‘Mythic figure’: William Robinson, his friend Quentin Bryce and the true guiding force behind his art

In his studio at the foothills of Mt Coot-tha on a bend of the Ithaca Creek in Brisbane’s leafy western suburbs, William Robinson points to a painting that features his lifelong partner, Shirley.

At first glance, though, his late wife is nowhere to be seen.

Bill’s in the foreground in farm clobber. Behind him a tribe of goats, arranged in the painter’s whimsical, perspective-imploding style. Only a more detailed examination reveals his wife of more than 60 years. There’s Shirley on the edge of the frame, leaning down at such an angle that her outline is swallowed up by that of the goat she milks.

Now, months after she died aged 85, Shirley is finally to take centre stage in an exhibition which opens this Sunday at Queensland University of Technology’s gallery named after her husband.

Featuring more than 50 of his works over five decades, Love in Life & Art is billed as a homage to Bill and Shirley’s “exceptional union” and “the role she played in nurturing his prolific artistic output”.

But Bill says Shirley was not his muse. The concept is too classical. Too Greek. Yes, he painted his wife as “a mythic figure”, but Bill’s is a more Catholic cosmology. Take his depiction of the couple in Turkey Weather (1984).

I look like a turkey and Shirley looks like an angel. Which, of course, she was.

William Robinson on his painting Turkey Weather

“I look like a turkey and Shirley looks like an angel,” Bill says. “Which, of course, she was.

“She was a person of goodness.”

In many ways Shirley was Bill’s complementary opposite, he says. He a dag, gnawed by self-doubt. She sophisticated and fearless.

Shirley appears in many more of his Farmyard paintings – if only fleetingly. She throws scraps to the chooks as Bill props his leg on a log and gazes wistfully into the distance. Elsewhere her head can be spotted peeking over the load of cut grass she carries through a flock of geese.

But Shirley doesn’t feature in Bill’s major works the way Bill does. They are self-deprecating and chock full of signature cheek, but both his Archibald prize-winning paintings are self portraits.

And his most iconic paintings are about place, not people. For many, the paintings of William Robinson are synonymous with epic landscapes, bizarre and tangled panoramas that seem to depict not so much south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales but prehistoric Gondwanaland.

As his long-term friend Quentin Bryce says, Shirley featured in all of Bill’s paintings – “until he really got into the mountains”.

These two have bonded in shared grief and joyful reminiscence in recent months. Quentin’s life partner, Michael, died in early 2021 and she has been instrumental in bringing together the exhibition in Shirley’s honour.

“It is true to say that Bill wouldn’t be the great master that he is without Shirley,” she says.

Yes, Shirley played all of the roles expected of a woman of her generation – she raised their children and ran the many households that the Robinsons made home, from their ramshackle old dairy in Beechmont to their rainforest studio at Springbrook. Her impact on Bill’s art, though, went far beyond cementing its domestic foundation.

The pair met at art school as teens in the 1950s and married aged 22. Shirley would apply her artistic training as Bill’s assistant, pouring in the hours of technical work on lithographs that freed up his time for their creative and conceptual realisation.

Then she would meticulously catalogue her husband’s output. Many paintings in Bill’s Farmyard series would simply not exist had Shirley not stored his sketches from that time, some of which he would only go on to paint a full three decades later.

But despite her pivotal role in his career, through all the years, the openings in Paris, the speeches and the photographs, Shirley shunned the spotlight.

Despite her pivotal role in his career, Shirley shunned the spotlight.

“She always moved into an invisibility with shows,” Bill says. “She wouldn’t take centre stage at all.”

In other paintings though, some lesser known and others never before publicly shown, she did. Shirley in Candy Striped Pants (1975) stands out among them. Unlike the more playful and almost cartoon-like characters of his later works, here Bill’s subject takes centre-stage and gazes directly and self-assuredly at the viewer.

They were 39 then, on the younger side of middle-aged. Now he is 86 and she is gone. Today he sketches, plays Tchaikovsky on piano, spends time with their children and gazes out upon the lush and tangled garden Shirley created and in which her almost life-sized bronze statue holds a bowl of water out for the birds as she playfully pirouettes.

Bill’s not sure he will paint again. And if he doesn’t, his last will be a self portrait that hangs in his studio and was completed in the weeks before Shirley died. In it, an old Bill reclines into a wicker chair in a garden, gazing at the viewer beneath a black brimmed hat – he says he changed the hat after she pointed out it was not quite right. Shirley remained Bill’s most influential critic to the last.

But if he were to paint one last picture of Shirley she would appear like she did in Turkey Weather – angelic. And what would she wear?

“A rainbow and mist,” Bill says without missing a beat. “Apart from a T-shirt [and] ordinary farming clothes.”