In her letter to my mother regarding the family pedigree Kay said of William Robbie.
“He was a wonderful artist with paintings in the Adelaide Art Gallery. He toured Australia with the first Moving Picture Panorama, carving every figure and hand painting the scenes. The figures moved and it was lit by a mill lamp.”
My grandmother continued, “He toured Australia for two years and coined money – then sold the lot for $1,500. His great failing was drink. He would stay sober for months and then go on a spree. He was a terrible man in drink. He would sit at the fireside and light his pipe with five pound notes just to upset his wife.”
He disappeared off to the Western Australian goldfields and according to my grandmother died of typhoid.
But what of the Australian Panorama? On the 2nd April 1890, “The Border Watch” of Mount Gambier reported:
Mr William Robbie, assisted by his son Mr J C Robbie, has just completed a series of 22 panoramic views of Australian scenes… four Mt Gambier views, four of Broken Hill mines, and one each of Adelaide, Port Darwin, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Hobart, the Frenchman’s Pass, the Wreck of the Admella, Black Thursday etc. They are each 14ft by 7 1/2 feet. Arrangements are being made for their exhibition throughout the colonies. Judging from a preliminary view we are able to say that the Panorama will be well worth a visit. It is quite equal to anything we have seen in the colonies.
It goes on to say:
Mr Robbie mentioned that the Panorama, as it stood, had been sold to an Adelaide gentleman for one thousand, two hundred and fifty pounds and when it was completed the purchase money would amount to about two thousand pounds. The Panorama was exhibited again on Monday evening to a large house. On each evening several oil paintings were given away as presents.
I wondered about my grandmother’s description of it as a “Moving Picture Panorama” and found further information in the Border Watch, 9 Apr 1890.
The views were well lighted and the machinery for their display worked satisfactorily…As each view was presented, Mr H Barlow as lecturer gave a few interesting facts connected with it, which enhanced the interest in the view. When Mr Robbie and his son Mr JC Robbie appeared on the platform… they were loudly cheered.
In 1891 things were going well for William. In the South Eastern Star of 24 Nov 1891 a correspondent writes:
Mr Robbie of your town has several contracts for painting here and has now a staff of men employed carrying out the work. Work is pretty brisk here just now in the building trade and all hands are fully employed.
My grandmother’s reference to William’s great failing – drink, is hinted at in a report in 1882 that he was charged for using indecent language. It seems his son George went into William’s house but was ordered out. He came back with a police constable to stop a disturbance in the house. The policeman heard William using abusive language to various members of the family. The two daughters went out the front door. William testified that he was perfectly sober and the judge dismissed the case. It certainly sounds like the Robbie household was not a happy one.
Alas, this was the beginning of the end, as William had creditors knocking at the door and the much publicised sale of the Panorama did not eventuate. The Panorama was used as security for the payment of his creditors in full. In 1896 he left his family and went to Western Australia looking for gold. He died in the Perth suburb of Guildford of asthma and chronic alcoholism.
Very little of William’s work remains and he is not listed as one of Australia’s great artists, but there is no doubt he was industrious and tried very hard to make a living using his various skills. On reflection it would seem he had grand ideas and over-extended himself too many times to make a comfortable living. Had he stayed in Mt Gambier he may have lived much longer than his 62 years as he was respected by the community and was even nominated for Mayor in 1889!
Searching on Trove I found this reproduction of a Robbie painting which was painted from a photograph.
Oil painting of a butcher’s shop in Mount Gambier, with the inscription ‘W. Robbie / Mt. G. S.A. / 1887 (No. 2)’ in the bottom right hand corner. From the back of a photographic copy we get the following information: ‘Schinckel and Milton’s butcher’s shop. Said to have been the first butcher’s shop in Mount Gambier. Reproduced in 1926 from a painting in the possession of Mr. J.C. Meldrum, Commercial Street, Mount Gambier. The painting was executed in 1887 from a photograph taken in the eighteen sixties’.