The Artwork of Sir William Dobell
Born in Cooks Hill, New South Wales in September of 1899, Sir William Dobell was an Australian portrait and landscape artist. The youngest of seven children born to Robert Way Dobell and Margaret Emma Wrightson, his talents as an artist was evident even in his early life. Dobell was a painter best known for his portraits which used an expressive style to create vivid portrayals of character. In the post-World War II era of great conservatism in Australian art and politics, he was a witty and incisive observer of social manners and morals.
At the age of fourteen, Dobell left school to work in a draper’s shop and attend drawing classes in the latter part of the day. In 1916, he apprenticed to an architect which enabled him to pursue draftsmanship. Eight years later, Dobell moved to Sydney for a position as draftsman at Wunderlich Limited, a manufacturer of terra cotta and ironwork. In February of 1924 at the age of twenty-five, he enrolled as an art student at the now Julian Ashton Art School. Dobell was one of the first nine students to study at Ashton, where he attended classes under artist and drawing teacher Henry Gibbons and landscape painter George Lambert.
William Dobell achieved some modest success in 1929 when his painting of dancers, “After the Matinee”, won the third prize in the Australian Art Quest held at Sydney’s State Theater. In the same year, he was awarded a Society of Artists Traveling Scholarship for his painting of a seated male nude. Using this scholarship, Dobell traveled to London and enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art where he studied under painters Henry Tonks and Philip Wilson Steer, both of whom were influenced by the French Impressionists. At the Slade, Dobell won first prize in 1930 for his painting of a nude study.
After visiting Holland to see the work of Rembrandt, Dobell returned to London where he sketched its streets and shared a painting studio with John Passmore, also one of the first students to study under Gibbons at Ashton. Dobell spent almost a decade in London during the depression years of the 1930s; he supplemented his small income by working as a film extra and, in 1936 to 1937, decorating the Glasgow Fair’s Wool Pavilion with other Australian artists. Dobell’s work during these years ranged from depictions done with compassion, such as “The Charlady” and “The Street Singer” to works more satirical such as “Mrs South Kensington” and the 1936 scene of the ghostly dead figure “Dead Landlord”.
William Dobell, with war imminent and his father dying, returned to Australia in 1938. This was the year when modern art was becoming recognized in Australia; the Contemporary Art Society was formed and Australia’s first exhibitions of Modernism were sponsored by Sir Keith Murdoch, journalist and founder of the Murdoch media empire. Dobell initially taught at East Sydney Technical School, now the National Art School, before joining the war effort as a camouflage painter and later as a war artist. In addition to his war paintings, he continued to paint portraits adjusting his technique to the personality of the sitter. Works at this time include the 1940 “The Cypriot”, “The Scrapper” in 1941, and the two 1943 portraits “Billy Boy” and “Brian Penton”.
In 1943, Dobell painted a modern expressionist style portrait of his fellow war camouflager Joshua Smith. The work was a break from the realism favored at that time. After “Mr Joshua Smith” won the 1943 Archibald Prize considered to be the most prestigious portrait prize in Australia, opponents of the decision, mostly conservatives in Sydney’s art world, contested the decision in court. After curators and critics gave evidence supporting Dobell’s work, the case was thrown out. However, the two years of legal dispute and headline publicity took a toll on Dobell, a private man by nature, to such an extent that he did not paint for a year. In 1958, the portrait “Mr Joshua Smith” was nearly destroyed in a fire but, after extensive efforts, was subsequently restored.
William Dobell retreated in 1944 to the family holiday home in Wangi Wangi on the shores of Lake Macquarie where his sister Alice nursed him back to health. He began sketching again in late 1945; but he tended to shun public life and eventually submitted his resignation from the Board of Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1947. Dobell again won the Archibald Prize in 1948 for his portrait “Margaret Olley” and also received the Wynne Prize for his landscape “Storm Approaching Wangi”. Two visits to New Guinea inspired him and renewed his fascination with color as seen in his two works “Kanana” and “The Thatchers”.
In the 1950s, Dobell developed a friendship with novelist and playwright Patrick White, the future 1973 Nobel Prize winner for Literature who inspired by Dobell’s painting “The Dead Landlord” wrote the 1961 two-act play “The Ham Funeral”. Dobell also painted two important portraits in 1957: “Dame Mary Gilmore” depicting the political activist and social reformer, and “Helena Rubinstein”, a portrait of the cosmetic manufacturer and one of the wealthiest women in the world. This portrait, for which he had worked on versions for six years. won the Australian Women’s Weekly portrait prize and was reproduced in the two-million readership magazine.
In 1960 William Dobell was commissioned to produce a series of cover-portraits for Time Magazine. That same year he won his third Archibald Prize with the portrait “Dr. MacMahon”. Settled in his country home in Wangi Wangi, Dobell continued to paint inventively and lived a quiet life; everyone at the local pub knew him as simply Bill. He received in 1965 the rank of Knight of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Dobell celebrated his seventieth birthday in 1969 and, in the next year, was honored with a major exhibition for his work at the New Castle Art Gallery. In May of 1979, a month after the exhibition, William Dobell died at his Wangi Wangi estate.
A gay man with a preference for a private life, William Dobell never married and left his entire estate to the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation. The foundation, among its many activities, awards the Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial, named in his honor. Given through The National Art School, it is one of the highest value prizes for drawing in Australia. William Dobell was cremated with Anglican rites and his ashes are interred at Newcastle Memorial Park in Beresfield, New South Wales.
Notes: A biography by Judith White, entitled “William Dobell: Yours Sincerely”, discusses Dobell’s life and lists the collections housing what are considered Dobell’s most notable works. The article can be found at the Art Collector website located at: https://artcollector.net.au/william-dobell-yours-sincerely/
An interesting two-section article on the life of artist and educator Henry Gibbons and his role at the Julian Ashton Art School, written by Laurie Thomas and Peter Kreet, can be found in painter John Beeman’s Fine Art site located at: https://www.john-beeman.com/henry_gibbons.html
Second Insert Image: William Dobell, “Mr Joshua Smith”, 1943, Oil on Canvas, 122 x 81 cm, Sir William Dobell Foundation
Third Insert Image: William Dobell, “Self Portrait”, 1932, Oil on Wood Panel, 35 x 27 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Fourth Insert Image: William Dobell, “The Boy George”, circa 1928, Oil on Canvas, 71.5 x 56.5 cm, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: William Dobell, “The Cypriot”, 1940, Oil on Canvas, 123.3 x 123.3 cm, Queensland Art Gallery, Australia