Robert Smith (1928–2020) was a Western Australian art historian, collector, actor, writer and teacher. He founded Westerly in 1956, and served as its editor until 1957.
A tribute from Ron Wilkes and Jan Richardson.
Robert Smith, the founding editor of Westerly, died peacefully in the South Gippsland town of Wonthaggi on 22 April 2020, aged ninety-two. Over his long life he exhibited the same irrepressible energy and wit, activism, resourcefulness and readiness to confront and blow away stale convention that characterised his leading role in the formation of the magazine.
Robert, known to his friends as Bob, was born in 1928 to Ellen and Sydney Smith in Carlisle, then an outer-eastern suburb of Perth. Sydney harvested native timbers and specialised in cutting sleepers, not for railway lines but as protection against the bogging of vehicles in the neighbourhood’s unsealed sandy streets and driveways. Ellen was Bob’s more influential parent, her Lancashire accent and fondness for recitation helped to lay foundations for his love of language—its cadences, accents and subtleties. He was an outstanding student at Victoria Park East Primary School, discovering through private elocution lessons that he had a talent for theatrical performance. His maiden concert performance was Portia’s ‘The Quality of Mercy’ speech, which triggered a rousing ovation. He realised that he had a gift for recitation but, at that stage, no opportunity to pursue it.
Bob was forced to leave school early in his second year at Perth Modern School, after his father refused to pay for his textbooks and insisted that, having turned fourteen, Bob get a job. Over the next decade he worked in what he called ‘dead end jobs’, including clerk, shop assistant, fettler on the Fremantle docks, electrical fitter’s assistant, and weighbridge officer.
At sixteen, Bob was introduced to Perth’s Patch Theatre, an amateur company and vibrant hub for social and intellectual activities, as well as training in all aspects of theatre. He thrived on this rich and varied diet. Amongst the people he met there were Anti-Fascist League broadcaster Edward ‘Bill’ Beeby and author Katharine Susannah Prichard. Prichard’s son, Ric Throssell, had taught Bob at primary school, greatly impressing him. Years later, he was pleased to honour Throssell by helping his mother. Bob would ride his motor bike to her home in the fire-prone Perth Hills and clean the dead leaves from her guttering. Prichard had founded the Modern Women’s Club, which held weekly meetings featuring a speaker. Attendance was open to anyone interested in the issues of the day. At the Club and at Patch Theatre, Bob was inspired by the energy and commitment to social justice of the people he met. His left-wing activism began in that environment, continued during his years at two other amateur theatre groups—Independent Players and New Theatre—and was a feature of the rest of his life.
During a decade of evening and weekend involvement in amateur theatre, the daytime job he liked best was glassworks designer. It was a time in which decorative sandblasted glass was popular as a feature of panels in doors and windows, as well as glass-topped coffee tables. Bob was recruited for the job on the strength of creative work he had been doing as a joint founder of New Theatre, designing and making costumes, scenery and linocut posters. The firm that recruited him valued both his original designs and skill with the sandblasting apparatus. He was, however, underpaid and resigned to take up the same work with a rival firm. After almost three years of working as a creative artisan, he was happy in the job and would have been content to continue, but this ended when he was not only dismissed but told that he had been blacklisted by the industry under an agreement not to poach each other’s workers.
Bob’s dismissal proved fateful, pushing him to the Commonwealth Employment Service, where he was guided into a seasonal job as weighbridge officer at Moonijin. After harvest season, he returned to Perth and attended the University of Western Australia’s summer school, where he learned he was eligible to tackle adult matriculation. This opened the way to a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in history and English, with a weighting towards drama. His teachers’ treatment of Shakespearean plays as performance scripts rather than written text had great appeal to Bob, whose boyhood affection for the Bard deepened to an enduring passion. This period of study and learning revealed a prodigious memory for Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.
Bob threw himself into the cultural and political activities of student life, particularly the University’s Dramatic Society, of which he was president in 1956–57. When he was asked to take over as editor of UWA’s Arts Union journal, The Winthrop Review, he saw scope for positive change. He drew on local student artists for its artwork, improved the visual appeal of its design and typography and opened it to expressions of opinion on a wide range of issues of the time. This innovation brought an international strand to its contents. Despite various obstacles, the vision of a journal transformed came to be realised by Bob and his variable production team and Westerly began with Bob as editor in 1956. This story was told by the founding editor himself in Westerly, (Volume 51, November 2006).
While completing his degree in 1957, he started work as curatorial assistant at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. He had no formal background in fine arts but had become an art lover during his time in theatre companies. At the Gallery, he found himself in his element, just as he had in theatre. Between July 1958 and February 1960, he wrote twenty-one individual titles in a monthly feature series issued by the Gallery. During that time, he was also art columnist for The West Australian and later art critic for Perth’s Sunday Times. In 1958, he married Beverly Noldt (now deceased) with whom he produced a family of three children, daughters Helen and Jennifer (both deceased) and son Ivan.
In 1960, the Queensland Art Gallery appointed him Assistant Director, with responsibilities for research, cataloguing, display, public relations, design, writing and administration. Among the highlights of his career in Queensland was his curating of an exhibition entitled Fairweather: a Retrospective Exhibition, which opened in Brisbane in 1963 and subsequently toured Australian capital city galleries. The exhibition featured paintings by Ian Fairweather who lived, famously, in a shack on Bribie Island north of Brisbane. Bob visited Fairweather and struck up a friendship with him, impressing him by his recognition of the artist’s placement of a misshapen tree trunk near his shack as a representation of a Chinese moon gate.
In 1965, Bob was appointed founding head of the Department of Fine Arts at Flinders University. In a ground-breaking move, he set up facilities for hands-on studio experience across a wide range of art media and made that experience compulsory for the department’s students. The purpose of this innovation was to ensure that when students wrote about an artwork, they could do so with first-hand knowledge of the techniques and problems involved in its creation. Years later, one of his former students went out of her way to thank him for this feature of the course, telling him that in undertaking fine arts studies in London, her practical knowledge of art media was unmatched in her student group. The esteem in which Bob was held by his students is attested to by the fact that his lectures often drew applause.
Besides publishing widely, he built the University’s art collection from scratch, covering five centuries and various cultures, and developed the Flinders University Art Museum to house it. This Museum was the venue for art exhibitions that he curated as well as exhibitions of his own photography. In a return to his love of editorial work, in 1978 and 1980, he edited the Australian Journal of Art.
After a court case in the late 1980s, he received substantial compensation. He left the University in 1989 and over the ensuing years used the funds to acquire numerous artworks, together with books to complement them. Social realism was the major theme in his selections, featuring artists such as Honoré Daumier, Noel Counihan and Käthe Kollwitz. The eighty-five Counihan works in Bob’s collection is a number rivalled only by Canberra’s National Gallery. Among his many publications, Noel Counihan Prints 1931-1981: A Catalogue Raisonné—a book he wrote and designed—was his clear favourite.
Bob settled in Geelong in 1992, where he continued to be as productive as ever. He published articles, gave talks on Australian art and curated exhibitions from his collection, consisting chiefly of prints but also of paintings and sculptural works. Between 1995 and 2010, he once again took up an editorial role, serving as the Australian commissioning editor for Allgemeines Kunstlerlexicon (AKL), a Leipzig-based reference work that now covers more than one million artists from across the world. In addition to his editorial role, Bob was a major contributor of Australian entries, and from 1997 was a member of AKL’s international advisory council. He supplied close to one thousand entries, for which he was able to proof-read the German translations. He was also fluent in French and Italian.
He was a visiting scholar at Curtin University of Technology in 1996, followed by a term of more than twelve years as an honorary research associate in fine arts at University of Melbourne. In 2014, at the age of 86, he wrote the text and supplied more than thirty artworks from his own collection for a website entitled Australian Art in the Making: Cultural Commentary. His collaborator in this project was friend and information technology specialist Neville Stanley.
Visitors to his home in Geelong were likely to be greeted with a recitation from Shakespeare, chosen to suit the occasion or shed light on the politics of the day. Or perhaps he might launch into one of the many poems he knew by heart. Those who stayed for lunch might be treated to the entirety of literary gems like Richard II’s prison soliloquy or Browning’s My Last Duchess. Such colourful performances were not confined to his home. In his local area he was known affectionately for his uninhibited spontaneous recitations. One could be standing in a shop or post office, when suddenly a seemingly inconspicuous fellow-customer with a booming voice would deliver a Shakepearean sonnet or speech. Ever the animated theatrical performer and brilliant communicator, he took delight in helping others learn and in encouraging them. ‘Sempre imparando’—always learning—was the motto that he lived by and fostered in others.
In the late 1990s, Bob revived his passion for theatre, taking the court case following William Dobell’s 1943 Archibald win as the basis for a play. He researched the subject exhaustively, then wrote Art on Trial, making use of the court transcript as the source for much of the play’s dialogue. Between 2000 and 2002, Art on Trial was staged in venues in Victoria and New South Wales, with Bob himself playing two of its roles. The play gave dramatic form to an important episode in Australia’s cultural history. Well into his eighties, he completed an unpublished book, which he described as a casebook on cultural decipherment. His cases dealt with a range of cruxes in the cultural history of Europe. Two other works remain incomplete: a monograph on the London National Gallery’s Wilton Diptych, and a book on Shakespeare. Each shows that almost to the end of his life, Bob’s wide-ranging mind remained deeply insightful.
Even as he built his extensive collection, Bob maintained that art belongs to the community, not to some private collector. This conviction led him to seek an appropriate permanent home for the collection. At one stage it appeared that the Counihan Gallery in Melbourne’s City of Moreland might prove suitable, but stalled negotiations brought another possibility into play. The South Gippsland town of Wonthaggi, site of Victoria’s State Coal Mine from 1909 to 1968, hosted Noel Counihan for several months in 1944. He left a lasting impression on the local community through his personality and the artworks he produced there, most notably a set of linocuts of the town’s miners. Limited edition prints from this set are among the works in Bob’s collection. In 2017, Bob moved to Wonthaggi, having come to an arrangement under which his entire corpus of more than 600 artworks and 5000 books will remain intact, housed in Wonthaggi under the permanent custodianship of the Bass Coast Shire. He held hope that this arrangement would strengthen the case for a regional art gallery.The Robert Smith Art Collection stands as testimony to Bob’s generosity and public-spiritedness, adding public benefactor to the list of roles that he played with distinction. In both number and range, that list of roles is exceptional: editor, art and cultural historian, art collector, playwright, theatrical performer, Shakespearean, and teacher. His long and varied career had its roots in the milieu of Perth’s amateur theatre, but gained shape and impetus through his work with Westerly. Anyone familiar with his achievements might well pay tribute to him with the words of Shakespeare: ‘He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again’.
Gordon Binsted, Portrait of Robert Smith, 1955, oil on board, 79 x 62 cm. Courtesy of The Robert Smith Collection, Bass Coast Shire.
Ron Wilkes was a friend of Robert Smith. He credits the art historian and Shakespearean in Bob with turning the spare-time interests of his working life into the passions of his retirement, after twenty-three years lecturing in education in universities.
Jan Richardson is a University Fellow at Charles Darwin University, with two doctorates by research. She is currently writing a biography of Don McLeod of the Pilbara. She worked in remote-area Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley and the Northern Territory for fifteen years, and lectured in universities for sixteen years.