Mid 20th century illustrator and artist. In 1922 Curtis travelled to the USA with his great friend, the pioneer filmmaker, Charles Chauvel. There he developed what was to become a lifelong interest in industrial modernism and on returning to Sydney in 1928 he set about documenting the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Mural designs for corporate clients and department stores are also known.
painter, illustrator and cartoonist, was born in Croydon, England, on 4 October 1898, educated in Chile (1909-12) and as a boarder at Farnham Grammar School, England (1912-14). His family came to Australia in 1914 and he worked on their farm in Queensland until 1919. Then he moved to Brisbane where his first job was as an illustrator with a Brisbane department store. He also drew newspaper cartoons in Brisbane. His ink cartoon signed “Cabby”, Blind Man’s Buff (Brisbane Town Hall Art Collection), done for the Brisbane Mail in 1921, shows a man wearing a blindfold labelled 'unemployment’ and 4 tiny old men in spats running away labelled 'Repat’ (with promises), 'Town’, 'Country’ and 'Govt’.
In 1922 Curtis sailed to the USA – his cabin-mate was his great friend, the pioneer filmmaker, Charles Chauvel. There he studied at the Art Institutes of San Francisco and Chicago and undertook industrial commissions as a freelance commercial artist. He married Ruth Baldwin, whom he met in Hollywood and their daughter, Robin, was born in Chicago. While in Chicago, Curtis worked as an architectural draftsman for the town planner of San Francisco Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912), after the great fire of 1871 led to intense skyscraper rebuilding in the ’80s and ’90s – presumably after the 1906 earthquake.
The family returned to Sydney in 1928 and Curtis set himself the task of recording the erection of the Harbour Bridge, inspired by the 'wonder of work’ and the words of Burnham: 'Make Big Plans: for little plans have no magic to stir men’s blood and in themselves may never be realised’. His Building the Bridge: Fourteen Lithographs Celebrating the Construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge with foreword by Dr J.J.C. Bradfield (1931/33? reprinted as The Bridge , Currawong Press, 1981) is said to have led to many commissions from heavy industry.
Curtis’s lithographs distil key 'remembrances’ in the Bridge’s construction. Curtis’s admiration for civil engineering had developed while living and working in America and his contact with the writings of Joseph Pennell motivated a lifelong interest in industrial modernism. As soon as he saw the Bridge on his return in 1928, Curtis had visited Bradfield to show him his portfolio and Bradfield introduced him to Dorman Long staff and they let him 'go all over the Bridge’, so long as he kept out of the 'bloody way’. He went whenever he could afford to, which was 'once every several weeks’ and while on the Bridge he sketched quickly in crayon and later drew exactingly in pencil for lithography. On the day of the opening, 19 March 1932, The Daily Telegraph featured a drawing and announced the publication of Building the Bridge , by Simmons Limited. He sketched the dizzy heights and, to visualise the Opening Celebrations, he hired Charles Kingsford-Smith to fly him around the harbour. As he sketched, Curtis said he often 'felt the curious eyes of the inhabitants of North Sydney’s Lanes’ upon him (The Bridge, 1981).
His first lithograph showed the work team joining the arches. He made another print of them completing the Bridge deck. But the Depression had decimated his freelance work and he took his family to Queensland, where they picked fruit. Curtis returned to Sydney when a friend promised access to some lithographic equipment. He and the supportive printer published this book and they sold a few copies. Bradfield said 'in these drawings are expressed the strength, the labour, the romance of a great undertaking’. Soon after, BHP commissioned Curtis to document the Newcastle steel works for its golden anniversary. He published four more books after 1933, including A Vision Takes Form , which records the building of the Sydney Opera House.
Curtis’s drawings are now held in public institutions throughout Australia, eg The Coal Miner n.d. [1930s?], charcoal heightened with white, ML (Pic. Acc.5494). He painted murals and did industrial illustration in 1932-38, including the series Australia at Work , which was syndicated in Australian newspapers. In 1933 he was commissioned to supply drawings of the Newcastle steel works for the BHP Review Jubilee number; he also visited Broken Hill that year, where his first exhibition was held, followed by Kalgoorlie and Perth. Wollongong CAG has 18 pencil drawings, including eight commissioned by BHP illustrating the Hot Strip Mill at Port Kembla, four pastel and wax crayon drawings and one watercolour, mainly of Port Kembla industrial subjects. 'Mr Mac’ (private collection), a far more comical pencil drawing of MacRobertson’s Chocolate Factory at Melbourne in 1939 (with frog workers), was included in the 1999 S.H. Ervin exhibition, Artists and Cartoonists in Black and White (cat.34).
During WWII Curtis recorded working life in the Commonwealth Munition factories (1939-41), worked as Camouflage Officer in Australia and with the RAAF in New Guinea (1941-43), until he was finally appointed an official war artist to record the nation’s industrial war-time production (1943-45). More than 200 works are in the Australian War Memorial (AWM) collection. After the war, he and Ruth travelled throughout Australia and he submitted regular work to Walkabout . His poster, “Follow the Sun by Clipper to Canberra, Australia’s National Capital” c.1940s (NLA) was published by Australian National Publicity Association (ANPA). He recorded the first expedition to Northern Australia for the Australian Geographical Society, and he continued to paint murals of Australian life and industry. During the 1950s he did drawings of workers and manufacturing at the Victa lawnmowing factory (Powerhouse Museum). In 1959-64 he illustrated the construction of the Gladesville Bridge for the NSW Department of Main Roads, and from 1959 to 1969 he worked for the Sydney Opera House Trust compiling a detailed visual record of the erection of the Opera House. A Vision Takes Form: Sydney Opera House (Sydney, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1967, with foreword by Prof. H. Ingham Ashworth – one of the judges and professor of Architecture at Sydney University) consists of a selection of reproductions of his paintings and drawings now held in the building itself. Ruth died before this work was completed. In 1969-70 he travelled to New Zealand, Central America, USA, Europe and Asia with his second wife, Ellice Macoun.
Curtis held solo exhibitions at Von Bertouch Galleries, Newcastle (1986 and 1988) and at Richard King’s Print Room in Sydney, as well as at regional and interstate galleries, including Broken Hill Art Gallery and a survey exhibition at Eastend Gallery, Broken Hill in 1989. Lloyd Rees, Frank and Margel Hinder, Joshua Smith and Max Dupain were among his close friends. Robert Curtis died on 23 March 1996, aged 97, survived by Ellice and his daughter, Robin Moore.