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 Archibald Prize – Joshua Smith
Click on Photo to Enlarge
Dobell won the 1943 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 1944,
Dobell came to Wangi to escape the ‘notoriety’ the case had
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 Dobell and young artist Margaret Olley were both at a party given
by Russell Drysdale. Margaret was wearing a fancy dress costume made from
ex-war-supply parachute silk and sleeves from a friend's grandmother's
wedding dress. Dobell asked if he could paint her portrait and she agreed.
Olley recalled that she sat for him in his flat in Kings Cross wearing
normal street clothes and an old battered hat, which she had decorated
with flowers. When she saw the finished portrait, she was amazed because
Dobell had not seen the fancy dress since the party. She later described
it as "truly a magnificent work."
Dobell was seen running
through the streets of Sydney with the still wet painting to get it to
the Art Gallery of NSW before the close of entries for the 1948 Archibald
Prize which the portrait subsequently won for him.
1948 Archibald Prize – Margaret Olley
Click on Photo to Enlarge
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.
In 1957 Dobell was
diagnosed with carcinoma of the colon. Early the next year he was operated
on successfully by leading Sydney surgeon and friend Dr Edward MacMahon,
with Dr Noel Newton as assisting surgeon. The portrait of Dr MacMahon,
which Dobell painted as a token of his gratitude, won him the 1959 Archibald
Prize. Dobell also painted a beautiful Wangi landscape for Dr Newton in
appreciation of his contribution.
1959 Archibald Prize – Dr MacMahon
Click on Photo to Enlarge
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1960 commissioned Dobell to paint two works depicting Australian scenes for Windsor Castle and the result was ‘Beach Carnival’ and ‘A Country Race Meeting.’ The same year saw the first of what would be four commissions from ‘Time’ magazine to paint cover portraits, one of Australian prime minister Rt. Hon. R. G. Menzies. In 1961 Dobell travelled to South Vietnam to sketch president Ngo Dinh Diem for the second ‘Time’ portrait and then went to the ‘Time’ office in Hong Kong to paint it, one of the very rare times Dobell actually painted outside his studio. Cover portraits of chairman of General Motors, Frederic G. Donner and Tunku Abdul Rahman, prime minister of Malaysia followed in 1962 and 1963.
In 1964 the Art Gallery of NSW held a major retrospective of Dobell’s 1929-64 work. After being awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1965 for his outstanding contribution to portraiture, he was invested as a Knight Bachelor in 1966, becoming Sir William Dobell.
On 14 May 1970, less than six weeks after a highly successful Dobell exhibition at the Newcastle Art Gallery, local Wangi greengrocer Bill Hilton found his friend William Dobell dead on the floor of his kitchen having died of a massive heart attack the previous night.
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
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 Gheysens in return for painting
his portrait, and the house, have been restored by Federal, State and
Local Government grants and loans.
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 now listed on the NSW State Heritage Register and is heritage listed on the Local Environment Plan of the Lake Macquarie Council and has been on the Register of National Estate since 1999.