My friend for more than thirty years, Robert Foster, world-renowned silversmith, inventor, magician with time and honorary brother died today.
Rob was one of the finest people I have ever known. The strongest and kindest of men, he was a jackhammer made of feathers.
We met in the early 1980s when he was a silverware student at the School of Art in Canberra and I was at the Australian National University. Both institutions shared a campus and it was in that ghost-gummed 100 acre Venn diagram in the Shadow of Black Mountain that we first bumped into each other and became friends.
After a year living at Toad Hall, the coolest on-campus residential block, Rob somehow managed to wangle a prime Edwardian bungalow on the border of campus, a base in which he could pursue his carnival of interests. He could try his superhuman hands at anything: “Where’d you get those fantastic shoes, Rob?” “I made them, Hame.” “Rob, where did you get that amazing sculpted metal rucksack that looks like a giant gum nut?” “I made it Hame.” “Rob, …..” “I made it Hame.”
Rob’s back garden was a storage yard for his industrial collecting. A running joke (though it really was no joke) was that if there wasn’t a TV in the house, Rob could pop out into the back yard and somehow make one from scratch from whatever he could find. Rob deftly charmed the anguish out of his elderly neighbours, and in their earned tolerance was able to host the best and most raucous of parties, with bands, in his huge living room.
Rob was Hollywood handsome back then, with strawberry blonde hair. His interest in metal was a pretty good metaphor for his magnetism. Women and a fair share of men were caught in his tug. Walk along a street with him and people would curve towards him. He would wreak devastation on the prospects of any young man within 250 yards on a night out. The times I’d scrub up, accompany Rob to something or other and then retire hurt were countless. In later years, when he lost the best of his hair, he shaved his head and turned to cultivation of his eyebrows. Eventually they looked like wings for his eyes.
Rob’s inventiveness was legendary and Leonardoesque. A few years ago, on one of my visits to Canberra, we got talking about the sun, energy, blahdiblah. Rob mentioned after a while that he had just finished making some beautiful highly polished dishes that he’d purposefully shaped to magnify the sun’s rays to a point a few feet above their surface. He’d had a go at collecting the heat at that point and tried turning it into power but the trouble was that everything he put at the spot melted in a fragment of a second. When I asked what the heat was at the focal point, he muttered something about 4,000 degrees centigrade, examining a mark on the back of his fingers as he spoke.
In his house (by which I mean in the extension to his house that he’d designed and built himself), Rob built his own little fish tank. In itself this is unremarkable, though as our mutual friend Ian said to me this morning, “most people don’t successfully build the bloody Barrier Reef in their living room.” Under the house, supporting the 18ft long tank in his living room, was a sustaining lab that would delight Walter White for its precision and complexity. For a time, Rob would drive the 90 miles to the coast and back with real Pacific Ocean water to replenish it.
I moved to London from Canberra in the mid eighties, but Rob and I stayed in regular touch. He’d travel over, visiting silversmiths at Alessi in Italy, then buying a second hand Vespa and driving it across Europe with unfeasible amounts of luggage on the back. We lived together in Tottenham for a short while and traveled together a bit. Every place we’d visit, he’d go quiet as he sized up the potential. Roman Baths – you’d see his mind whirring about whether he could build some. Stonehenge. Bletchley. Duxford. Anything even mildly industrial worked out and filed away. If Rob had lived here in the industrial revolution, he would have delivered his equivalent of the canal system or a steam locomotive.
When Rob described one of the many projects he’d been involved with, it was always with his classic understatement. I remember being taken to see an installation of his that he’d played down and then discovering that it was about 200 square metres of Perspex shaped flames that changed colour to the rhythms of the passing traffic. Rob’s artistic fingerprints are all over the world.
His workshop in Queanbeyan from which he made the homeware for his company Fink and Co that he ran with his partner Gretel was full of hulking old equipment like the object in Ernst’s The Elephant Celebes.
He made lots of pieces from aluminium, blowing things up to force shapes in tubes in a mold. No danger too great. His hands were a palimpsest of industrial accidents and digital near misses. That jug in his hand in the picture below is now a design classic.
Rob’s incredible silverwork graces leading collections worldwide. MOMA, the V&A, the Australian National Gallery. He really was an artistic polymath, always stretching his thinking and trying things out when faced with a problem or a notion in his life. His recent collection of lights are one such dazzling achievement.
Through a tangled coincidence, Rob met and became the lifelong, loving partner to Gretel, daughter of my dad’s partner Heli, so we sort of became related. It was Rob’s way to untangle the world and turn all complex things into garlands.
For a time Rob and I got into a rhythm of seeing each other either in England or Australia every few years. We were no correspondents, so the moment of meeting was usually a clean slate. Mostly when this happens for me (a lot of my closest friends live in Australia) there is an explosion of furious chatter as we catch up. With Rob, we’d say hello and then there was always a pause as I adjusted to Rob time or he started looking at something in earnest, trying to figure it out. Sometimes we’d just stand for a bit on his porch while his dog rotated:
There was no anxiety in the silence – just a sense that time is time enough and that we need not hurry. Talk would turn to the smallest of everyday detail and then in time we’d move on to the bigger stuff.
He had the most remarkable, calming poise and huge reservoirs of emotional intelligence.
Rob was a brilliant dad to his lovely girls. Here they are on a picnic the last time I was in Canberra:
He was also an enormous support to my dad and Heli, especially after dad contracted motor neurone disease, helping endlessly, building contraptions, ferrying and much, much more.
This morning a mutual friend, Ruth, wrote to me about some clogs that Rob had made for her more than 30 years ago. She’d come across them recently: “They are held together by tiny handmade tacks, the leather molded expertly and lovingly by hand, wooden soles shaped to perfection. Only one of the multitude of beautiful objects that he has contributed to his world.”
Finally, I’ve had this nagging feeling all week that I haven’t been able to shake. I have a crystal clear memory of feeling shockingly grateful for something that Rob did for me once. I can remember this sense of amazement that someone would take the time to do something so generous and careful. And here’s the thing: I have no idea what it was. That, I think, is the part of Rob that defined for me his essential quality as a friend. He somehow managed to be who he was and illuminate the lives of those who knew him in a way that was the embodiment of generosity and selflessness.
A kinder, better and more glowing friend you couldn’t hope for. My friend Robert Foster, a jackhammer made of feathers, 1962-2016. RIP.