The Portrait of an Artist

Sir William Dobell (1899-1970), painter, was born in Newcastle on 24 September 1899.  He attended Cooks Hill Commercial Public School, learning art from teacher John Walker.  In 1916 he became a draughtsman for architect Wallace Linott Porter.  After his death, he moved to Sydney in 1924, working for Wunderlich Ltd.  During this time he studied art at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School.

In 1929, he won First Prize in the Art Society’s Travelling Scholarship, to study at the Slade School of Art in London.  Dobell would spend most of the Thirties there, refining his art while studying the masters.  ‘He was an observer of people and most of his London work shows this.  He would sit in parks and cafes sketching people.’{Dobell House}  He returned to Australia in 1939, when his father died, then ‘treated local subjects to the racy, Dickensian style which he had established in London, producing a “gallery of Australian types.”’ {ADB}

He would teach at East Sydney Technical College.  As World War II progressed, he used his art for the war effort by painting camouflages for the Civil Construction Corps.  Here, he met another young artist named Joshua Smith. {Dobell House}

In 1943, Dobell’s portrait of him won the Archibald Prize.  The main reason there was so much resistance to Dobell’s work in this painting is that it was seen as not a true portrait, but a caricature.  You can draw your own conclusions.

Brush strokes: William Dobell's 1943 painting of Joshua Smith.  Source material: Joshua Smith.


This was the beginning of a scandal.

The controversy began when Smith’s parents urged Dobell to withdraw the painting, or at least not publicise it.  He agreed, but consider this void after the Smiths went to the press.  Joshua Smith commented: “Dear me, I hope I don’t look like that. I don’t think I do.” {SMH}

The controversy meant that many more people came to see the painting.  The gallery was crowded for months, everybody was talking about THAT painting.

Two artists who had also entered the Archibald, Mary Edwards and Joseph Wolinski, launched a court case against him, aiming to have the prize money withheld.  Dobell commented: “I was one of the defendants, as though I’d committed a crime.” {SMH}

This was heard in the Supreme Court in October 1944.  James Stuart MacDonald testified that this was not a portrait, there were strict rules on these, the same as writing a sonnet.  Dr Vivian Benjafield testified that ‘Joshua Smith’ made the sitter look like a sick man.

Mary Edwards was even more scathing.  She called the painting a “grotesquerie” and a “Pearl Harbor attack on art”. {The Australian}

Dobell defended himself admirably.  On 8 November 1944, Justic Roper handed down a judgement in his favour.  The plaintiffs also lost their appeal.

After all this, the sensitive artist was shattered.  Not only did all the notoriety make him suffer a nervous breakdown, but he also suffered from dermatitis.  Tragically, he was unable to paint for some time.  Dobell would retreat to his family’s holiday house in Wangi Wangi, on Lake Macquarie, living with his sister.  Here, with this lake change, his recovery could begin.

In 1948, Dobell submitted his ‘Margaret Olley’ painting to the Archibald Prize, winning for the second time.  This was to be the year of the artist’s redemption.  He also won the landscape painters’ Wynne Prize, for his lakescape ‘Storm Approaching Wangi’.

The Art Gallery of NSW

The first thing you would say about this painting is that it is strong in realism, compared to his earlier portrait.  Even more so if you were to compare it to the works of the contemporary Cubists.  Fellow artist Margaret Olley is depicted in a large hat, along with an Empire-style evening dress of parachute silk, popular with many Forties women.  The colours give a sunny effect.

She tells the story of that portrait.  She had met Dobell at Sir Russell Drysdale’s party, wearing that dress, agreeing to let him draw her.  Later, when she posed for him she wore normal clothes, but he remembered and the ‘Margaret Olley’ painting wore her party dress. {Dobell House}

Truly Olley helped her fellow artist to recover from his most major, public setback.  Dobell, described as a “reserved, gentle man” {ABD}, would continue as a successful artist for the rest of his life.  He won a third Archibald Prize in 1958.

Maybe there really is no such thing as bad publicity.


“A Short History of Sir William Dobell and Dobell House”.  Dobell House. 2015.  Retrieved from:

Anderson, Patricia. “Bill revisits William Dobell and the 1943 Archibald Prize controversy”. The Australian. 1 November 2014. Retrieved from:

Art Galley of NSW.  Works by William Dobell.  Retrieved from:

Bevan, Scott. “The William Dobell portrait that broke a friendship and divided a nation”. Good Weekend.  Fairfax Media. 18 October 2014.  Retrieved from:

Eagle, Mary. “Dobell, Sir William (1899–1970)”. Australian Dictionary of Biography. 1996. Retrieved from:

Jameson, Neil.  “A glimpse into the life of William Dobell”. Newcastle Herald.  Fairfax Media. 17 September 2010. Retrieved from:

White, Judith. “WILLIAM DOBELL: YOURS SINCERELY”. Art Collector. Gadfly Media. Issue 12, April – June 2000. Retrieved from:


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