SHORT HISTORY OF WILLIAM DOBELL
Dobell was born 1899 in Bull St, Cooks Hill, a suburb of Newcastle. He
was the youngest of three brothers and three sisters. His grandfather
guided his hand drawing sketches of horses – ‘they came alive
on the page” he once said.
The young Dobell’s first job was as a window cleaner in Hunter Street,
Newcastle. “I wasn’t a very good window cleaner and I got
the sack”. He
claimed not to have been very good at school as he was usually at the
back of the classroom drawing and painting the entries for the whole class
for the School Children’s Art Competition for the Newcastle Show.
In 1916 his father apprenticed him to Wallace Porter to become an architect.
He claimed that his lack of ability in maths slowed his progress as an
architect. His name can been found on the early NSW Registers of Architects
and there are a number of War Memorials and buildings around Newcastle
which he designed.
In 1924, when Wallace Porter died, Dobell moved to Sydney, joined Wunderlich
Ltd as a draughtsman and started night time art classes at the Julian
Ashton School in the old Queen Victoria Markets in George Street. His
artistic talents were recognised by the teachers although he really wanted
to be a newspaper cartoonist.
At the Julian Ashton School he won 2 prizes – 3rd Prize in the State
Theatre Art Comp and 1st prize for the Arts Society Travelling Scholarship.
These enabled him to go to London subsequently to travel in England and
Europe. He attended the renowned London Slade School of Art.
He was an observer of people and most of his London work shows this. He
would sit in parks and cafes sketching people. Many of these sketches
would later form the basis of his paintings. Unlike many portrait artists,
Dobell did not have his subjects sit and pose for him. He would sketch
them and then go back to his studio and complete the portrait. Dobell
returned to Australia in 1938 when his father was extremely ill.
met Joshua Smith and the two became great friends, when they worked with
the Civil Construction Corps during World War 2, not painting battle scenes
but rows of cabbages and cauliflowers on aircraft hangers and storage
sheds as camouflage!
1943 he won the Archibald Prize with a painting of Joshua Smith but the
decision of the judges was challenged in court with the claim that the
painting was a caricature and not a portrait. Dobell won the court case
but his confidence in his art was destroyed. After the court case in 1943,
Dobell came to Wangi to escape the ‘notoriety’ the case had
brought. He was nervously exhausted and unable to paint.
When he first came to live at Wangi, he was ill, nervously exhausted and
unable to paint. He also suffered from serious dermatitis. In his own
words: “My sister would scoop a coal shovel full of skin from my
bed each morning”. He lost part sight in one eye and part use of
one leg as a result of stress of the Archibald court case. As he recovered,
the scenery around him took his interest and he began to do little sketches
until he painted The Narrows, The Westerly Breezes and then Storm Approaching
Wangi which won him the Wynne Prize for Landscape in 1948.
In 1948 he met Margaret Olley and asked if he might paint her portrait.
As was his way, he made numerous sketches of her and then came back to
Wangi to paint the portrait. When she saw the portrait she was amazed
as he had sketched her in street clothing but had painted her as he had
met her wearing her grandmother's wedding dress at a fancy dress ball.
This was to be his second Archibald Prize.
Dr McMahon, Dobell’s surgeon following diagnosis of cancer, was
his third Archibald Prize.
In 1949 he went to New Guinea with Sir Edward Hallsrtom and fell in love
with the colours and atmosphere. This began a love affair with Asia. He
made two trips to New Guinea, then to Viet Nam and Hong Kong producing
very different types of paintings. He always carried a sketch book which
supported his work in his Wangi studio.
He was readily accepted into the community in Wangi and was neither feted
nor revered – a level of acceptance he cherished. He drank at the
local pub, RSL and Workers’ Club as just another local, though his
home was visited by many important political figures, Governors General,
famous writers, artists and actors.
William Dobell lived in Wangi until his death in 1970.
A SHORT HISTORY OF DOBELL HOUSE
The original section of what is now Dobell House, was built in the 1920s
and was irregularly added onto over the next 40 years, first by Dobell’s
father, Robert and later by William Dobell, after he bought it from his
father’s estate in 1942 and subsequently took up residence with
his eldest sister.
original house, known then as “Allawah”, is thought to have
been designed by Dobell while he was an apprenticed architect. It was
built using sand and gravel from the foreshore and cement powder brought
in by barge. It is a unique example of an original ‘lake house’,
having been added onto numerous times, normally as extra space was needed.
The many changes in floor levels are a result of the various additions
All of the paintings Dobell executed between 1945 and 1970, except for
one, were painted in his home and studio. These include:
1948 Wynne Prize – Storm Approaching Wangi
1948 Archibald Prize – Margaret Olley
Click on Photo to Enlarge
1959 Archibald Prize – Dr McMahon
Click on Photo to Enlarge
As a result of the close-knit relationship between Bill Dobell and the
Wangi Wangi community, a group of residents formed the Sir William Dobell
Memorial Committee soon after his death in 1970. Money was raised to purchase
the house from his estate with the vision to create a museum and gallery
to honour his memory as well as providing knowledge about and understanding
of his art.
Committee purchased the building for $14,500 and the furniture and memorabilia
for $50. Lady Casey, wife of the then Governor General of Australia and
friend of Dobell, sent a cheque for the $50 to purchase the remaining
contents. Much of this furniture, including a Brinsmead grand piano, thought
to have been given to Dobell by Camille Geysen in return for painting
his portrait, and the house, have been restored by Federal, State and
Local Government grants and loans. The piano is now the centre-piece of
musical entertainment in Dobell House
A bank loan was raised for $10,000. This loan was paid off in just 7 years
with donations and door takings, an amazing accomplishment for a small
Dobell House is heritage listed on the Local Environment Plan of the Lake
Macquarie Council and has been on the Register of National Estate since