Dr Louis Smith & the arts

To one side of the entrance to the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton stands a bronze bust of a man with a moustache. It is on a granite pedestal plinth with the following words engraved:

The honorable Dr LL Smith FRCS

Erected by public subscription 26th March 1914

Chairman Exhibition Trustees 1884-1909

A trustee from 1881

Dr Louis Lawrence Smith (1830-1910) was a celebrity doctor, anatomy museum director and politician in colonial Melbourne. A witty, self-promoter, and as unscrupulous and corrupt as the best Australian politicians. He also had some odd connections to the visual arts.

Being a celebrity doctor, only the best will do with the bust by Australia’s first international superstar artist, Bertram Mackennal. It is not a significant work in Mackennal’s career, a small commission compared to others that he had from Melbourne’s doctors (you must see the grave commissioned by Dr Springthorpe at Boroondara General Cemetery in Kew).

Dr Smith arrived in Melbourne in 1852 at the start of the gold rush as a ship’s surgeon. His father was a theatrical entrepreneur in London, and from him, Smith learned how to gain attention by spending enormous amounts on advertising. Smith specialised in venereal disease at a time when there were no effective cures. Besides a medical practice, he ran an anatomy museum, a nineteenth-century cover for sex education, alongside his clinic in Bourke Street, until 1869 when it was ordered closed because it offended ‘taste’.

Dr Smith supported the early release of the bushranger turned sculptor William Stanford. He examined Stanford in Pentridge Prison and diagnosed that Stanford had contracted a lung disease from the fine granite dust that he had inhaled carving basalt. Dr Smith’s prognosis was that Stanford could not be expected to live long. Smith diagnosis was incorrect; Stanford did live for many more years, working as a stonemason and did not die of any lung disease.

A petition for Stanford’s release in 1869 failed. Stanford completed his fountain in 1870. In the 1871 Victorian elections, Smith won the seat of Richmond as the ‘people’s candidate’ and called for ‘an unconditional pardon’ for Stanford. Stanford was ‘discharged to freedom by remission’ in October 1871. Smith provided him with an interest-free loan of £900 (about $140,000 today) to buy a house on Madeline Street in Prahran and establish a monumental masons business on Dandenong Road in the then working-class suburb of Windsor. If all parliamentarians lent released prisoners as much money, recidivism would be far lower.

Stanford’s Fountain in Melbourne

Later Dr Smith gave a gift to the Royal Exhibition Building of a ‘Rembrandt painting’ The wayfarer. Smith claimed it had been given to him by the Duke of York in 1901. The painting was subsequently stolen during a burglary at the Exhibition Building in Melbourne on the 29 April 1932. The canvas was cut from its frame, making me doubt its authenticity, as most Rembrandts are painted on wood. And before we mourn the loss of a masterpiece from the golden age of Dutch painting, remember that there were thousands of more paintings attributed to ‘Rembrandt’ in 1932 than there are now. Even supposing the original attribution was even close to being accurate, the painting would be attributed to one of Rembrandt’s students or followers. The inaccurate attribution may itself have been a reason to steal it, saving the owners from the future embarrassment of owning a fake.

Everything I learn about Dr Smith raises more questions.

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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