Born in Dorchester, Dorset, England, to a newspaper editor, Roberts emigrated with his family to Australia in 1869. Settling in Collingwood, a suburb of Melbourne, his first jobs were as a photographer's assistant which he performed through the 1870's while studying art at night, studying under Louis Buvelot and befriending others who were to become prominent artists, notably Frederick McCubbin. He returned to England for three years of full-time art study at the Royal Academy Schools from 1881 to 1884.
Through the 1880's and 1890's he worked in Victoria, in his studio in Melbourne and at a number of artists' camps and visits around the colony. He married Elizabeth Williamson in 1896, and they had a son, Caleb. Many of his most famous paintings come from this period. Williamson was an expert maker of painting frames, and during the period 1903–1914 where he painted relatively little, much of their income apparently came from this work.
He spent World War I in England assisting at a hospital, and spent additional time there in the period 1921–23. Upon his return, he built a house at Kallista, near Melbourne. This was a particularly productive and happy period in Roberts' life.
Elizabeth died in 1927, and he remarried, to Jean Boyes, in 1928. He died in 1931 of cancer at Kallista.
Roberts painted a considerable number of fine oil landscapes and portraits, some painted at artist camps with his friend McCubbin, but perhaps his most famous works were two large works. Shearing the Rams, based on a visit to a sheep station (large farm) at Brocklesby in southern New South Wales, depicted the wool industry that had been Australia's first export industry and a staple of rural life. "The Big Picture", a depiction of the first sitting of the Parliament of Australia was an enormous work, very notable for the event depicted as well as the quality of Roberts' work.
- http://www.artistsfootsteps.com/html/Artists_roberts.htm – source of most of the material for this article.
- http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/collection/australian/painting/r/apa00106.html – "Shearing the Rams" at the National Gallery of Victoria.