Rediscovering a historical footnote

The title of Christopher Heathcote’s recently published book on William Dobell begs the question – why does he need to be discovered?

Surely a prominent artist like Dobell would never slip out of sight. But the reality is that for anyone born since the 1970s and certainly living outside of Sydney, Dobell is an historical footnote.

Emergent artists might have picked up on the Joshua Smith controversy as an item in an Australian art history course and pity the man for being a victim of Australian mid-20th century philistinism. But his art, when it is viewed in the flesh – small, dark figure studies and rhetorical portraits cloaked  in modern mannerism looks to belong to a venerable European belle-peinture tradition.

Dobell devoted most of his practice since 1944 to portraiture. Heathcote is quite frank about this body of work. He describes his portraits of the 1950s and early 1960s as commercial painting, “low on inventiveness and artistic application”. But on this very point of portraiture, Heathcote makes the case that Dobell’s inner spirit battled on against the sludge of public adulation and conservative taste he was forced to swim in.

He cites Dobell’s 1960 portrait of then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies in which his eyebrows were arched to high points (not straight as in real life) and his forehead stretched into high elongation. The answer is found in drawings in the artist’s sketch pad, copies of the cartoon head of arch villain ‘Ming the Merciless’, copied from Flash Gordon comic strips.

William Dobell The billy boy 1943 oil on cardboard on hardboard 70.2 x 53.4 cm Australian War Memorial, Canberra © Sir William Dobell Art Foundation

Heathcote also identifies portraits produced in Dobell’s later years, of determined, successful women, particularly Mary Gilmore, Helena Rubenstein and close friend Thelma Clune, as deserving critical approval. Drawings made as part of the 1957 Dame Mary Gilmore commissioned  project are included in the book. They are compelling. Heathcote makes a connection with the existentialist paintings of the French artist Giacometti. Gilmore herself knew immediately that Dobell had captured the heart of the matter. “Dobell has put my ancestry into it… It was extraordinary, I walked in the door and all I saw was my father’s eyes looking at me.”

When Dobell won the Society of Artists’ Travelling Scholarship in 1929 he went overseas and studied in London at the Slade School of Art. There is consensus among art historians that Dobell produced his finest work while in London from 1929 to 1938. His output included landscapes, but he invested much creative energy in figurative work, with subjects, mostly working class and unemployed people, drawn from the streets of London.

A feature of Heathcote’s revisitation of Dobell is that his research puts a lot of meat on the bones of the London years. It also places his work in an international context of a very different kind to the one he had thrust on him in Australia as an equal of Rembrandt. At the Slade, Dobell had the good fortune  to be taught by Henry Tonks, who was by British art standards, a progressive. Rather than require students to grind away drawing Greco-Roman statuary, he directed students to study from art at local museums and to sit in public places and draw life around them.

William Dobell Mrs South Kensington 1937 oil on wood panel 38.2 x 33.2 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales, Purchased 1943 © Sir William Dobell Art Foundation

There was a lot of poverty and unemployment in England in the 1930s and the hundreds of sketches Dobell made on the streets or sitting in pubs and cafes found a ready context in social realist trends among a diversity of artists with common concerns about
the rise of fascism and the plight of the working class. One result of this trend was that the Camden Town painters, and Walter Sickert in particular, reemerged as artists of interest. Dimly-lit interiors, hints of backstreet murders, shabby banality, such things were back on the agenda. From within this context came what Heathcote rightly calls “minor masterpieces”: Mrs South Kensington, Cockney girl with a hoop, Woman watching a funeral, Sleeping Greek and, arguably his most compelling image, Toilette which depicts a disrobing madame in all her bloated glory.

Back in Australia by 1939 Dobell maintained momentum. He entered three works in the 1943 Archibald Prize competition. One was the publicly contentious newspaper editor, Brian Penton, an artist named Joshua Smith, and a man named Joe Westcott who made tea for manual labourers working with the Civil Constructional Corps. By Archibald conventions, Westcott was a nobody. Dobell’s choice of Penton and a working class subject might have  attracted negative comment but all was overshadowed by the well-known Joshua Smith controversy and court case.

This extensively illustrated and elegantly written book traces Dobell’s subsequent trajectory from his recuperative time at Wangi Wangi (as explored in Scott Bevan’s Bill: The life of William Dobell), his experiments with constructivism, and symbolic figurative compositions based on visits to New Guinea in the late 1940s. One is left with the impression that Dobell’s ‘window’ was the London years and the gift this experience gave a very private artist to publicly declare his sense of shared humanity.


Discovering Dobell, Christopher Heathcote, Wakefield Press published in association with TarraWarra Museum of Art 2017

Feature image credit:
William Dobell
Not titled (Wangi Beach) c.1956
oil on board
8.5 x 12.5 cm
Private collection
© Sir William Dobell Art Foundation

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