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Wilson, Dora Lynnell (1883–1946)

by Mary Alice Lee

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Dora Lynnell Wilson (1883-1946), artist, was born on 31 August 1883 at Newcastle upon Tyne, England, daughter of James Wilson, agent, and his wife Annie Maria, née Green. The family migrated to Victoria next year. Dora was educated at Somerset School and Methodist Ladies' College, Melbourne. Known as 'Wiltz' to her colleagues, she studied at the National Gallery schools in 1901-06 under Bernard Hall and Frederick McCubbin. She was impressed by the Anders Zorn etchings in the gallery collection and, together with Jessie Traill and Janie Wilkinson Whyte, took lessons from John Mather. Their etchings were reproduced in the Lone Hand (1907) and constituted some of the earliest efforts in the medium by women. In 1907 she contributed to the Australian Exhibition of Women's Work in Melbourne. Like her colleague Janet Cumbrae Stewart with whom she was compared, Wilson excelled in pastels. From 1910 her studio, 'a picturesque and ancient rookery' at Temple Court, Collins Street West, was the meeting place of the 'Waddy', a group of ex-students who in 1913-14 exhibited as 'The Twelve Melbourne Painters'.

Wilson's reputation grew steadily. Her etchings, pastels and oils of still life, nudes and portraits (especially of children) were noted for their fine draughtsmanship. Although they were sometimes criticized for using tired themes or for being overly 'sweet' and 'coy', they sold well. In 1923 she contributed to the Exhibition of Australian Art at Burlington House, London. Woman's World reproduced on its cover her painting, 'Reve d'Or', which had been accepted at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français, Paris, and the magazine described Dora's sense of humour, 'quaint personality' and 'shy, self-deprecating manner'.

In the mid-1920s she began to concentrate on the street scenes for which she is best remembered. She invested them with particular atmospheric effects, such as dappled light filtered through trees. Opening her exhibition 'The Lure of Melbourne' at the Fine Art Society Gallery in May 1931, Sir William Brunton commented on the novel sight of 'a woman in a motor car with an easel in front of her … painting the life of the busy city'.

Following a commission from Sir Baldwin Spencer to paint European landmarks, in 1927 Wilson had gone abroad for two and a half years; she toured the Continent and Britain with photographer Peg Clarke, sometimes travelling on foot and often sleeping in barns. In 1928 Wilson exhibited at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, and next year at Australia House. Her style, dependent on a bright palette and on simple, broad impasto brushwork, was praised by Arthur Streeton in 1931 for its freshness and freedom from 'the depressing appearance of black paint'. Her art, while not embracing modernism, did show the influence of its basic tenets, as the critic Basil Burdett and the artist Blamire Young appreciated. In the 1930s Dora painted a series of Australian historical pictures, concentrating on the Victorian era, which were shown in Melbourne in 1935.

During World War II Wilson worked with the Women Painters' Service Group. She died of cancer on 21 November 1946 in East Melbourne and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. Her estate was sworn for probate at £7400. She is represented in most State galleries and the Castlemaine and Bendigo galleries, Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • Home (Sydney), 1 June 1921, p 14
  • Woman's World, 1 Sept 1923, p 501
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Mar 1930, 7 May 1931
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 May, 20 June 1931.

Citation details

Mary Alice Lee, 'Wilson, Dora Lynnell (1883–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-dora-lynnell-9134/text16113, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 July 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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