Des Smith

Artbeat column no 440 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 16 March 2009

A well-known figure in the local art scene, Des Smith, died on the second of March. There was a ceremony to farewell him on the 7th which was well attended and almost entirely designed by Des himself. Mr Smith was 89 and the service, which was entirely secular, and people’s recollections of him, were full of his wry and delightfully theatrical personality. His partner of 53 years, Ray Yallop, arranged for Des’s entry and exit to be accompanied by applause, a highly appropriate touch for a man whose life was nothing if not a sparkling performance.

Desmond Richard Hazelhurst Smith was born into less than comfortable circumstances. His mother was widowed when he was young. His childhood in Dunedin was one of hardship. There was no money for an extended education but Des did manage to get himself to art school while working at various places including Cadbury’s. He was at the school with Anne Hamblett, Doris Lusk, Colin McCahon and Max Walker, among others, when R.N. (Bob) Field inspired what can now be seen to be one of the most stellar groups in New Zealand art history.

Mr Smith made his way in life through what is called commercial art, in graphic design and notably window dressing, for which he had a flair. He was interested in drama and involved in some ambitious productions before, during and after the second world war. His graphic abilities extended to designing and making sets. As Stage Manager to Kathleen Falconer’s production of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in December 1941 he presided over Rodney Kennedy’s, Colin McCahon’s, Anne Hamblett’s and Doris Lusk’s collaboration making a backdrop – which survives – the backdrop being as remarkable as the staging of that play at that time. It shows Mr Smith’s intimate association with the core of the city’s most progressive creatives.

A very sociable man Mr Smith was an habitué of the inner city’s studios and flats and privy to their romances and scandals, as well as their more solid achievements. He loved to retell stories from those days which he did in a manner all his own, as Jim Geddes, the Director of the Eastern Southland Gallery, vividly evoked at the funeral.

Mr Smith would get you into a corner, furtively look around and announce in a low voice that he was about to tell you something which on no account must ever leave that room. It was the voice and the furtive glances which were so distinctive, strongly suggesting there might be bugs behind a picture or spies nearby. But what he then revealed was so patently not a state secret you felt like laughing, but concerned not to upset your confidant – only to discover Mr Smith was already laughing uproariously.

He was involved commercially in a number of women’s fashion shops. He and Ray maintained a household at Purakaunui, remembered for its entertainment and good cheer. They moved to Auckland and Mr Smith took up fine art restoration. He and Mr Yallop had long been collectors and continued in this role to the end of Des’s life. They supported a number of young emerging artists and were generous benefactors of several institutions. They returned to Dunedin in the 1990s and set up home in Grant Street which too became a place of good provender and cheer.

Because of his prowess as a story-teller Mr Smith became known as Tusitala, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Samoan sobriquet, meaning “The Teller of Tales”. So he was, but he was something else too. At this time, and for several years, I was engaged in an extended investigation of the Dunedin artists of the Bob Field years. Much was recalled, rather vaguely, of their personal associations, but little was accurately recorded. It is essential to be really precise about this in order to demonstrate who really worked together and so constituted a school, as distinct from merely sharing a general time and place. Mr Smith became my greatest ally pinning this down.

He would recall, not anecdotally or for story-telling effect, precisely who had been engaged in one project or another. He would occasionally produce documentary evidence to back this up – or point to a person or event for corroboration. He would phone me to specifically correct one recollection or another. We would walk the streets together for him to show me the precise location of a studio or a party.

He gave this his earnest attention. He exhibited a determination to establish the exact truth which would shame many professional scholars. He was not only a teller of tales but the most significant and last surviving source of this crucial information which he ensured was transmitted to posterity. New Zealand art history stands in his debt. I salute him for that as I mourn a special friend.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times