Artist’s re­luc­tant brush with no­to­ri­ety

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Pa­tri­cia An­der­son

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

Do­bell’s

(1932)

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