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Joshua Smith

Joshua Smith

Domain Gardeners Pose c.1925–70
oil on composition board
40.9 x 53.1 cm
Monash University Collection

The making and unmaking of Joshua Smith was his association with better-known fellow painter (Sir) William Dobell, and what scant commentary there is on Smith’s work is invariably inflected by the rise and fall of their amity. A modestly scaled, oil on composition board painting produced some time over the forty-five years between 1925 to 1970, Domain Gardeners Pose intentionally refuses to articulate (m)any of that epoch’s modernist tropes, making it difficult to reconcile this work and Smith’s practice in general to the characterising formalisms of their time. Further problematising this is the absence of objective critical writing on Smith that is not in some way contaminated by association with Dobell and his Archibald Prize winning Portrait of an Artist, 1943.[1]

Superficially, Domain Gardeners Pose is a traditional painting, void of any direct reference to the great social and cultural transformations of Smith’s era. Compositionally, it depicts two men, both hatted, in Sydney’s Domain, directly across the road from the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One squatting, the other standing, proximate to each other but not touching. Turned towards the observer, paused as though interrupted, the standing figure on the right holds a hoe. The squatting figure on the left also holds an agricultural implement: one with a long handle that rises obliquely from his crotch, suggesting a tumescent phallus. A highly personal yet plausible interpretation, sustained by Smith having used the same colour here as elsewhere when delineating areas of the subjects’ exposed flesh. The broad-brush strokes used to evoke their facial features results in an image of potent anonymity, the kind associated with filters applied to blur the online profiles common to social and sexual networking apps, like Grindr.

Homosexual acts were decriminalised in New South Wales in 1984 and artworks with queer content produced before then were heavily coded. Smith, a lifelong bachelor formed a friendship with Dobell, a closeted albeit sexually active gay man, while both worked as camouflage painters during the Second World War.[2] They shared a tent, becoming professionally and personally close until the rupture caused by the controversy around the award of the 1943 Archibald Prize to Dobell for the portrait in which Smith poses, elongated and curvilinear; a sepia iteration of Parmigiano’s celebrated mannerist work Madonna with the Long Neck. In Dobell’s painting, Smith sits cross legged with the collar of his jacket turned up and a vermillion pocket square that matches his tie. The Bulletin, then Australia’s magazine of record, trivialised Dobell’s treatment of Smith as ‘arty to the point of effeminacy.’[3]

While no evidence has emerged that affirms either way Smith’s sexuality, the calculated equivocation and ambiguity of Domain Gardeners Pose enables a more radical (re)interpretation than the painting’s outward conservatism conventionally supports. In Smith’s time non-conformist sexualities were habitually furtive, enacted outside, often in public amenities. Parks and gardens have a long association with cruising and coincidently the grounds of The Domain, the locus of Smith’s picture, included a then well-known beat, The Domain Toilets.[4]

The contemporary ambivalence and gestural subterfuge of Domain Gardeners Pose throws into sharp contrast its non-compliance with the stylistic and conceptual hegemonies of its age. It is therefore more receptive to (re)interpretation and integration into emergent, latently subversive, alternative histories. The shame and pain, abiding legacies of Smith’s association with Dobell are familiar sentiments to me and others, as was his alienation and professional solitude. Smith deliberately distanced himself from the orthodox expressions of modernity that shaped the practices of his peers and the two sundered figures in Domain Gardeners Pose visualise this. Joshua Smith is paradoxically visible and invisible in the evolving narratives of Australian Art and is an exceptionally ‘odd’ fellow on that account.

Gary Carsley lives and works on Gadigal land where he maintains a small hortus conclusus. He is currently in a ménage à trois with history and memory that they maintain outside the binary of victim and perpetrator.


[1] Dobell used the title Portrait of an Artist for his painting, but it was listed in the catalogue of the 1943 Archibald Prize competition as Mr Joshua Smith. See ‘Winner: Archibald Prize 1943’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, accessed 10 September 2021, https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/archibald/1943/15672/.

[2] Eric Riddler, ‘Smith, William Joshua (1905–1995)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, vol. 19, published online 2019, accessed 10 September 2021, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-william-joshua-29680.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Conversation with Garry Wotherspoon, éminence grise and historian of Sydney’s Queer community, 2002.