William Dobell (1899 – 1970)

One of Australia’s most celebrated portrait and genre painters, William Dobell became renowned for his unique style of painting which allowed his work to vary from Impressionism and Expressionism, and thus bring a distinct character to his subjects.

Born in Cooks Hill, Newcastle, New South Wales, Dobell demonstrated artistic talent from an early age. As he was encouraged to draw by his primary school teacher John Walker, Dobell began his formal art training in 1916 as an apprentice to the Newcastle architect, Wallace L. Porter before moving to Sydney in 1924 to work as a draughtsman for an architectural metalwork and terracotta manufacturer. During his time in Sydney, Dobell enrolled in evening classes at the prestigious Julian Ashton Art School where he studied under the instruction of Henry Gibbons and George Lambert from 1924 to 1929.

Having been awarded the Society of Artists’ Travelling Scholarship in 1929, Dobell resumed his art studies in England where he attended the Slade School in London under the instruction of Wilson Steer, Henry Tonks and William Orpen. At the Slade School of Fine Art in 1930, Dobell won first prize for figure painting which prompted further travels to Poland, Belgium and Paris where he conducted independent studies and was introduced to an array of varied influences. These included the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt, the satire and simplicity of Daumier, the wit of Hogarth and the feathery brushwork of Renoir.

In 1939 Dobell returned to Australia and took up a part-time position as a teacher at the East Sydney Technical College. Having previously exhibited his work at the Royal Academy in London, Dobell gained a conservative following of Australian expatriates and migrant artists who had grown an admiration for his genre and satirical character studies. Consequently, this made way for Dobell’s established reputation within elitist art circles in which he was believed to have added a whole new dimension to the nature of Australian painting, leading him to become known as the figurehead of a new Sydney wartime movement.

This reputation was further enforced when the circumstances and pressures of the time led Dobell to be drafted into the Civil Construction Corps of the Allied Works Council in 1941. Working with two other painters, James Cook and Joshua Smith, Dobell worked as a camouflage painter then later became an unofficial war artist. This experience provided a succession of portrait subjects which gave which reflected Dobell’s talent for displaying elements of Cockney whimsicality in his work. This can be reflected in such works as The Billy Boy, The Strapper, Scotty Allan and The Cypriot which all resulting from this significant wartime period of inspiration.

In 1942, Dobell shared a loan exhibition with Margaret Preston at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and in 1943 his stylised portrait of colleague, Joshua Smith entitled Portrait of an Artist won him the Archibald Prize, soon making him an Australian household name. This led to the offers of lucrative commissions and Dobell’s first solo exhibition in 1944 at the David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney.

However, while this newfound fame greatly helped Dobell and his reputation, it also worked to physically and emotionally destroy him. In 1944 Dobell’s Archibald win was contested by two unsuccessful artists who filed a lawsuit against him and the Gallery’s board of Trustees in the Supreme Court of New South Wales. The main witness, J.S MacDonald argued that Dobell’s painting of Joshua Smith did not comply with the Archibald guidelines as it was not a balanced likeness of an actual person, but a caricature. Although the award was upheld and Dobell was appointed Trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW for a four-year term, the ordeal left Dobell physically and emotionally scarred.

Humiliated by the publicity of the courtcase and the abusive letters from total strangers, Dobell suffered a severe attack of Dermatitis followed by a nervous breakdown. This greatly affected his work and he became a recluse, refusing to leave the house, think and paint. This prompted his move to his sister’s Lake Macquarie home in 1945 where he took up landscape painting.

In 1949, Dobell was awarded his second Archibald Prize after entering his portrait of fellow Australian artist, Margaret Olley. He went onto win the prize a third time in 1960 again for a portrait of his surgeon, Dr. E.G Macmahon, and also adding a Wynne landscape to his collection of awards for his work, Storm approaching Wangi.

Later in 1949, William Dobell visited New Guinea for three months as a guest of Sir Edward Hallstrom and accompanied by the writers Frank Clame and Colin Simpson. Hallstrom had a chartered plane which flew his guests to his experimental sheep station in the central highlands. This trip acted as a highlight in his career, serving to inspire a newfound love for serious sketching. This prompted a series of major portraits and miniature landscapes in the late 50s and early 60s and Dobell’s return to New Guinea in 1950 where he worked on New Guinean subjects almost exclusively until 1954.

In 1957, Dobell completed a portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore and painted the first of eight portraits of the cosmetician Helena Rubinstein. As these works were recognized as among his highest achievements, Dobell was bombarded with many offers of commissions. Between 1960 and 1963, he was commissioned by Time magazine to paint the first of four portraits for cover illustrations. These included those of Prime Minister Menzies, the President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, the chairman of General Motors Corporation, Frederick G. Donner and the Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman.

A major retrospective of Dobell’s work was exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1964 and the first monograph of his work was written by James Gleeson. In 1965, Dobell was awarded an Order of the British Empire, followed by his knighthood in 1966. William Dobell died in 1970 at his sister’s Lake Macquarie property, Wangi Wangi and in the following year The Sir William Dobell Art Foundation was formed and made the sole beneficiary of the artists’ estate.

Today the work of William Dobell is represented by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra and all Australian State Galleries and many Australian Regional Galleries. His work can also be purchased at Art Auction Houses and via Investment Art Dealers. For current commercial art galleries that represent his work and any upcoming exhibitions see: William Dobell Exhibitions.

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