Sir William Dobell
William Dobell, 1942, photograph by Max Dupain
|Died||13 May 1970 (aged 70)|
|Education||Cooks Hill Public School |
Slade School of Fine Art
|Style||Portrait and Landscape painting|
|Awards||Archibald Prize: 1943, 1948, 1959 |
Wynne Prize: 1948
Sir William (Bill) Dobell (24 September 1899 – 13 May 1970) was a renowned Australian portrait and landscape artist of the 20th century. Dobell won the Archibald Prize, Australia's premier award for portrait artists on three occasions. The Dobell Prize is named in his honour.
Dobell was born in Cooks Hill, a working-class neighbourhood of Newcastle, New South Wales in Australia to Robert Way Dobell and Margaret Emma (née Wrightson). His father was a builder and there were six children.
Dobell's artistic talents were evident early. In 1916, he was apprenticed to Newcastle architect, Wallace L. Porter and in 1924 he moved to Sydney as a draftsman. In 1925, he enrolled in evening art classes at the Sydney Art School (which later became the Julian Ashton Art School), with Henry Gibbons as his teacher. He was influenced by George Washington Lambert. He was also gay and consequently never married, while several of his works carried strong homoerotic overtones.
In 1929, Dobell was awarded the Society of Artists' Travelling Scholarship and travelled to England to the Slade School of Fine Art where he studied under Philip Wilson Steer and Henry Tonks. In 1930, he won first prize for figure painting at Slade and also travelled to Poland. In 1931 he moved on to Belgium and Paris, and after 10 years in Europe returned to Australia - taking with him a new Expressionist style of painting as opposed to his earlier naturalistic approach.
In 1939, he began as a part-time teacher at East Sydney Technical College. After the outbreak of war, he was drafted into the Civil Construction Corps of the Allied Works Council in 1941 as a camouflage painter; he later became an unofficial war artist.
In 1944, he had his first solo exhibition including public collection loans at the inauguration of the David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney.
In 1949, he visited New Guinea as a guest of Sir Edward Hallstrom with writers Frank Clune and Colin Simpson. The trip inspired a new series of tiny, brilliantly coloured landscapes. In 1950, he revisited New Guinea; on his return to Australia he continued to paint scenes of New Guinea, as well as portraits.
Between 1960 and 1963 TIME magazine commissioned Dobell to paint four portraits for covers, one per year, of: Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia; South Vietnam's President Ngô ?ình Di?m; Frederick G. Donner, the Chairman of General Motors; and Tunku Abdul Rahman, Prime Minister of Malaysia.
In 1943, Dobell's portrait of Joshua Smith, titled "Portrait of an artist", was awarded the Archibald Prize. This was contested in 1944 by two unsuccessful entrants (Mary Edwell-Burke and Joseph Wolinski), who brought a lawsuit against Dobell and the Gallery's Board of Trustees in the Supreme Court of New South Wales on the grounds that the painting was a caricature and therefore not eligible for the prize. Public opinion was sharply divided, with most viewers puzzled by the unexpected portrait.
One art critic was highly laudatory:
The claim was dismissed and the award was upheld, but the ordeal left Dobell emotionally disturbed and he retreated in 1945 to his sister's home at Wangi Wangi on Lake Macquarie, where he began to paint landscapes. The Supreme Court opinion by Mister Justice Roper said:
Dobell was a very private man, known almost always as "Bill". He died on 13 May 1970 in the City of Lake Macquarie suburb of Wangi Wangi of hypertensive heart disease. The sole beneficiary of his estate was the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation, which was founded on 19 January 1971 and awards the Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial, which is named in his honour. He was cremated with Anglican rites and his ashes interred at Newcastle Memorial Park in Beresfield, New South Wales.
A film of Dobell's life, titled Yours sincerely, Bill Dobell was made in 1981 by Brian Adams and Cathy Shirley for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the William Dobell Art Foundation. Brian Adams' book Portrait of an Artist - A biography of William Dobell was first published in 1983 by Hutchinson Publishing Group and revised in paperback in 1992 for Random House Australia.
A book on the life and art of William Dobell, William Dobell: An Artist's Life by Elizabeth Donaldson, was compiled in 2010 with the support of the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation and Dobell House, in Wangi Wangi. It is published by Exisle Publishing.
A biography, Bill: The Life of William Dobell, was published in 2014 by Scott Bevan.
Dobell's style is unique in being able to adapt to suit the character of his subject. This was best described by James Gleeson; "One of the astonishing things about Dobell's portraiture is his ability to adjust his style to the nature of the personality he is portraying ... If the character of his sitter is broad and generous, he paints broadly and generously. If the character is contained and inward looking, he uses brushstrokes that convey this fact. In his later portraits one has only to look at a few square inches of a painted sleeve to know what sort of person is wearing it."
Among private and other public holdings, examples of Dobell's work are exhibited in the Newcastle Region Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
Dobell had the following solo exhibitions:
The book William Dobell: An Artist's Life by Elizabeth Donaldson published in 2010 includes many of Dobell's works, as well as archival photographs.