and things that are different.

As a class, search online to find a contemporary image of Bourke Street, Melbourne, and consider how the changes that have occurred over the last 130 years might have affected the lives of people living and working in the city.

3. How has a streetscape near your school changed over the last 100 years? Challenge your students to consider this by selecting a street in your local area to document. Ask students to take a photograph of their chosen street and then use their imagination to paint a contrasting picture, using Allegro con Brio as an inspiration, to capture what the street/area may have looked like 100 years ago.