The daughter of a drapery store-owner, Elizabeth 'Lillie' Williamson married Tom Roberts in April 1896. Although little is known of the history of their courtship, it seems that the couple first met more than ten years prior to marrying: the artist's first surviving letter to his wife dates from April 1886.
Originally a flower painter, Williamson developed into a highly accomplished woodcarver and frame maker. Contemporary accounts refer to the purchase of one of her frames by Princess Louise, and being awarded a prize at the Imperial International Exhibition in 1909. Williamson seems to have commenced making frames for Tom Roberts in the 1890s, as the artist's preference for the simple frames seen at the 1889 9x5 Impressionist Exhibition was slowly supplemented by an increasing appreciation for framing using more ornate styles including, occasionally, those carved by his future wife.
Portrait of Mrs Tom Roberts has been identified as one of only five existing examples of the artistic collaboration between the artist and his wife. The other four listed in a study of Williamson's work are an 1898 portrait of Mrs Joy Vandergrift Eccles (private collection, Tasmania); a 1905 sketch of Caleb Roberts (private collection, Western Australia); a 1909 portrait of Mme Hartel (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra); and Pansies of 1913 (private collection, London).
Roberts painted Portrait of Mrs. Tom Roberts in 1910, the same year in which his wife had used part of her family inheritance to build a house and studio at Golders Green in London. Resplendent in her Havana hat complete with motoring veil, pale yellow silk cravat and fur coat, the clothing is that of a comfortably well-off woman. However, suggestions have been made that the Roberts family was more reliant upon Williamson family funds than income generated by her husband's painting. According to Ron Radford, "Had Roberts had to support a wife and child from his own pocket, he might perhaps have given up painting for commercial photography when, at the nadir of his hopes around 1889, his oldest friend proposed that solution." (R Radford, Tom Roberts, Adelaide, 1996 p. 34).
The predominantly grey, brown and black tonalities in Portrait of Mrs Tom Roberts echo Roberts' receptiveness to trends from London's Slade School of Art, first under the influence of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and subsequently Walter Richard Sickert, both teachers at the School. Of this, Helen Topliss writes:
"That Roberts should take up this tonal influence in his later years points to the inner coherency of his career; it is connected with Roberts's initial attraction towards Whistler's tonal impressionism in the 1880s. In this sense the love of tone modelling that he expressed from 1910 onwards has a direct relationship with his early 9x5 impressions. The significant departure, however, is a change in tonal range from the earlier, more decorative pastel colours to the predominant grey of the late works." (H Topliss, op.cit., vol.1, 1985, p.24)