Robert Hughes (critic)

Robert Hughes (critic)
Robert Hughes
Born Robert Studley Forrest Hughes
28 July 1938 (1938-07-28) (age 73)
Sydney, Australia
Occupation Art critic, filmmaker, writer
Years active 1965–present

Robert Studley Forrest Hughes, AO (born 28 July 1938) is an Australian-born art critic, writer and television documentary maker who has resided in New York since 1970.


Early life

Hughes was born in Sydney in 1938. His father and paternal grandfather were prominent lawyers. Hughes's father, Geoffrey Forrest Hughes, was an aviator in World War I, with later careers as a solicitor and company director. Geoffrey Hughes died from lung cancer when Robert was aged 12. Robert Hughes's mother was Margaret Eyre Sealy, née Vidal. His older brother, Thomas Eyre Forrest Hughes, is an Australian lawyer and former Attorney-General of Australia.

He was educated at St Ignatius' College, Riverview before going on to study arts and then architecture at the University of Sydney. At university, Hughes associated with the Sydney "Push" – a group of artists, writers, intellectuals and drinkers. Among the group were Germaine Greer and Clive James. Hughes, an aspiring artist and poet, abandoned his university endeavours to become first a cartoonist and then an art critic for the Sydney periodical The Observer, edited by Donald Horne.[2] [3] Around this time he wrote a history of Australian painting, titled The Art of Australia, which is still considered to be an important work. It was published in 1966. Hughes was also briefly involved in the original Sydney version of Oz magazine, and wrote art criticism for The Nation and The Sunday Mirror.

In 1961, an article by a law student, Geoffrey Lehmann, in the Sydney University weekly newspaper Honi Soit noted similarities between specific Hughes poems (including two that had won the Henry Lawson Prize[1] in 1957) and work by Terence Tiller, George Seferis, Alun Lewis and Dylan Thomas. Similarly, a published Hughes drawing was described as resembling one which had appeared in a 1955 international art magazine.[2] The criticism was given wider prominence by the award-winning poet and journalist Elizabeth Riddell in a Daily Mirror article.[3]


Hughes left Australia for Europe in 1964, living for a time in Italy before settling in London, England (1965) where he wrote for The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Observer, among others, and contributed to the London version of Oz. In 1970 he obtained the position of art critic for TIME magazine and he moved to New York. He quickly established himself in the United States as an influential art critic.

In 1975, he and Don Brady provided the narration for the film Protected, a documentary showing what life was like for Indigenous Australians on Palm Island.

Hughes and Harold Hayes were recruited in 1978 to anchor the new ABC News (US) newsmagazine 20/20. His only broadcast, on 6 June 1978, proved so disastrous that, less than a week later, ABC News president Roone Arledge dumped Hughes and Hayes, replacing them with veteran TV host Hugh Downs.

In 1980, the BBC broadcast The Shock of the New, Hughes's television series on the development of modern art since the Impressionists. It was accompanied by a book of the same name; its combination of insight, wit and accessibility are still widely praised.

In 1987, The Fatal Shore, Hughes's study of the British penal colonies and early European settlement of Australia, became an international best-seller.

During the 1990s, Hughes was a prominent supporter of the Australian Republican Movement.

Hughes provided commentary on the work of artist Robert Crumb in parts of the 1994 film Crumb, calling Crumb "the American Breughel".

His 1997 television series American Visions reviewed the history of American art since the Revolution. He was again dismissive of much recent art; this time, sculptor Jeff Koons was subjected to criticism. Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore (2000) was a series musing on modern Australia and Hughes's relationship with it. During production, Hughes was involved in the near-fatal road accident detailed in the next section.

Hughes is notorious for his criticisms of artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel, whom he has described as being "to painting what [Sylvester] Stallone is to acting - a lurching display of oily pectorals - except that Schnabel makes bigger public claims for himself." When asked about Hughes' criticisms on an episode of 60 Minutes, Schnabel angrily replied, "He's a bum".[4]

Hughes's 2002 documentary on the painter Francisco Goya, Goya: Crazy Like a Genius, was broadcast on the first night of the BBC's domestic digital service.

Hughes created a one hour update to The Shock of the New. Titled The New Shock of the New, the program aired first in 2004. [5]

Hughes published the first volume of his memoirs, Things I Didn’t Know, in 2006. [4]

Personal life

Hughes married his first wife, Danne Patricia Emerson, in 1967 and was divorced in 1981. She died of a brain tumour in 2003 at the age of sixty.

Hughes and Emerson had one child, Danton (30 September 1967 – 2002), named after the French revolutionary, Georges Danton. Danton became a sculptor and lived in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. In 2002, at age 34, Danton Hughes took his own life by gassing himself with his car in the garage. Hughes later wrote: "I miss Danton and always will, although we had been miserably estranged for years and the pain of his loss has been somewhat blunted by the passage of time."[6]

On a CBC radio program, Writers and Company, broadcast in 2007, Hughes spoke about Danne's serial promiscuity, drug use and how miserable their life together had become. Hughes said that he and Danne had stayed together despite his unhappiness because they were Catholics. Further, he said he should have taken their son Danton and left Danne but blamed lack of money and the social mores of the time for not doing so.

From 1981 until 1996, he was married to Victoria Hughes, née Whistler, a California housewife, whom he met when she approached him on his "Fatal Shore" book tour in California. It was not until the marriage was dissolved in 1998 that Hughes was informed that Victoria was married at the time of their first meeting and quickly divorced without informing Hughes of her marital status. He writes in his autobiography of the financial toll the divorce was to have on him for years thereafter.

In 2001, Robert married American artist and former art director, Doris Downes, with whom he had been together for 10 years. She is 21 years his junior. He has two stepchildren from Downes's previous marriage, Freeborn Jewett IV and Fielder Jewett. They divide their time between a loft in New York City and a home in Briarcliff Manor, New York.

His niece Lucy Turnbull (his brother Tom's daughter), a former Lord Mayor of Sydney, is married to Australian businessman Malcolm Turnbull, who in September 2008 became Leader of the Opposition in the Federal Parliament. Robert stayed with them for a period of time during his recovery from injuries in the 1999 car accident and later rented an apartment in the Sydney environs so that he could complete 'Beyond the Fatal Shore', a film he had started and stopped abruptly due to his accident. The accident scene and details proved to be a powerful backdrop for the award winning series produced by Oxford Films, London.


Hughes received the Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism in 1982 and 1985, given by the College Art Association of America.[7]

Publications (alphabetical order)


  • Anderson, Patricia, Robert Hughes: The Australian Years, Pandora Press, 2009. ISBN 9780957914223


  1. ^ Henry Lawson Prize for Poetry (at Sydney University)
  2. ^ The Mad Emperor by Hughes in The Sydney University annual Hermes, 1958, was described as rather like Head of a Poet by Leonard Baskin, which had appeared in the international art magazine Perspectives in 1955.
  3. ^ Coombs A Sex and Anarchy: The life and death of the Sydney Push Viking Penguin Books (Australia, 1996) pp 158–9
  4. ^,1723,schnabel-rails-against-robert-hughes,61173
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ Hughes R The curse of free love TimesOnline (UK) 2006 (Being an extract from his book Things I Didn't Know, Vintage (2006)
  7. ^ "Awards". The College Art Association. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  8. ^ It's an Honour: Officer of the Order of Australia

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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