Artist’s reluctant brush with notoriety
Bill: The Life of William Dobell By Scott Bevan Simon & Schuster, 502pp, $35 WILLIAM Dobell was Australia’s first celebrity painter but a reluctant one, who returned home to Wangi Wangi, a small peninsula that juts into Lake Macquarie in NSW, to nurse his broken nerves after the ordeal of a court case that transfixed the public and divided the art world.
Journalist and author Scott Bevan has written a forensically researched, thoughtful and affectionate account of this modest man, who won the Archibald Prize in 1943 and lost his privacy forever.
But it is also the biography of a place and a community, where Dobell was always ‘‘Bill’’ down at the local pub, and where Bevan and his wife live. As long-time residents began to share their memories, Dobell’s life came together for Bevan like so many layered brushstrokes.
Dobell was born in Newcastle in 1899, one of eight children. The city had grown from a harsh punishment zone for convicts who spent their lives digging for coal in damp mine shafts and felling timber into one of the busiest coal ports in the world. His father was a bricklayer who had worked on some of the city’s most significant landmark buildings.
Working with a local architect, Wallace Porter, after he left school provided Dobell with excellent training. “You can’t slum over detail in architecture … it gave me a very good idea of perspective,” he recalled later.
When Porter died, Dobell moved to Sydney, seeking work as a commercial illustrator, and found his way to Julian Ashton’s art school in the Queen Victoria Building in George Street.
Here the heady scent of oil paint and turpentine mingled with fumes from the Penfolds wine cellars in the building’s basement. He had not intended to become a painter, rather a more skilled illustrator, but others noticed his gifts.
Swiss-born painter Sali Herman suggested that when he arrived in Australia in 1937 the art world was in the stranglehold of a handful of well-connected artists, many of them “mediocre painters”. These painters were themselves directors and trustees of the galleries and the royal art societies, so the art prizes never left the cliques of the Lindsay brothers and the Ashton brothers. Even realists, who broadly obeyed the rules of perspective and composition, such as Russell Drysdale and Dobell, were sniffed at in more conservative circles, merely because they had developed personal styles in which appearances were subordinated to their highly individual visions.
When Herman spoke frankly in public, he was threatened with a libel suit: “That’s how they worked. I said, ‘You go right ahead’ — but they didn’t!”
Dobell’s own experience with disgruntled artists would be far more toxic and end in the Supreme Court and a hostile prosecution by the plaintiffs’ king’s counsel, Garfield Barwick.
Winning the Society of Artists Travelling Scholarship in 1929 freed Dobell from the dilemma once remarked on by art critic Robert Hughes: “There is no tyranny like the tyranny of an unseen masterpiece.” He enrolled in London’s Slade School, but it was his careful examination of artists such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, down to their individual brushstrokes, that would nourish his own style. Bevan notes he was also very taken with the tiny figures in the studies of 18th-century French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau.
In London Dobell found what he was looking for, “a ceaseless procession of people he could quickly and surreptitiously sketch on a small pad … pinning humanity to the pages, as
The Boy at the Basin a child might collect butterflies”. Dobell developed a satirical Hogarthian impulse as his sketches were transformed into small oils.
His reputation for shyness and a preference for solitude is belied by the warm welcome fellow Australian painters such as Godfrey Miller, John Passmore and Donald Friend received when they visited or came to stay at his Bayswater flat. His decade in London saw his perfect gem The Boy at the Basin chosen for the Royal Exhibition in 1933, while his painting The Dead Landlord inspired Patrick White’s play The Ham Funeral.
Dobell arrived back in Australia in 1939, just as Europe was poised to descend into chaos, and became a camouflage artist, which created some Monty Pythonesque anecdotes about papier-mache cows in fields — a subject that would inspire a body of work by contemporary artist John Kelly. He also became an official war artist for a while, despite the complaints of military authorities who were disaffected with his highly original painting style.
When Dobell entered the Archibald Prize in 1943, it was already the most conspicuous art event in the country and winning it could change the momentum of a painter’s career. The prize was £430 when the average weekly wage was £5. Ninety-seven artists had submitted works. When Dobell’s portrait of his artist friend Joshua Smith won the prize, the fallout was spectacular.
Of the two unsuccessful entrants who mounted the court case, claiming the work was a caricature, not a portrait, Mary Edwards was the most verbally incontinent, calling Dobell’s portrait a “grotesquerie” and a “Pearl Harbor attack on art”. Years later writer Geoffrey Dutton suggested that she “revealed her true character” in a self-portrait for the 1936 Archibald Prize where she looked like a cloaked duchess who has just bitten a sour plum.
The newspapers fanned the flames and when the exhibition closed in March 1944, it had been visited by 150,000 people. Bevan captures in perfect detail the deadly currents threatening to engulf Dobell; the shrill chorus of voices of supporters and detractors in the Supreme Court, and especially the artist’s eloquence, which helped see off Barwick.
When Dobell picked up his brush again, remarkable commissions came his way despite his reluctance to return to portraiture. His retrospective of 224 works at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1964, accompanied by a book written by critic and painter James Gleeson, was a triumph, and Bevan perceptively dissects some of these paintings, in particular portraits that, as the years passed, their owners uncannily grew to resemble.
November 1-2, 2014