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Malcolm Turnbull Pays Tribute To Robert Hughes

Malcolm Turnbull has delivered a moving tribute to Robert Hughes in the House of Representatives today.

Malcolm Turnbull

Hughes, writer and art critic, died on August 6, aged 74.

Turnbull’s wife, Lucy, was Hughes’s niece. Hughes’s brother, Tom, the Sydney barrister and a former Liberal member of the House (1963-72), was in the public gallery with his wife during the condolence motion.

  • Listen to Turnbull’s tribute (13m)
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Text of Malcolm Turnbull’s tribute to Robert Hughes in the House of Representatives.

Malcolm Turnbull

Mr TURNBULL (Wentworth) (14:21): Can I thank, on behalf of Bob’s family, the very generous words of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the minister. Bob would have been very chuffed to hear them, if a little bemused. He was the youngest of four. His brother Tom who is with us today with his wife, Chrissie, Lucy’s father, the elder by 15 years, became in effect in loco parentis after Bob’s father, Geoffrey, died when he was only 12.

Bob’s father, Geoffrey, was a hero, and not just to his youngest son. He had been a fighter ace in the First World War and among his many victories had shot down no less than Lothar von Richthofen, the brother of the Red Baron himself.

The Hughes family were staunch and pious Catholics. Bob’s great-grandfather, John, had made a fortune, but as Bob often lamented, had given away most of it in building churches and schools. John had established the Order of the Sacred Heart in Australia, his daughters had become nuns and the Hughes family home, Kincoppal, had become a convent and a school. If John Hughes was not in heaven, Bob often said, God didn’t know the value of money.

His mother, Margaret Vidal, was the daughter of the Vicar of Barnsley. Geoffrey’s squadron was based nearby and he wooed her with love letters dropped from his Bristol fighter biplane into her father’s garden. There were Tom, born in 1923, Constance in 1924, Geoffrey in 1928, and then there was a long gap and then Robert in 1938. How sad it is for those three that Bob has gone. As Tom said to me last week, he was “last to arrive and first to leave”.

Everything about Bob Hughes, for good or ill, was forged here in Australia. For all his years in New York he never ceased to be, sound like and think like an Australian. His keen eye, his ability to see things and not just look at them, was honed by years of fishing for leatherjackets and bream on the jetty at Rose Bay, just as his intellect, his love of history and the arts, was inspired by the Jesuits at Riverview. Rambunctiously rebellious all his life, the objects of his often scathing criticism would have loved to have dismissed him as an uncouth Australian. But the depth of his scholarship and his erudition, matched with a remarkable eloquence, made that impossible.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Robert to be seduced, you might even say corrupted, by the big money in the New York art scene—so many billionaire collectors, so many dealers, so many shamelessly commercial artists, each following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol, who was for art, Bob said, what Henry Ford was for automobiles: the first master of mass production.

Bob was always short of money. No matter what he earned he always found a way to spend it, or lose it in a divorce settlement, and yet he did not compromise his judgment and fall into lockstep with what he saw as the conmen of the contemporary art industry, of whom two of his particular bêtes noires were Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.

His account of Australia’s convict system, The Fatal Shore, is probably the best read Australian history. It exposed in Bob’s compelling prose the sadistic brutality bound up in our nation’s founding—a system that not only dispossessed and all but destroyed the native people but then flogged and tortured the prisoners it had brought to the other end of the world. His description of Joseph Foveaux’s reign of terror on Norfolk Island still makes our blood run cold—a commandant so cruel that he would stand downwind of a flogging so that the mist of blood and flesh shaken out of the lash would blow onto his face.

Tom Hughes and wife

Bob used to say that America was founded as a religious experiment and our country was founded as a jail, but he went on to note that if you ever wanted proof that vice and crime are not genetic, on any view Australians were less violent, more law-abiding and more justly compassionate than Americans.

If more Australians have read Bob Hughes the historian, around the world he was without doubt the late 20th century’s most influential art critic. His book and television series, The Shock of the New, expounded the art of the modern world—the machine world, the world of railways, steam engines and total war. Young, impossibly handsome, a rich vocabulary and an even richer, rolling voice—now booming and declamatory, now quieter, drawing you in to some delicious irony—Bob became the face and the authority on the art of our world, the modern world. A worthy successor to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Bob was as filled with the energy and excitement of the modern age as Clark was with a wistful appreciation of ancient beauties receding from our view.

And then he did it again. In 1997 he produced American Visions, a love letter to America, as he described it—an equally monumental book and television series which told the story of America’s art from the naive portraits and landscapes of the first settlers to the magnificence of the gilded age and right up to his own time to the art of those he loved and admired, like Robert Rauschenberg and those that he did not love at all, like Warhol.

Bob lamented the way today’s contemporary art seems to have become disconnected from the politics and the terrifying dramas of our own day. Goya’s etchings Desastres de la Guerra, ‘Disasters of War’, scream to us still about the horror of Napoleon’s war in Spain as powerfully as Picasso’s painting of Guernica does of the mindless barbarity of the German bobbing of that Basque market town. But, he asked, where is the great art of 9/11? Was the unbelievable spectacle of the fall of the twin towers—a disaster he saw from his own window in Soho—so surreal, so unimaginable it could not be painted? As wars raged across the Middle East, Damien Hirst suspends a dead shark in formaldehyde and lines thousands of pills up on mirrored shelves, while Jeff Koons casts Michael Jackson and his monkey like a pair of glossy plaster saints.

Bob’s critics said he didn’t get it—that he, the man who brought us The Shock of the New was now himself uncomfortable with the newest new. I rather think he did get it and moreover was dismayed that so few of us could see that we in fact were the ones being got.

As Simon Crean said, if confidence is the prize given to the mediocre, it was a prize that Bob could never win. Throughout his life, despite all his successes and triumphs and honours, he was besieged by self-doubt. He was 12 when his father died and old enough to know him as a saint and a hero, but not old enough to know that he was, like the rest of us, just a man.

“I am resigned,” Bob wrote, “to the fact that I shall never placate his ghost, that I cannot be in my siblings have you anything like the man GEF Hughes was: that he constitutes a sort of one-man tribunal from whose now unenforceable verdicts there is no appeal”.

As a longstanding observer of the Hughes family, I can say that rather than that, his siblings and his family saw him as a latter-day Clancy, while they, chained, the serried ranks of lawyers in Sydney, to ‘the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal’, Bob wandered the plains of the world, leading a life they could only envy.

He was married three times—to Danne Emerson, to Victoria Whistler and to Doris Downes, his widow, who was with him when he died. His only son, Danton, tragically took his own life in 2002.

Failing health and the consequences of his car accident all made his last decade the darkest—despite the best efforts of his family and friends. It began with that terrible car accident in Western Australia. A head-on collision saw him trapped in the wreck of a rental car, every bone on the right side of his body smashed, barely alive. It was an Aboriginal man from the Bidyadanga settlement nearby, Joe Fishhook, who found him and the local people came to sing him alive. Certainly he stayed alive. He asked his fishing guide, Danny O’Sullivan, to shoot him if the petrol flooding onto the roadway caught alight. It did not come to that. Danny said to him, “You’re the toughest old bastard I know.” Robert, ever the realist, said, “That’s bullshit, Danny”. Danny reflected he had gone a bit too far. “Well,” he said, “you’re the toughest old art critic I know”.

There were some classic Bob Hughes moments when he was in hospital—on one occasion this intubated, bandaged, wired-up body, barely alive it seemed, a mass of tubes and wires and steel, waved its one free hand to a nurse and signalled he wanted to write something. A piece of paper was brought. His scribblings were incomprehensible. After a while someone reckoned it was in Catalan, the language of Barcelona, the subject of one of his greatest books, and he had written with a characteristic courtesy, ‘Would you please be so kind as to call me a taxi. I wish to go to a good hotel.’

Finally we sprang him out of hospital and brought him home to recuperate with us for several months. It was the year of the republican referendum and Bob, first in a wheelchair and then with his callipers, became a prominent advocate for the yes vote. I think he had a swing at you, Tony, in one of those debates.

Mr Abbott: He missed!

Mr TURNBULL: Yes, he missed! What a loss for the nation it would have been if he had connected!

Malcolm Turnbull

But passionate though Bob was in his republican advocacy, he was always full of fun. “Welcome chardonnay-swilling elitists” he opened one speech to the republican faithful. And I remember him making a life-long devotee of Cecilia Hannon by addressing her as “the flower of the republic, the boronia of liberty!”

When Bob is described, as he often is, as a man’s man, the speaker, usually another man, is thinking of his love of fishing and shooting or even perhaps his fondness for food and wine in measures illiberal. But the women in his life, my wife and daughter especially, would agree that he was indeed a man’s man with most masculine failings including untidiness, waywardness and a remarkable ability, even by the high standards of his gender, to make a mess in the kitchen utterly out of proportion to the meal he had produced. He could dismember a mud crab with such enthusiasm that there were not only bits of shell and crab meat in his hair and eyebrows but on the ceiling as well. And, of course, he was always indulged.

He was a generous host and a colourful guest. Lucy especially always gave Bob free rein. He could do no wrong as far as Lucy was concerned. He had a leave pass denied to all other men in her life.

Daisy and Alex, whom he loved as though they were his own, called him WU, for Wicked Uncle, and Bob revelled in that title. All his life, no matter how successful he was, he was always in his mind’s eye the naughty younger brother. So today we note—and I thank the House for noting—the death of one of our greatest writers, one of the world’s greatest critics. But as many of us have seen over the past week, his legacy of writing and of television is so vast and still so compelling so in a sense the great man, the public man, the titan of arts and letters, will never leave us. And so I trust I have not trespassed on the courtesy of the House in allowing just for a while the private Bob to shoulder aside the public man because it is only that Bob who has left us.

Farewell, Uncle Bob, surely there will never be another WU.

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