Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Smith, Sydney George Ure (1887–1949)

by Nancy D. H. Underhill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Sydney George Ure Smith (1887-1949), publisher and artist, was born on 9 January 1887 at Stoke Newington, London, son of John Smith, steward with the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., and his wife Elizabeth Catherine, née Ure. The family reached Melbourne in 1889 and soon became known as Ure Smith although neither John nor Sydney formalized this change. While John managed Menzies' Hotel, Ure Smith junior attended Queen's College, St Kilda. His father became manager of the Hotel Australia in 1901 and Sydney, while briefly at Sydney Grammar School, produced The Kat (1901-02) and Australia Kat (1902-03), cyclostyled gossipy broadsheets aimed at the hotel clientele. In 1902 he began five years at Julian Ashton's art classes (Sydney Art School from 1906) and specialized in pen and pencil drawing. In 1903 he published the students' magazine, The Palette, which included illustrations by Viola Austral Quaife, granddaughter of Rev. Barzillai Quaife, whom he married on 6 May 1909 at Paddington; her sister Ethelwyn married (Sir) Charles Lloyd Jones.

Ure Smith's lifelong attempt to incorporate quality art and design with technically advanced printing began in 1906 when he and the cartoonist Harry Julius founded Smith & Julius, which was arguably the earliest advertising agency to feature outstanding artwork and colour printing; they set new standards for Australian advertising and provided work for artists including J. Muir Auld, Percy Leason, Roland Wakelin, Lloyd Rees and, later, Adrian Feint and John Passmore. Ure Smith remained active in Smith & Julius until 1923.

To help Jesse Hilder's widow, with Hartland & Hyde, photo-engravers, he devised a way of including quality coloured reproductions in the Hilder exhibition catalogue in 1916. It proved so popular that the same year Ure Smith launched the periodical Art in Australia, which although didactic was profusely illustrated and played a vital part in displaying Australian art. In 1920 with backing from Lloyd Jones, J. R. McGregor and Ernest Watt, he established the publishing company, Art in Australia Ltd. Its other major periodical was the Home (1920-42), which fostered 'good taste' in contemporary architecture, interior design, photography and graphic design, with covers usually by Thea Proctor or Hera Roberts. Ure Smith sold the company to John Fairfax & Sons Ltd in 1934, reluctantly severed his connexion with his magazines in 1938 and founded Ure Smith Pty Ltd in 1939. He ultimately published over 130 items and six periodicals. While his publications favoured members of the Society of Artists, Sydney, they also included Harold Cazneaux's photography, Donald Friend's Painter's Journal (1946) and significantly Robert Croll's edition of Sir Arthur Streeton's letters to Tom Roberts, Smike to Bulldog (1946), and Bernard Smith's provocative book, Place, Taste and Tradition (1945).

The years under Julian Ashton remained the major well for Ure Smith's aesthetic views and friendships because, unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not travel overseas until 1933, after his career was firmly established. Although he did occasional work for the Bulletin and Lone Hand and illustrated a few novels, he never became an illustrator in the Bulletin tradition. After he informally studied etching with Eirene Mort and perhaps Lionel Lindsay, he produced pleasant etchings of old buildings mainly in and around Sydney and colour-wash pencil drawings which are probably his most refined and individualistic work. While produced and sold as single items, they were also used as adjuncts to articles or combined in limited-edition books such as Old Sydney (1911) and Old Colonial By-Ways (1928) with texts by Charles Bertie. His choice of subject-matter was partly an attempt to foster conservation of Australia's colonial heritage.

Although Ure Smith established his position among artists through publishing, he displayed his leadership qualities as president of the Society of Artists (1921-48). Unlike his friends the Lindsays and Hans Heysen he encouraged new members and advocated measured progress in Australian art. He had opened the 1919 Wakelin-de Maistre exhibition and in 1923 supported the award of the society's travelling scholarship to de Maistre. That year he arranged the controversial Exhibition of Australian Art at Burlington House, London, for the Society of Artists: a group of Victorian artists applied for a court injunction to prevent the exhibition leaving without further selections and a deputation waited on Albert Bruntnell, minister of public instruction, asking for the exclusion of Norman Lindsay's works on moral grounds. Ure Smith also supported the Contemporary Group in Sydney, the Melbourne Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art (1939) and imported works by Matisse and Derain for the society's exhibitions, but abstract art fell beyond his toleration.

As a trustee of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales (1927-47; vice-president, 1943-47), he was partly responsible for the controversial award of the 1943 Archibald prize to William Dobell for his portrait of Joshua Smith. Among his myriad activities Ure Smith was a member of the Advisory Committee for Applied Art (1925-31), a trustee of the New South Wales government travelling scholarship and a member of the Australian War Memorial art committee. He chaired the committees for the cultural section of the Australian pavilions at New York World's Fair (1939) and the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition (1939-40) and was a member of the committee for the Carnegie sponsored exhibition, Art of Australia, which toured North America (1941-45). He was a founder of the Empire-United States of America Art Trust, editorial representative for the Studio (1941), slightly reluctant vice-president of the Australian Academy of Art (1937), and a council-member of the Australian Limited Editions Society. From the 1930s he broadcasted frequently.

A lean man of medium height, with sleek fair hair, Ure Smith became rotund in middle age, despite swimming every day. He was a good mimic and raconteur. On Sunday mornings he entertained a stream of visitors from Europe as well as such friends as Lionel Lindsay, Hardy Wilson and (Sir) Robert Menzies. Awarded the Society of Artists medal in 1931, Ure Smith was appointed O.B.E. in 1937. After suffering poor health, he died at his Potts Point home of coronary occlusion on 11 October 1949 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His daughter and son, Sydney George (Sam) Ure-Smith, by his second wife Ethel Bickley, survived him.

Although during Ure Smith's lifetime a significant portion of the writing on him emphasized his art rather than his role as a publisher and administrator, Lloyd Rees and others have remarked that he saw his art as a serious pastime and have stressed that his real obsession was the art of publishing. If Ure Smith had little theoretical approach to art, he had its advancement as the base of all he undertook and was probably Australia's most diversified art patron.

His portrait by William McInnes is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Ure Smith Memorial Catalogue 1897-1949 (Syd, 1950)
  • G. Caban, A Fine Line (Syd, 1983)
  • Sydney Ure Smith papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Hans Heysen papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Lindsay family papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Nancy D. H. Underhill, 'Smith, Sydney George Ure (1887–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-sydney-george-ure-8485/text14925, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014