Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smith, William Joshua (1905–1995)

by Eric Riddler

This article was published online in 2019

William Joshua Smith (1905–1995), artist, was born on 12 March 1905 at Annandale, Sydney, third of five children of New South Wales-born parents James Alexander Smith, coach painter, and his wife Louisa, née Thorpe. Only Joshua and his eldest sister, Matilda, survived infancy. During his childhood the family moved to Alexandria to be close to the Randwick tramway workshops, where James worked. He left Alexandria Public School at fourteen and was employed by a commercial artist, and then by the Randle Photo Engraving Company.

At the age of nineteen, with no formal training in art, Smith walked into the office of Albert Bruntnell, the New South Wales minister of public instruction, declaring that he wanted to ‘make a start by painting [Bruntnell’s] portrait’ (Muswellbrook Chronicle 1925, 3) for the Archibald prize. The portrait was shown in the 1924 Archibald prize exhibition at the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, and it was well received by the Sydney Daily Telegraph’s influential art critic, William Moore. Granted a year’s free tuition in drawing by Bruntnell, Smith began his art training at the East Sydney Technical College, studying drawing and painting under Edward M. Smith and sculptural modelling under Rayner Hoff. Examples of his student work appeared in an exhibition held by the Department of Education in 1926. The Smith family moved in 1928 to Earlwood, where Joshua would remain for most of his adult life.

In the 1930s, having begun exhibiting with the New South Wales Society of Artists, Smith undertook further studies in painting at the Sydney Art School. Training under Julian Ashton, and then Henry Gibbons, he was an active contributor of illustrations—modernist wood block prints—and articles to the Art Student, the school’s annual journal, between 1930 and 1934. He travelled to Victoria and, on his return to Sydney, showed the resulting works in the Sydney Art School students’ exhibition in 1934 at Macquarie Galleries. In 1937 he studied drawing under Adelaide Perry, winning a prize for drawing during the sesquicentenary celebrations in 1938. His work was included in the first exhibition of the short-lived Australian Academy of Art in 1938 and in a group exhibition titled ‘The Five Painters,’ held at Sydney’s David Jones Art Gallery in December 1939. He was also gaining attention for his entries in the Archibald and Sulman prizes. The National Art Gallery of New South Wales acquired Portrait Group, showing his parents, from the 1942 Archibald exhibition.

During World War II Smith carried out mobile camouflage work with the Civil Constructional Corps. One of his colleagues was the painter (Sir) William Dobell and, while they differed in their approach to painting conventions, they became friends. In 1943 Dobell entered a portrait of Smith into the Archibald prize, while Smith entered a portrait of the poet Dame Mary Gilmore. In a close contest, the trustees of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales voted for Dobell’s portrait ahead of Smith’s. The controversy that followed the awarding of the prize to Dobell in January 1944—which centred on whether the painting was a portrait or a caricature—ended Dobell’s friendship with Smith, although Smith attempted to reconcile.

Impressed by the Gilmore portrait, the Federal government’s Historic Memorials Committee commissioned Smith in February 1944 to paint a portrait of the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Solomon Rosevear, for display at Parliament House in Canberra. Smith requested permission to enter the work in the 1944 Archibald prize. This required careful consideration as some had reservations about an officially commissioned portrait being entered into an open competition, especially a work that might be drawn into the controversy surrounding Dobell’s portrait of Smith. The committee members, however, were pleased with the portrait and agreed. It won the prize.

In 1953 Smith became a fellow of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales. From 1967 he began to teach portraiture, initially for the Royal Art Society, before in 1972 beginning his own school at Lane Cove. He continued to paint portraits for commissions and competitions, as well as producing landscapes, still lifes, and genre and figure studies. Best known as a portraitist, he had also entered his landscape paintings in the Wynne prize between the late 1940s and the late 1960s, although none were prize-winning. One of his students, Yve Close, became his assistant, exhibiting partner, and eventual biographer.

Smith never married. The nature of his relationship with Dobell has long been the subject of speculation. The Bulletin’s coverage of the 1943 Archibald prize exhibition dismissed Dobell’s portrait of Smith as ‘arty to the point of effeminacy’ (MacH 1944, 2), and subsequently some biographers have posited that Smith and Dobell’s falling out was as much about a failed romantic relationship as it was about artistic differences. ‘Diffident but with a keen intelligence and sensitivity,’ Smith had ‘a ready understanding of other artists’ work’ (Kolenberg 1995, 12). He died on 22 July 1995 at Lane Cove, and was cremated; his funeral was held at St Andrew’s Congregational Church, Balmain. Close continued his school for a decade afterwards. Several self-portraits are held in private collections, while the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Portrait Gallery own sketches and photographs of him; Dobell’s portrait was badly damaged by a house fire in Adelaide in 1958. Smith’s paintings and sketches have been acquired by many national, State, and regional art collections.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Close, Yve. Joshua Smith: Artist 1905–1995. New South Wales: Yve Close, 1998
  • Hawley, Janet. ‘The Niece’s Story.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 9 August 1997, Good Weekend, 14–18
  • Hawley, Janet. ‘A Portrait in Pain.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 1990, Good Weekend, 19–29
  • Kolenberg, Hendrik. ‘Artistic Genius Thrown into Unwanted Limelight.’ Australian, 26 July 1995, 12
  • ‘MacH,’ quoted in ‘Sundry Shows.’ Bulletin, 2 February 1944, 2
  • Muswellbrook Chronicle. ‘An Ambitious Boy: Painting for Archibald Prize.’ 29 May 1925, 3
  • National Archives of Australia. A463, 1965/2334
  • Rost, F. W. D., and Yve Close, ‘Joshua Smith b. 1905.’ Design and Art Australia Online. 2007, last modified 2011. Accessed 7 July 2015. https://www.daao.org.au/bio/joshua-smith/biography/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Woodrow, Ross. ‘A Different Dobell.’ In Painting Men: Dobell from a Different Perspective, edited by Ross Woodrow, 5–10. [Newcastle]: School of Fine Art, University of Newcastle, 2001

Additional Resources

Citation details

Eric Riddler, 'Smith, William Joshua (1905–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-william-joshua-29680/text36692, published online 2019, accessed online 20 January 2020.

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