Elliott, Robert Matthew Johnson (1863–1910), painter and critic, was born in England. He went to sea, aged fourteen, and worked his way up from cabin boy to master's certificate. Largely self-educated, he is reputed to have slept only four hours out of twenty-four, in order to pursue his study of art, literature and languages, while still finding time to write poetry. He quit seafaring in 1888, aged twenty-five, and took courses in etching and painting in London. However, London was not to his taste and he settled in Dublin about 1891.
Poetry he had written while at sea appeared in Arthur Griffith's (qv) newspaper Sinn Féin under his middle names Matthew Johnson and was later collected into a volume, Matthew Johnson, poet 1888–98, published by Maunsel (1909). One critic found it ‘sentimentally didactic’; in the introduction, which he had written himself as Robert Elliott, he had strenuously defended its sentimentalism as a positive feature. His maritime adventures were the subject of two novels, Hi you! (1906) and Act of God (1907), based on his experiences on an emigrant ship.
He became a staunch supporter of the arts and crafts movement in Ireland, and is perhaps best known for his book Art and Ireland (1906), composed of articles previously published in papers such as the Freeman's Journal and the Leader, and later in the Irish Builder and Engineer and the Irish Rosary. In these articles he had severely criticised the poor standard of art, design and craftsmanship in Irish catholic churches. Edward Martyn (qv), dramatist and art critic, who wrote the preface to the book, shared Elliott's view that in modern life the tradesman had supplanted the artist, and that catholic church art and design had to be saved from commercial manufactured goods substituted for art. The Irish Builder reviewed the book and praised him for his sharp and incisive criticism, but took him to task for his failure to recognise the difficulties under which most church art had been carried out in Ireland during penal times. Indeed, most catholic churches were usually large in scale, and the sum allocated to artists and craftsmen was a mere pittance, so dependence on commercial enterprise was necessary. Despite his criticism, he was quick to give credit where it was due, and both he and Martyn championed the work of the architect and artist William A. Scott (qv). Scott designed a number of buildings in the Hiberno-Romanesque style, including the O'Growney memorial tomb (1905) at Maynooth, Co. Kildare, and St Enda's church in Spiddal, Co. Galway (1903–7). Elliott and Scott went to Ravenna and Constantinople to make a study of Byzantine basilicas (1906) and later Scott designed St Patrick's basilica, Lough Derg (1919), in an octagonal form derived from San Vitale, Ravenna. He gave it a distinctive Irish feel by adding circular turrets and Celtic interlaced details. It was built after his death (1926–31).
While critical of most stained glass in Irish churches, Elliott admired the work of Sarah Purser (qv) and those in her studio, such as Michael Healy (qv). The sculptor John Hughes (qv) also came in for praise for his altar relief in Loughrea cathedral, as did Michael Shortall, who designed the font for the capitals on the nave. Indeed, Elliott praised all good art, made from native materials, that was suited to its situation, and Loughrea cathedral was certainly an important monument to the arts and crafts movement. He was a controversial figure whose views sometimes irritated people, but he was fearless, and despised those who lauded everything Irish just because it was Irish. Those who knew him well found him gentle and charming. He showed work in four RHA exhibitions including ‘A Ringsend boathouse’ (1900); ‘Man of war’, an etching after the watercolour by Herbert (1901); ‘The Liffey’ (1902); and some views from around Co. Dublin (1909). He entered one work, ‘Warship off Dover’ (1910), with the Irish Watercolour Society. Elliott died 24 March 1910 in Dublin, aged forty-seven. A further work, The immortal charlatan (1910) was published posthumously by Methuen, the subject classed as ‘low life and high art’ (IBL, 71).