As a teenager Robert began a decade-long involvement in amateur theatre in Perth, giving him experience of all its specialised tasks. He started at Patch Theatre, an environment whose social and intellectual activity stimulated him.
Among those he met were poet Dorothy Hewett, Anti-Fascist League broadcaster Edward Beeby and author Katherine Susannah Prichard, founder of a club whose meetings Robert attended. Through those meetings he met people whose political awareness and commitment to social justice inspired him. His left-wing activism began through Patch, intensified in two other theatre groups, and continued for the rest of his life.
After adult matriculation, Robert completed a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Western Australia, majoring in history and English with a weighting towards drama. In 1956 and 1957, his extracurricular activities were president of the university’s dramatic society and founding editor of a literary magazine. Robert named it Westerly, not just to denote regional identity but a refreshing breeze blowing away conventional thinking.
In the final stage of his studies, Robert began working as curatorial assistant at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Between July 1958 and February 1960, he wrote 22 individual titles in a series published by the gallery. During this time, he was art columnist for The West Australian and later art critic for Perth’s Sunday Times. In 1960, the Queensland Art Gallery appointed him assistant director with responsibilities for research, cataloguing, display, public relations, design, writing and administration. He also made radio and television presentations on behalf of the gallery.
In 1965, Flinders University appointed him founding head of art studies. In a ground-breaking step, he made it an essential component of the course for students to have hands-on studio experience across a range of art media, ensuring that when they wrote about an artwork they knew the methods and problems involved in its creation. He was regarded highly by students, often drawing applause for his lectures.
During his 23 years at Flinders, Robert published widely, staged exhibitions of his own photography and was foundation editor for the Australian Journal of Art.
After the failure of a court case against him, Robert received substantial compensation. He left the university in 1989 and used the money to build his artworks along with hundreds of books to complement them. The artists with strongest representation in Robert’s predominantly social-realist collection are Honore Daumier, Kathe Kollwitz and Noel Counihan. Only Canberra’s National Gallery has a larger holding of works by Counihan.
Robert’s acquisition of Counihan’s prints depicting coal miners in Wonthaggi turned out to have special significance. His book Noel Counihan Prints 1931-1981: A Catalogue Raissone held pride of place among his many publications.
After settling in Geelong in 1992, Robert published articles, gave talks on Australian art and curated exhibitions from his collection. From 1995 to 2010, he was Australian editor for Allgemeines Kunstlerlexicon, the world’s most extensive reference work on artists. His knowledge of German enabled him to proof-read the hundreds of entries he had either written or commissioned. He was also fluent in French and Italian. In collaboration with educational IT specialist Neville Stanley, in 2014 he supplied text and artworks for the website Australian Art in the Making: Cultural Commentary.
In Geelong, he stored his collection of art and books in every available cupboard, bookshelf, and room of his compact home. Among his books, papers, and sculptural works he set up his computer and continued researching and writing.
By now he was “Bob” to all. Visitors might be treated to a recitation of Shakespeare or the politics of the time, or perhaps a poem drawn from a large repertoire. He was a brilliant communicator, ever eager to explain to those ready to learn as well as to help and encourage those whose endeavours he thought worthwhile. Sempre imparando – always learning – was his motto. He lived it and fostered it in others.
In the early 2000s, Bob’s passion for theatre reached its zenith when he wrote and acted in the play Art on Trial, based on the court case that followed William Dobell’s 1943 Archibald prize. Bob had researched the subject intensively and his script made extensive use of the court transcript to bring into sharp focus the clash of values involved. Cultural history in dramatic form.
Bob’s deeply held conviction that “art belongs to the community, not to some private collector” led him to seek a permanent home for what he had so carefully built up. Eventually, he found that home, for both the art collection and him: Wonthaggi in South Gippsland, site of Victoria’s state coal mine from 1909 to 1968. Counihan’s lino-cuts of miners stemmed from a period he spent there in 1944.
Through the agency of Wendy Crellin, a leading figure in the local arts community, an agreement was reached with Bass Coast Shire Council under which Bob’s entire body of more than 600 artworks and 5000 books will be kept intact, with the shire as permanent custodian. Bob had hoped this would add weight to the case for a regional art gallery.
Sadly, not all the goals of such a man can end up being achieved. Well into his 80s, Bob completed an unpublished book on cultural decipherment. By then, he had already started two others, one on Shakespeare and the other on London National Gallery’s Wilton Diptych. Age-related mental decline had begun, but until a final stage remained peripheral in a brain teeming with ideas. Even as incomplete works, those two books exhibit the perspectives of a deeply insightful and wide-ranging mind.
The Bass Coast Shire Council has planned the inaugural exhibition from the Robert Smith Collection, featuring works by Noel Counihan. The exhibition will provide an opportunity to honour Bob and celebrate his life.
The collection constitutes a significant addition to the body of artworks in public hands. Bob warrants praise for his generosity and public-spiritedness, together with respect for the integrity of his personal values. He was humble in origin and demeanour but noble in both spirit and achievements, with, as Shakespeare puts it, ‘the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, “This was a man”.’
He was pre-deceased by his wife, Beverley Noldt, and two daughters Helen and Jennifer, and is survived by their son Ivan.