Robert Hughes at the 1997 Sydney launch of his book The Fatal Shore. Robert Hughes with former PM Gough Whitlam at the launch of The Fatal Shore in 1987.
IN THE American century the art critic Robert Hughes was the first Australian to turn from England and take Manhattan.
Thousands of Australians, including his mates in the Sydney Push, Germaine Greer and Clive James, were carving careers in swinging London’s fag-end years. But Hughes was the only one to complete an Atlantic crossing.
He had erupted as a precocious art critic from the land of the convict taint on the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times when the man from Time happened to flip through a copy of Hughes’ 1969 flop Heaven and Hell in Western Art.
The magazine was America’s window to the world and the men and women who worked on it belonged to a sort of east coast Brahman class. But when the senior editor phoned to offer the Time art critic job, Hughes recalled he was so stoned he thought it was the CIA calling.
”In a measured and dignified way, I told this spook exactly what I thought of the American imperialism whose tool he was, of American policy in Vietnam, of American perfidy. It was quite a little performance. I then, secure in the knowledge of a good day’s work compressed into a couple of minutes, hung up in his ear,” Hughes wrote in a 2006 memoir Things I Didn’t Know.
Nevertheless, he moved to Manhattan in 1970 and wrote for Time for the rest of the century.
Along the way he evolved into a leading intellectual, who not only defended art against postmodernism but also educated and informed millions around the world in immensely popular TV series and books such as The Shock of the New in 1991.
His 1987 hymn to Australia, The Fatal Shore, is his best known work. The book heroically reminded Australians the convict taint that had caused collective amnesia in previous generations could be a badge of honour, and few were surprised when the expat emerged as a leading voice of the republican movement.
Hughes died in New York yesterday from a long illness. He was 74. He had been in bad health since a 1999 car accident in Western Australia left him in a coma. A protracted court case in which he eventually pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm and was fined $2500 further eroded his health.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said yesterday Australia had lost not only a frank critic and writer, but an esteemed historian who made significant contributions to tracing and telling Australia’s colonial history.
”Few people … can have been so completely cosmopolitan, and completely Australian as Robert Hughes. His was, in every sense, a great Australian voice.”
Another Australian occupant of the world stage, satirist Barry Humphries, said Hughes was an old friend and a great and fearless critic. ”He gave a wonderful and witty speech at my last birthday party in New York and I’m deeply saddened that alcoholism, or whatever name it sometimes goes by, should have claimed yet another distinguished victim,” he said.
His niece Lucy Turnbull said Hughes combined irreverence and larrikin charm and humour with an incredible gift for language: ”He was a real man’s man … he was a very keen fisherman and shooter as well as being an erudite and very learned communicator and so knowledgeable in the arts.”
Hughes came from an establishment, but Catholic, family. His grandfather was Sydney’s first lord mayor, his father was a highly decorated First World War pilot who trained Australian flyers in the Second World War and died when Hughes was 12. His brother Tom, was John Gorton’s attorney-general but, dumped by Billy McMahon, retired to a glittering career at the Sydney bar. He also had a brother Geoffrey and sister Constance.
He was educated at Sydney’s Riverview and, if the Jesuits did not keep their man, they inculcated a grasp of religious iconography that impressed the man from Time. Hughes failed to finish an architecture degree at the University of Sydney, drew cartoons and wrote art criticism for the Packer family’s current affairs magazine The Observer and then set sail for London in 1964.
In 1967 he married Danne Emerson. The marriage produced a son. Academic Catherine Lumby recalls the pain Hughes went through when they divorced. ”Life was pretty freewheeling for some in those days but Bob wasn’t one of them,” Lumby said. ”He … was clearly hurt by what was occurring.”
His son, Danton, committed suicide in in 2002.
Hughes married twice more. The second marriage, to American artist Doris Downes, was in 2001. She had flown to be with him after the 1999 Broome crash.
Barry Humphries knew Hughes in expat London and as young bohemians around Sydney in the mid 1950s. The satirist once joked he modelled Les Patterson on him, partly because in 50 years in New York he never lost his Australian accent.
Nor did Hughes lose his sense of place: He remained an Australian citizen.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly said Hughes’s sister Connie was a nun.
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