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Charles Roderick Purves Smith (1912–1949)

by Mary Eagle

This article was published:

Charles Roderick Purves Smith (1912-1949), by Archibald Douglas Colquhoun, c1946

Charles Roderick Purves Smith (1912-1949), by Archibald Douglas Colquhoun, c1946

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H92.413

Charles Roderick Purves Smith (1912-1949), artist, was born on 26 March 1912 in East Melbourne, son of William Purves Smith, grazier, and his wife Laura, née Chapman, both Victorian born. The family lived much of the time in Melbourne or abroad and Peter, as he was always known, was educated at a prep school in England and Geelong Church of England Grammar School. In January 1926, at his father's wish, he became a cadet midshipman at the Royal Australian Naval College but, disliking the discipline, left the navy at the end of his course in December 1929. For three years he worked as a jackeroo in remote New South Wales, the background for paintings of the outback and macabre short stories written later in France and England. His father suicided on Christmas Eve 1932.

In 1934 Purves Smith went abroad with his mother and while there his sister Jocelyn, knowing that he drew constantly, suggested he attend an art school. He went to Iain Macnab's Grosvenor Art School in London in 1935-36 (and again sporadically in 1939), and to the George Bell school, Melbourne (1937). There, his closest friends were (Sir) Russell Drysdale, with whom he shared studio space, and Maisie Newbold whom he was to marry on 14 June 1946 at Toorak, with Drysdale as best man.

From early 1938 to May 1940 Purves Smith painted in Paris and London. Major works included 'The Diplomats', 'Promenade, Paris', 'Early Morning in Paris' and 'The Nazis, Nuremberg'. Two of his works were included in the exhibition, Art of Australia 1788-1941, which toured the United States of America and Canada from 1941. One of them, 'Kangaroo Hunt', was bought by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In May 1940 Peter joined the British Army, serving in West Africa as captain (3rd West African Brigade). In March-August 1944, as one of Major General Orde Wingate's 'Chindits' behind Japanese lines in Burma, he was in one of the worst theatres of war. When relieved, Purves Smith was hospitalized, with tuberculosis. After returning to Australia in April 1946 he had two good years in which he married, settled at Sassafras, Victoria, and painted three of the most formidable images in Australian postwar art—'Woman Eating Duck', 'The Pleading Butcher', and 'Double Head'. His paintings reflect a private war and the schism of his time. In Purves Smith surreality was as much a part of the man as of his art.

He died on 23 July 1949 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, after an operation, and was cremated. His widow married Russell Drysdale many years later. Memorial and retrospective exhibitions were held in Melbourne in 1950 and 1976. Despite a small oeuvre of less than 100 paintings Purves Smith emerged as a major artist.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Drysdale, Australian Present Day Art (Syd, 1943)
  • Stanley Coe Gallery, Memorial Exhibition, catalogue (Melb, 1950)
  • Joseph Brown Gallery, Retrospective, exhibition catalogue (Melb, 1976)
  • M. Eagle and J. Minchin, The George Bell School (Melb, 1981)
  • Art in Australia, Aug 1939, p 18
  • Art and Australia, Summer 1985, p 199
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 12 Apr 1950
  • R. Drysdale papers and P. C. Purves Smith papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mary Eagle, 'Purves Smith, Charles Roderick (1912–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Roderick Purves Smith (1912-1949), by Archibald Douglas Colquhoun, c1946

Charles Roderick Purves Smith (1912-1949), by Archibald Douglas Colquhoun, c1946

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H92.413

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Purves Smith, Peter

26 March, 1912
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


23 July, 1949 (aged 37)
Heidelberg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia