Sir William Dobell
William Dobell was born in 1899 in Cooks Hill, Newcastle NSW, into a working class family of six children. His father was a builder. In 1916 he was apprenticed to Newcastle architect, Wallace L. Porter. In 1924 Dobell moved to Sydney to work as a draftsman for an architectural metalwork and terracotta manufacturer. In 1925 he enrolled in evening classes at Julian Ashton’s School where he was influenced by George Lambert. In 1929 Dobell was awarded the Society of Artists’ Travelling Scholarship and travelled to England to study at the Slade School under Wilson Steer, Henry Tonks and William Orpen.
In 1930 Dobell won first prize for figure painting at Slade and also travelled to Poland. In 1931 Dobell travelled again to Belgium and Paris. In 1931 he returned to Australia, from England, bringing with him satirical character studies and small London genre paintings. In 1939 he began as a part-time teacher at East Sydney Technical College. In 1941 Dobell was drafted into the Civil Construction Corps of the Allied Works Council as a camouflage painters, he subsequently became the unofficial war artist for the Allied Works Council. In 1944 Dobell had his first Solo exhibition including public collection loans at the inauguration of the David Jones’ Art Gallery, Sydney. Dobell’s 1943 work of Joshua Smith “Portrait of an artist” which was awarded the Archibald was contested in 1944 by two unsuccessful artists who brought a lawsuit against Dobell and the Gallery’s Board of Trustees in the Supreme Court. The award was upheld but the ordeal left Dobell an emotional wreck and he retreated in 1945 to his sister’s home at Wangi Wangi on Lake Macquarie, where he began to paint landscapes. Dobell did not like fame and it nearly destroyed him. In 1948 Dobell entered “Margaret Olley” in the Archibald and won, he also won the Wynne prize for “Storm approaching Wangi”.
In 1949 he visited New Guinea as a guest of Sir Edward Hallstrom with writers Frank Clame and Colin Simpson. The trip inspired a new body of tiny, brilliantly coloured landscapes. In 1950 he revisited New Guinea. Upon returning to Wangi he continued to paint scenes of New Guinea, as well as portraits. In 1959 Dobell won the Archibald for “Dr E. G. MacMahon”.
Between 1960 and 1963 Time magazine commissioned Dobell to paint four portraits for their covers, one per year of: Rt. Hon. R. G. Menzies; South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem (he spent time in Hong Kong to finish the work); Frederick G. Donner, the Chairman of General Motors; and Malaysian PM Tunka Abdul Rakman.
In 1964 Dobell exhibited in a major retrospective at AGNSW and the first monograph of his work was written by James Gleeson. Dobell was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1965 and a Knighthood in 1966. He died in 1970 at Wangi Wangi. On January 19th, 1971 The Sir William Dobell Art Foundation was formed and was made the sole beneficiary of the artists estate.
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.” This chameleon-like ability has made his work vary from Impressionism to Expressionism. Dobell was capable of displaying crisp objectiveness one moment and fleshy satire which reflected a subjective, somewhat darker view of the world the next. His works include portraits, figures and landscapes. He was and remains Australia’s most talented and successful portrait artist.