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William Robinson, 2016 by Mark Mohell
William Robinson, 2016 by Mark Mohell

There isn’t a tradition of bronze pugs in Australia; they’re alien to us. The internet, though, hands us the keys to a magic cabinet of European pug-themed bronze items made from the 1700s onward and on sale right now. If you insist on utilitarian products you can get a pug inkwell, pug bookends, pug napkin rings or pug drawer pulls; if you’re open to ornaments, you can’t go past a twelve-piece Viennese bronze pug band. For ceramics, it’s well worth visiting the Time Dances By Pug Museum, with a retail co-site for wares including antique Meissen pugs (or ‘Mops-hunds’) gallivanting in their jingling collars, and contemporary pieces such as ‘Ahoy, Matey!’ and ‘Two Pugs on a Pouf’.  

Unique in the world, perhaps, is a bronze sculpture that fuses the age-old human portrait bronze tradition, and the later genre of the bronze pug figurine: that’d be William Robinson’s Self-portrait with pug of 2009. The bronze is anomalous in Robinson’s body of work. That said, it’s characteristic of Robinson’s various self-portraits, in that it’s whimsical with a quality of seriousness; or grave with a suggestion of playfulness.

William Robinson grew up in Brisbane, where he trained as an art teacher in the mid-1950s. Over the 1970s, when he and his wife Shirley lived on a small farm near Brisbane, he painted a series of bright interiors evoking the pleasures of domesticity. In Morning, for example, he and Shirley greet their pug in their nightwear, teapot to hand. From 1984, the family Robinson had a much bigger property inland from Burleigh Heads. In this period, he painted farmyard panoramas, depicting cows, goats and chickens from behind, before, above, between and below; and a series of eccentric self-portraits. At the same time, he was incubating his Romantic visions of Queensland landscapes. Now, Robinson’s synonymous with swooping rainforest pictures, green and sublimely grand; dizzying views of the heavens; paintings evoking the creation. A floor of Queensland’s Old Government House permanently displays his works, gifted to the Queensland University of Technology.

Several of Robinson’s self-portraits reflect his long interest in multiple perspectives on landscape. In 1987, one such, showing him ringed by attenuated fungal trees, riding a googly-eyed horse bareback with his hands in a fussy, fiddly position, won him his first Archibald Prize. He bagged the prize a second time in 1995, with Self portrait with stunned mullet. He appears in funny outfits so often - in a paper hood, in sou’wester and waders, in pyjamas, the top tucked into the high-tied pants - that it’s a shock to see him in a suit.

In Self Portrait for Town and Country the artist looks as if the thought of going to town weighs heavily on him. The trajectory of the picture’s to the left, which the pugs are hogging;  the diagonals of the man’s back and shins take the eye that way, as does the splayed leg of the white beast Wendy Wu. The viewer has to wrench her eyes over to the top right where Robinson appears in the persona of a gentleman farmer, the barrel of his breech loader dangling, enjoying the air on a bluff. It’s an image befitting the American establishment magazine Town and Country. By rights, though, Robinson should be striding out with setters or retrievers; anything, in fact, but pugs.

In an etching of Robinson’s called Pug Self Portrait, his forehead and the pug’s are hilariously wrinkled alike. Their faces crease in consternation and resignation, in puzzlement, in seniority. They’re innocents abroad; startled, frowning, hopeful, benign, doing no harm in this miraculous world.

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William Robinson AO

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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