1919 – 1977
(1919-1977), sculptor, was born on 8 November 1919 at Old Beach, Hobart, fifth child of Robert Lawrence Richmond, a farmer from England, and his Tasmanian-born wife Catherine Augusta, née Gage. In 1929 the family moved to New Town. Oliffe attended (1929-36) The Friends’ School where he excelled at athletics, cricket, rowing and football, and won a prize for pencil sketching. A female friend recalled that, with his dark hair, olive skin and brown eyes, he was ‘much sought after’. After studying (1937-39) art and applied art at Hobart Technical College, and gaining a diploma in 1940, he worked for Amos Vimpany, Hobart’s most prominent stonemason, in whose workshop he learned much about materials, tools and methods of carving. He was also influenced by the ‘modernistic’ ideas of the New Zealand-born sculptor Alison Duff.
Richmond had learned to fly small aircraft while he was a student. On the outbreak of World War II he volunteered for the Royal Australian Air Force, but was rejected because of a slight defect in his vision. Mobilized in the Militia on 19 August 1940, he rose to staff sergeant in the Intelligence Corps, Hobart, before serving (September to November 1944) in New Guinea with the Royal Australian Engineers. The environment excited his sensibilities with its exotic flora and fauna, and different human physiological ‘types’. He drew scenes of army life, but his was, fundamentally, a sculptor’s perception. Even in his fully resolved chalk or pencil portrait studies of soldiers, he was concerned with the head as a solid form rather than a face as a window to a soul. The native artefacts he collected would continue to influence his work.
Back in Australia, Richmond performed engineering staff duties until he was discharged from the army on 6 March 1946. That year he enrolled at the East Sydney Technical College to study sculpture under Lyndon Dadswell. In 1948 he won a New South Wales government travelling scholarship. He was formally attached to the Royal College of Art, London, but soon set off for the major art centres in Europe. Returning to England, he worked as Henry Moore’s assistant until 1951 when he succeeded him as a teacher in sculpture at the Chelsea School of Art. Although he occasionally helped Moore to work on major pieces, he began to build his own career as a sculptor. At the register office, Chelsea, on 22 July 1952 he married Waehlin Fong.
From 1954 Richmond’s sculptures were included in major group exhibitions in London and other British cities, and in Paris, Oslo, Zurich, Switzerland, Sydney, Melbourne, and Phoenix, Arizona, United States of America. When his first solo showing was held, at the Molton Gallery, London, the critic Edward Lucie-Smith commented: ‘it is not very often that an artist springs on us more or less fully fledged’. Other solo exhibitions followed, in Belfast (1964), New York (1964), London (1965), Canberra and Melbourne (1967), and Sydney (1968). The highly textured figurative bronzes of his first exhibition—suggesting intense human energy and inner tension, and described by Dadswell as ‘heroic and monumental‘—gave way towards the end of the decade to a series of aluminium assemblages made up of machined and extruded industrial components which embodied none of the organic character that had stamped his work to that point. In the new, hard-edged, planar pieces there was no evidence of the artist’s hand; instead, this new sculpture paid homage to the machine.
About 1970, at the time of his aluminium constructions, Richmond produced two quite different bodies of work. One comprised intimate little forms carved out of the toughest woods, such as ebony; the other consisted of a series of bronze abstract pieces, cast by means of the lost-wax process from forms manipulated from wax sheets. Despite their small size, these exquisite pieces possessed intimations of much larger scale. A sense of the monumental had long been a characteristic of Richmond’s work. It found dramatic expression in his final series, a collection of massive assemblages in wood, first exhibited at the Commonwealth Art Gallery, London, in early 1976. Dadswell was left with a lasting impression of ‘a room filled with towering forms’ and felt as if he were ‘a man amongst the monsters of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds’.
Richmond placed artistic integrity above popular and material success. Laconic and self-effacing, he was rock-solid in maintaining his aesthetic values. He meditated for long periods among the megaliths of Stonehenge and was sustained by the sense of being part of a great and ancient tradition. Survived by his wife, he died of myocardial infarction on 26 February 1977 in his home at Kensington and was cremated. His work is held by major galleries in Britain, the Netherlands and Australia.
G. Sturgeon, The Development of Australian Sculpture 1788-1975 (Lond, 1978); K. Scarlett, Australian Sculptors (Melb, 1979); C. Hogben, Oliffe Richmond, exhibition catalogue (Syd, 1980); C. E. Johannes, Oliffe Richmond Drawings, exhibition catalogue (Hob, 1989); G. Legge, Oliffe Richmond 1919-77, exhibition catalogue (Syd, 1993); Art and Australia, 3, no 1, June 1965, 15, no 2, Dec 1977. More on the resources
Author: Lindsay Broughton
Print Publication Details: Lindsay Broughton, ‘Richmond, Robert Oliffe Gage (1919 – 1977)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, Melbourne University Press, 2002, pp 86-87.