Mr Joshua Smith
Mr Joshua Smith
Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith, a fellow painter, was the most notorious painting in twentieth century Australian art. Smith is shown as gaunt and alone at night in a bare studio, the work being intended to symbolise the talented artist as an outsider figure who must withstand the modern world’s philistine taunts. The portrait caused an immediate national uproar when it won the 1943 Archibald Prize. Visitors flocked to the National Gallery of NSW to view what was considered an outrageously modern work. They stood ten people deep before it and the exhibition had to be extended. When the Archibald show closed 140,000 people had viewed the painting, which then amounted to ten percent of Sydney’s population.
Angered conservatives took legal action against the gallery on the grounds the painting was a caricature, not a legitimate portrait. The case was heard in Equity Court during October 1944, and was seen by many as putting modern art on trial. The court eventually found in favour of Dobell’s work.
Late in 1949, Dobell sold the portrait to Adelaide businessman Sir Edward Hayward. However, in 1958 the work was badly damaged in a fire at Carrick Hill, the Hayward’s home. After Dobell declined to restore the painting it went into storage until 1972, when it was taken to London and restored by Kenneth Malcolm. The extent of this restoration generated another round of controversy, raising questions about whether the work can still be considered an original Dobell.