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Sir William Dobell (1899–1970)

by Mary Eagle

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William Dobell, by Monte Luke, 1940s

William Dobell, by Monte Luke, 1940s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12148811

Sir William Dobell (1899-1970), painter, was born on 24 September 1899, at Newcastle, New South Wales, sixth surviving and youngest child of native-born parents Robert Dobell, bricklayer, and his wife Margaret Emma, née Wrightson. Educated at Cooks Hill Commercial Public School, where his teacher John Walker encouraged him to draw, in 1916 Bill became a draughtsman for the local architect, Wallace Lintott Porter. After Porter fell ill in 1923, Dobell found temporary employment for eight weeks at Narrandera before moving to Sydney to work for Wunderlich Ltd, manufacturers of building materials. In 1924 he enrolled at Julian Ashton's Sydney Art School, increasing his attendance at classes from three nights a week to include Saturday afternoons and then Sundays; he worked hard, as he later said, to impress his teacher Henry Gibbons.

Through the school Dobell met students who were to be his friends in London in the 1930s. Having been awarded third place in 1927, he won the Society of Artists' travelling scholarship in April 1929—£250 a year for two years; the committee for the Artists' Ball and Wunderlich Ltd each donated a further £50 a year. His scholarship pictures (illustrated in Undergrowth, March-April 1929) showed the influence of Gibbons and George Lambert. In May he shared third prize of one hundred guineas in the State Theatre's 'Australian Art Quest' (Mary Edwards received second prize).

Dobell sailed for London and on 7 October 1929 enrolled for the winter term at the Slade School of Fine Art. His elderly teachers Henry Tonks (drawing) and Philip Wilson Steer (painting) were on the verge of retirement. On Lambert's advice, he took private lessons from Sir William Orpen, to whom he had been given an introduction by Sir Granville Ryrie, the Australian high commissioner and a friend of Lambert. In England, Dobell was influenced by Augustus John, another of Lambert's friends, whose style was pervasive at the Slade. In 1930 Dobell won the school's first prize for figure painting with his 'Nude study' (Newcastle Region Art Gallery) and shared the second prize for drawing.

From late 1930, when he left the Slade, Dobell lived in a series of boarding houses at Bayswater and Pimlico. From 1933 he was back at Bayswater, at 34 Alexander Street, where he was present at the laying-out of his dead landlord in 1936. He indulged his occasional delight 'in the macabre and vulgar' by painting his landlady Mrs Kernan brushing her hair by the bedside of her late husband in 'The Dead Landlord' (private collection). Late that year Dobell lived in basement 'digs' off Edgeware Road before shifting in February 1937 to an attic flat at 31 Gloucester Street, Pimlico, where he remained until he left for Australia.

His closest contacts were with Australian artists and the association was for mutual benefit: stylistically, through comparisons and discussions; thematically, through modelling for each other and going on sketching trips together; financially, through sharing lodgings and finding each other commercial-art work. In 1929 Dobell had mixed with Sydney students Edgar Ritchard, 'Rah' Fizelle and Fred Coventry, and with Godfrey Miller. For a time in 1932 he looked after Coventry's Bayswater studio-flat in Westbourne Grove, whence he began a practice of drawing and painting quick studies of life in the street below. Other Australian friends in London included John Passmore, Arthur Murch, Jack and Nancy Kilgour, Vera Blackburn, Jean Appleton, Wallace Thornton, Arthur Freeman and Jack Carington Smith. Among non-Australian friends were the Bertwistle sisters, Delia and Florence (whom Dobell had met in the ship from Australia), Neville Bunning (a Canadian), James and Ruth Cook (from New Zealand), and Dorothy and Edie Longdons whom he visited regularly at Clendon, Surrey.

Dobell made a serious study of such painters as Rembrandt, Renoir, Goya, Turner, Constable, Van Gogh, Soutine, Tintoretto and Ingres, whose work he saw in museums in London and during his trips on the Continent. He transformed their influences 'into a highly personal vision of humanity'. His colleagues saw a resemblance between his small oil sketches, dashed off in a 'personal style', and the work of Daumier. Dobell visited The Hague in the summer of 1930; in the summer of 1931 he went to Belgium, stayed at Bruges for a month and returned via Paris to London. In 1933 'Boy at the Basin' (Art Gallery of New South Wales) was one of two works by Dobell exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and favourably reviewed. He submitted small paintings of a street singer and a chambermaid at a window to the London Group exhibition in November 1938.

After mid-1931 Dobell no longer had the support of his scholarship. To maintain himself, he produced posters and advertisements, illustrations for magazines like the Passing Show and Night and Day (he was slightly influenced by the style of Feliks Topoloski, an illustrator for the latter journal), and even made illustrations for Sunday School cards. In 1934 he had a glamorous portrait photograph taken of himself for filmwork and was an extra in Chu Chin Chow and The Man Who Knew Too Much. From mid-1936 until September 1938 Donald Friend was based in London; he and Dobell were both homosexual and otherwise had similar tastes; they became close friends, lived near each other at Pimlico, visited restaurants and pubs together, listened to 'Negro' jazz and boogie-woogie, visited museums and art exhibitions, among them the International Surrealist Exhibition (1936), and shopped in the Caledonian Road market—one vendor became the subject of Dobell's 'The Red Lady' (1938, National Gallery of Australia). The shy and strait-laced Eric Wilson was an art student who lodged with Dobell following his arrival in London in 1937.

The only time that Dobell was financially secure in this period was from December 1937 when Murch, who had charge of decorations for the Australian wool pavilion at the Empire Exhibition, Glasgow, employed him and other Australians for six months at £10 per week. To economize, Dobell had lodgers, shared travelling expenses—his visits to the seaside and country were in company—and saved drastically on clothes. Wilson described him going out in the evening, 'holding a newspaper under his right arm to cover the tear in his overcoat. Whenever his socks have holes . . . he simply paints his leg to match'. According to Wilson's diary-entry of 12 January 1939, Dobell decided to return to Australia because 'his father sent him the fare as he wanted to see Bill before he dies'. Accompanied by Wilson, Dobell revisited Paris in February on his way home. His father died on 8 February.

Back in Sydney, Dobell initially lived with one of his sisters. In June he found an apartment with a balcony above a bank in Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross. There he reworked various London subjects and treated local subjects in the racy, Dickensian style which he had established in London, producing 'a gallery of Australian types'. The one perceptible change in his style was a greater luminosity of colour: the paintings 'almost dissolve in the peacock light'. From 25 May 1939 until the end of first term, 1941, he taught part time at East Sydney Technical College. He left to work as a camouflage artist at various aerodromes before becoming an official war artist (1942-44) with the Allied Works Council. His wartime themes included construction workers and lumpers, as in 'The Billy Boy' and 'Cement worker, Sydney Graving Dock' (1943, 1944, Australian War Memorial, Canberra).

In March 1942, at the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, Dobell shared a loan exhibition with Margaret Preston. He won the 1943 Archibald prize with a portrait of Joshua Smith in January 1944. The morning after the award was announced, Smith's parents pleaded with Dobell to withdraw the portrait from exhibition; Joshua Smith refused to speak to him. Public opinion was vociferous. On 19 February 1944 the A.B.C. Weekly published the transcript of a radio talk by Dobell: 'To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but who tries to create something which is a living thing in itself, regardless of its subject . . . I have been trying to develop a style of my own derived from the Old Masters. The leaders of the so-called ''modern" movements have done the same—although they have developed in different directions'. Two unsuccessful artists, Mary Edwards and Joseph Wolinski, brought an action to overturn the award, claiming that 'Joshua Smith' was 'not a portrait but a caricature'. In the Supreme Court hearing of 23-26 October 1944 their main witness was J. S. MacDonald, who argued that portraiture was a specific genre bound by rules and, like a sonnet, had to subscribe to a correct form: 'it has to be a balanced likeness of an actual person'. The painting 'Joshua Smith', he went on, was not a portrait as it was 'very unbalanced, a caricature', and he added that the word came from 'caricare' which meant 'to overload'.

Dobell argued in defence that he was an artist of sound training, whose experience overseas had been supported by winning the travelling scholarship. Knowing his fellow painter reasonably well, he had a considered concept of his character and body language. Joshua did have long arms, habitually held his hands clasped, and when 'very determined to gain his point' he 'naturally sits in a chair that way'. Dobell was prepared to 'admit a slight exaggeration' in the portrait. On 8 November Justice Roper dismissed the suit against Dobell. Edwards's and Wolinski's appeal also failed. In April 1944 Dobell had been appointed a trustee of the Art Gallery for a four-year term.

Scarified by the court case, by the publicity and by abusive letters from total strangers, Dobell suffered an acute attack of dermatitis, followed by a nervous breakdown; he refused to leave the house, to think, to paint or do anything at all. In 1945 he retreated to Wangi Wangi, on the shores of Lake Macquarie, to live with his sister Alice in the holiday home that had been built by his father. 'Lord Wakehurst' (1944, private collection), the first portrait he produced after that of Smith, was markedly conventional. Some of his later works such as 'Mathias' and 'Frandam' (1953, private collections) were reminiscent of portraits by his rival Mary Edwards. In January 1949 Dobell was awarded the Archibald prize for a portrait, 'Margaret Olley' (A.G.N.S.W.), and also the Wynne landscape prize for 'Storm approaching Wangi' (private collection).

Artistically there were two highlights in his later career, a series of paintings of New Guinea in the early 1950s, and a series of major portraits in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He visited New Guinea for three months after Easter 1949 as a guest of (Sir) Edward Hallstrom who had chartered a plane to fly guests to his experimental sheep station in the central highlands. Dobell destroyed his first drawings—for being too much like tourist fare—and began seriously to sketch. He revisited the Territory next year and worked on New Guinean subjects almost exclusively until 1954. He was a notable miniaturist, but his 'tiny masterpieces' were publicly criticized for being too small in scale. He took the criticism badly, and ceased to paint New Guinean subjects.

In 1957 Dobell completed a portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore (A.G.N.S.W.) and painted the first of eight portraits of the cosmetician Helena Rubinstein (private collection). These works were recognized as among his highest achievements. By then, he was able to pick and choose from many offers of commissions. In 1958 he underwent an operation for cancer; after convalescing, he learned to drive a motorcar and bought a 3.8-litre Jaguar. He won his third Archibald prize in January 1960 for a portrait of his surgeon E. G. MacMahon. That year he painted the first of four portraits commissioned by Time magazine for cover illustrations: 'Prime Minister Menzies' (A.G.N.S.W.) appeared on 4 April 1960, and was followed by portraits of Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam (4 August 1961), Frederick G. Donner, chairman of General Motors Corporation (18 May 1962), and Tunku Abdul Rahman, prime minister of Malaysia (N.R.A.G.), (12 April 1963).

Dobell was a reserved and gentle man, with dark hair turning grey by 1961. John Hetherington wrote that, when he smiled, 'his grey-blue eyes are all but lost in nests of fine wrinkles, and the normally rather serious expression of his oval face becomes irresistibly quizzical'. In 1964 the Art Gallery of New South Wales held a retrospective exhibition of Dobell's works; James Gleeson's biography, William Dobell, was published; and Dobell received a £5000 Britannica-Australia award which enabled him to buy 'a few antiques' for his house. Appointed O.B.E. (1965), he was knighted in 1966. He died of hypertensive heart disease on 13 May 1970 at Wangi Wangi and was cremated with Anglican rites; according to his wish, his estate was used to establish the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation. William Pidgeon's portrait of Dobell is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Gleeson has suggested that Dobell's one truly creative period was the ten years in London. Most of his major paintings of the 1940s depended on the work he had done in those years, either directly through using studies, or indirectly through reference to stylistic ideas he then encountered. To look to Europe was necessary, given his conventional belief that Australia could not offer the nourishment necessary for great art; but, while his attention was given to preserving styles and genre themes of European art, he responded to his own, immediate, expatriate Australian culture. He acquired 'a complete mastery of traditional techniques' and a noticeably 'democratically egalitarian handling' of a wide range of subjects. Dobell shared with writers of his generation, Patrick White and Hal Porter, and the painters, Russell Drysdale and Albert Tucker, a singularly sharp perception of social manners. Their art focussed upon the articulate and telling moment, and described only the salient aspects of a situation. Each at times was accused of caricature. It may be significant that these artists were tardy in deciding on a career, slow to mature, and, conversely, spectacular and controversial in their fame. Comparisons outside Australia may be made with the British painter Francis Bacon and the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson whose art was to choose 'the decisive moment'.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Penton, The Art of William Dobell (Syd, 1946)
  • J. Gleeson, William Dobell (Lond, 1964, Syd, 1981)
  • V. Freeman, Dobell on Dobell (Syd, 1970)
  • G. Serle, From Deserts the Prophets Come (Melb, 1973)
  • B. Adams, Portrait of an Artist (Melb, 1983)
  • J. Gleeson, The Drawings of William Dobell in the Australian National Gallery (Canb, 1992)
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 Nov 1961
  • Dobell's sketchbooks (National Gallery of Australia Library)
  • J. Gleeson, research papers on Dobell (National Gallery of Australia Library)
  • E. Wilson papers (National Gallery of Australia Library)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mary Eagle, 'Dobell, Sir William (1899–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Dobell, by Monte Luke, 1940s

William Dobell, by Monte Luke, 1940s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12148811

Life Summary [details]


24 September, 1899
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia


13 May, 1970 (aged 70)
Wangi Wangi, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.