PICTURE the scene. The Wonthaggi Workmen’s Club, 1959. A young man from the National Gallery of Victoria is in town as part of a statewide education tour. He plans to show some slides of works from the NGV collection and give a little talk. He spoke to the club manager earlier and suggested they might start at 7pm.
“Don’t be daft!” the manager said. “They’ll all be drunk by then.”
So they’ve settled on 12.30pm, before the serious drinking starts. The young man’s talks are tailor made for his audience. No flower paintings this time. But Robert Dickerson’s Smoko will appeal, and Noel Counihan’s works, of course.
So Counihan lived with a mining family and each day went underground to sketch. In 1947 he produced an acclaimed set of six linocuts called The Miners, portraying the dark claustrophobic working life of the Wonthaggi miners battling to extract coal from the narrow seams.
So, in the workmen’s club that day, the talk goes well. Many of the miners got to know Counihan and they share their anecdotes. Afterwards, one of the old miners says to the young man, “Noel Counihan draws with tears in his heart.”
Ken Scarlett has never forgotten the remark.
I am doing some mental arithmetic when Ken kindly joins the dots. “I’m 94,” he says, “almost 95.”
“Well, be careful,” I warn. “Get your jabs and don’t do anything stupid.”
He laughs. “I wouldn’t miss this opening.”
This is the much-anticipated and delayed first exhibition of works from the collection of Robert (Bob) Smith, a noted art collector and scholar who fell in love with Wonthaggi and donated his collection of 596 art works to the town in 2016.
Bob Smith and Wonthaggi
Bass Coast Post: April 29, 2020
The art of Robert Smith
Bass Coast Post, December 16, 2017
Bob, who moved to Wonthaggi in 2017, at the age of 89, came that close to seeing the inaugural exhibition. It was due to open on March 30 last year until the COVID lockdown forced its postponement. Bob died in Wonthaggi Hospital just three weeks later.
Ken Scarlett never got to meet Bob Smith although they were both friends of Noel Counihan and shared his political leanings. “If you look at Counihan’s works you’ll see that interest in humanity and the great respect for working people,” he says. “And it’s interesting that this exhibition is being shown in an arts centre built with money donated by the unions.”
As curator, his first task was to sort through a vast collection that includes works by Australians from Goldfields artist S. T. Gill to Counihan plus works by international artists including Rembrandt, Durer, Goya and Picasso.
He also applauds the council for having the courage and vision to accept a multi-million dollar art collection which brings with it responsibilities and costs, not least in safeguarding the valuable works.
The council’s long-term vision is to turn the McBride campus of Wonthaggi Secondary College into a cultural precinct, including a regional art gallery which will house the Robert Smith collection.
Ken Scarlett says the quality of the collection will make a future Bass Coast regional gallery a destination gallery for visitors, like the Sale and Bendigo galleries.
“It’s a wonderful collection with the number of artists that are represented and the quality of the works. The fact that Wonthaggi is known as an old mining town makes the connection stronger.”
In a nice twist, Ken will stay in the new Workmen’s Club motel for the exhibition launch. It will be opened by Bass Coast Mayor Brett Tessari on Saturday, July 24.