In his studio at the foothills of Mount Coot-tha on the bend of Ithaca Creek in the leafy western suburbs of Brisbane, William Robinson points to a painting depicting his partner, Shirley.
At first glance, though, his late wife is nowhere to be seen.
Bill is up front on the batting farm. Behind him is a tribe of goats, arranged in the style of an eccentric painter that explodes inland. Only a more detailed examination reveals his wife of more than 60 years. There’s Shirley on the edge of the tire, bent at such an angle that her outline swallows her up from the goats that are milking her.
Now, months after her death at the age of 85, Shirley will finally take center stage at an exhibition opening Sunday at Queensland The University of Technology’s showroom is named after her husband.
Featuring more than 50 of his works over five decades, Love in Life & art It has been described as a tribute to Bell and Shirley’s “exceptional union” and “the role they played in nurturing his prolific artistic output”.
But Bell says Shirley was not his inspiration. The concept is very classic. Very Greek. Yes, he painted his wife as a “legendary figure,” but Belle is more of a Catholic cosmologist. Take his depiction of a couple in Turkey Weather (1984).
“I look like a turkey and Shirley looks like an angel,” Bell says. “And of course it was.
“She was a good person.”
In many ways, Shirley was the complementary opposite of Bell, he says. It is a dagger, gnawed by self-doubt. She is sophisticated and brave.
Shirley appears in many of his Farmyard paintings – albeit in passing. The scraps are thrown at the daggers while Bill rests his leg on a tree trunk and stares sadly into the distance. Elsewhere, her head can be seen peeking over the load of cut grass she is carrying through a flock of geese.
But Shirley doesn’t appear in Bell’s main work the way Bell does. They are self-deprecating and have distinctive cheeks, but both of his Archibald Prize-winning paintings are self-portraits.
His most famous paintings are about place, not people. For many, William Robinson’s paintings are synonymous with epic landscapes, bizarre and intertwined panoramas that seem not to depict much of southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales but rather prehistoric Gondwanaland.
As his longtime friend Quentin Price puts it, Shirley appeared in all of Bell’s paintings – “until he really got to the mountains.”
These two have been associated with shared grief and happy memories in recent months. Quentin’s life partner, Michael, passed away in early 2021, and she was instrumental in putting together the show in Shirley’s honor.
“It’s true to say that Bill wouldn’t be a great master because without Shirley,” she says.
Yes, Shirley has played all the roles expected of a woman of her generation—she’s raised her children and ran many of the homes the Robinsons made home, from the old ramshackle dairy in Beechmont to her rainforest studio in Springbrook. However, its influence on Bell’s art far exceeded the consolidation of its domestic foundations.
The duo met at art school as teenagers in the 1950s and married at 22. Shirley would apply her art training as Bill’s assistant, spending hours working on artwork on lithographs that made time for her creative and conceptual realization.
Then she accurately categorizes her husband’s production. Many of the paintings in Bill’s Farmyard series would not have existed had Shirley not stockpiled his drawings from that time, some of which he would have continued to paint only three full decades later.
But despite her pivotal role in his career, through all the years, editorials in Paris, speeches and photos, Shirley has avoided the spotlight.
“I’ve always gone underground with shows,” Bell says. “You’re not going to take center stage at all.”
In other paintings, some less well-known and some that had not been shown publicly before, she did. Shirley in Candy Striped Pants (1975) stands out among them. In contrast to the more playful and semi-animated characters in his later works, here Bell’s theme takes center stage and looks straight and confident at the viewer.
They were both 39 years old, on the younger side in middle age. Now he’s 86 and she’s gone. Today, he’s sketching, Tchaikovsky plays the piano, spending time with their children and gazing at the lush, tangled garden Shirley has created, in which her life-size bronze statue holds a bowl of water for birds as they play gyro.
Bill is not sure he will paint again. And if he doesn’t, his last picture will be a self-portrait hung in his studio and completed in the weeks before Shirley’s death. In it, an old Bell reclines on a wicker chair in a garden, staring at the viewer under a black-brimmed hat—he says he changed the hat after she suggested it wasn’t quite right. Shirley remained Bell’s most influential critics until the end.
But if he draws one last portrait of Shirley, it will turn out as you did in Turkey weather – angelic. And what will you wear?
“Rainbow and fog,” Bell says without missing a thing. Apart from the T-shirt [and] Ordinary farming clothing.