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Sir William Dobell, Artist.

Sir William lived in Wangi Wangi, a town not that overly far from Awaba where I grew up. I did not have the pleasure to run into him the times that we did go to Wangi Wangi. Though my father knew and use to drink with him as well. The following is a brief history but more information can be found at this link Sir William Dobell

William Dobell was born 1899 in Bull St, Cooks Hill, a suburb of Newcastle. He was the youngest of three brothers and three sisters. His grandfather guided his hand drawing sketches of horses – ‘they came alive on the page” he once said.

 He claimed not to have been very good at school as he was usually at the back of the classroom drawing and painting the entries for the whole class for the School Children’s Art Competition for the Newcastle Show.

In 1916 his father apprenticed him to Wallace Porter to become an architect. 

In 1924, when Wallace Porter died, Dobell moved to Sydney.Started night time art classes at the Julian Ashton School in the old Queen Victoria Markets in George Street. His artistic talents were recognised by the teachers although he really wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist.

At the Julian Ashton School he won 2 prizes – 3rd Prize in the State Theatre Art Comp and 1st prize for the Arts Society Travelling Scholarship. These enabled him to go to London subsequently to travel in England and Europe. He attended the renowned London Slade School of Art.

He was an observer of people and most of his London work shows this. He would sit in parks and cafes sketching people. Many of these sketches would later form the basis of his paintings. Unlike many portrait artists, Dobell did not have his subjects sit and pose for him. He would sketch them and then go back to his studio and complete the portrait. Dobell returned to Australia in 1938 when his father was extremely ill.

He met Joshua Smith and the two became great friends, when they worked with the Civil Construction Corps during World War 2, not painting battle scenes but rows of cabbages and cauliflowers on aircraft hangers and storage sheds as camouflage!

In 1943 he won the Archibald Prize with a painting of Joshua Smith but the decision of the judges was challenged in court with the claim that the painting was a caricature and not a portrait. Dobell won the court case but his confidence in his art was destroyed. After the court case in 1943, Dobell came to Wangi to escape the ‘notoriety’ the case had brought. He was nervously exhausted and unable to paint.

He began to do little sketches until he painted The Narrows, The Westerly Breezes and then Storm Approaching Wangi which won him the Wynne Prize for Landscape in 1948.

In 1948 he met Margaret Olley and asked if he might paint her portrait. As was his way, he made numerous sketches of her and then came back to Wangi to paint the portrait. When she saw the portrait she was amazed as he had sketched her in street clothing but had painted her as he had met her wearing her grandmother's wedding dress at a fancy dress ball. This was to be his second Archibald Prize.

Dr McMahon, Dobell’s surgeon following diagnosis of cancer, was his third Archibald Prize.
He always carried a sketch book which supported his work in his Wangi studio.

He was readily accepted into the community in Wangi and was neither feted nor revered – a level of acceptance he cherished. He drank at the local pub, RSL and Workers’ Club as just another local, though his home was visited by many important political figures, Governors General, famous writers, artists and actors.

William Dobell lived in Wangi until his death in 1970.This is his second Archibald prize winning painting of Margaret Olley

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