Review: Martin Edmondon William Dobell

The Man Who Knew Too Much: Bill: The Life of William Dobell

William Dobell spent most of the 1930s living in London. He went there in 1929, from Sydney, on a Society of Arts Travelling Scholarship, and returned just before the outbreak of World War Two. He was born in 1899, so they were his thirties too. After his scholarship money ran out, he stayed on, living in single rooms and earning his living where and if he could. They were years of penury, but also of achievement. James Gleeson – friend, surrealist painter, prolific art writer, and the first Dobell biographer – was of the opinion that Dobell’s decade in London was the most productive period in a working life of nearly 50 years. Paintings like The Boy at the Basin, The Dead Landlord, Mrs South Kensington, The Duchess Disrobes and Woman Watching a Funeral were made then.

In these paintings, you can see the influence of George Lambert receding, to be replaced by that of Sickert, Renoir, Ingres, Goya, and ultimately Rembrandt. Dobell also spent time on the continent, in Paris, Bruges and Amsterdam, where he made a detailed study of Rembrandt’s oeuvre. He seems, on occasion, to have lived the high life, and explored, perhaps intricately, the demi-monde. Details of this period of his life are, however, sketchy and ambiguous – as they are of every other period. Dobell returned home with a suitcase full of tiny oil studies, which he intended expanding to make larger works. These include the seductive The Yellow Glove from 1940, and the magnificent Sunshower, Ile de la Cité, completed in 1945. This was a habit he continued for the rest of his working life.

One of the many casual jobs Dobell took in London was as a film extra. In this capacity, he appeared – though I defy anyone to find him there – in Alfred Hitchcock’s breakthrough movie The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). There are two big crowd scenes in that film: a concert in the Royal Albert Hall where the heroine, a sharp-shooter, thwarts an assassination attempt; and, at the climax, a gun fight in Wapping, during which police storm the building where the villains, led by Peter Lorre, are holed up. This second sequence was based on real life events, the so-called Sidney Street Siege in Stepney in 1911, when military and police, with the youngish Winston Churchill in attendance (he took a bullet through his top hat), flushed out a nest of Latvian anarchists who were using the proceeds of crime to finance their nefarious activities.

Dobell was cast in both scenes: as a member of the choir in Albert Hall, and as a detective in the shoot-out. But he didn’t actually play the second part, because it involved a fall and he was afraid of spoiling his only suit. Whether this was because of his poverty or from an innate fastidiousness is a moot point – perhaps it was both. He was always a careful dresser. Nevertheless, you could say that Dobell, pace the title that Hitchcock filched from G. K. Chesterton (the movie is actually based upon a Bulldog Drummond adventure), was a man who knew too much.

That knowledge seems to have crept upon him uninvited and, only in certain circumstances, compelled him to bear witness. I don’t mean that he didn’t relish his perceptions of folly, extravagance, vice, sensitivity, monstrosity, nobility, beauty and greed; just that he was circumspect, to the point of reticence, about showing what he saw. The Dead Landlord is a case in point. The story goes that Dobell was upstairs in his lodgings when he heard a cry from below and ran down to see what it was. The landlord had dropped dead from a heart attack and his wife was wailing over the body. Together they took the corpulent corpse by the head and the feet, respectively, and hefted it onto the bed. ‘I’ll give him a ham funeral,’ the landlady said – a detail Dobell handed on to Patrick White, who used it as the title for his 1948 play. Then, while she sat before a mirror brushing out her hair, Dobell, who had never seen a dead person before, sketched the scene.

The painting he took from the drawing shows a dark, murky interior, lit only by the eerie phosphorescent glow emanating from the body on the bed. Although we can see both the landlady (from behind) and the mirror, we cannot see her reflection. Dobell’s viewpoint is the only one we have, and yet that too seems to partake of abnegation, absence, a deliberate refusal to comment. You sense he would rather not have been there at all. But because he was, he feels obliged to show us what he saw. The painting is not voyeuristic, nor documentary, nor even expressionistic. It is as if a piece of the hitherto unredeemed world has entered the frame and there attained a kind of redemption.

This willed reticence is characteristic of the London work and, indeed, of the oeuvre as a whole. You might say it is what makes Dobell exceptional. Along with his superb draughtsmanship, his technical skill as a painter, and his compulsive need to make art, it is the peculiarity of the psychological point of view he adopts that makes him such an interesting artist. This point of view has at least a metaphorical relationship to a vanishing point, one that is outside the work rather than in its confected depths. It makes the subjects of his finest portraits seem fully present, as if their reality as bodies and as souls has somehow been transferred whole into the painting: the hieratic Mary Gilmour; the glittering, monstrous Helena Rubenstein; the strangely attenuated Joshua Smith; the resplendent Margaret Olley. And so on. Their distortion – if that’s what it is – is not in the service of autobiography, but an attempt to capture the essence of the sitter in paint.

Even the self portraits, of which there are perhaps a dozen, from all four decades of his mature work, share this deceptive autonomy. They are hypothetical selves rather than definitive statements of being or intent or progress (of which more later). The landscapes, too, many of which depict storms, work to persuade us that we are looking at something from which the observer, the only possible source of these images, is somehow absent. This is an unusual quality in a painter and makes Dobell an unusually difficult, if beguiling, subject for a biographer.

Dobell in London, and later, in the 1940s in Kings Cross, seems like a character from a T. S. Eliot or perhaps a Kenneth Slessor poem: a kind of phantom, hardly there at all, made up of reflexive gestures, fugitive traces, half-remembered words. People who knew him from those times included Donald Friend, Patrick White, Arthur Murch, Russell Drysdale and Joshua Smith. None seemed able to sum him up or to say anything particularly cogent about him. Even Margaret Olley, who knew him as well as anyone, was perplexed. He was gentle, they say, very sensitive, with a wicked sense of humour that does not seem to have left many traces behind. A story from his London days resonates: he once shared his lodgings with a burglar, who slept in the bed during the day while Dobell painted; and then surrendered it to him during the night when he was out burgling. There is something Bacon-esque about the anecdote, and it might give a clue as to why Dobell’s life seems so shadowy, when his work is so vivid.

You can’t write about William Dobell without mentioning the controversy over his winning the Archibald Prize in 1943 and the subsequent court case, in which a group of artists, led by two disappointed contenders, sued both the painter and the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW, because they claimed Dobell’s Portrait of the Artist – Joshua Smith – was not in fact a portrait in the sense defined in Archibald’s bequest, but a caricature. They lost the case but, concomitantly, Dobell almost lost his mind; he certainly lost a great deal of skin (literally: he suffered severe dermatitis). That imbroglio is the fulcrum about which Scott Bevan’s life of the artist turns.

In the early years of this century, Bevan and his wife bought a house in Wangi Wangi, a small village on a hilly peninsula that juts out into the water from the western shores of Lake Macquarie, south of Newcastle. They began to hear stories about the half-legendary painter, William Dobell, who lived there for the last 25 years of his life. At some point, Bevan conceived the plan of writing Dobell’s biography, using the reminiscences of his friends and neighbours in Wangi as a basis for the narrative – or at least for its second half.

Dobell’s connection with the village was long-standing. Newcastle-born, he trained first as an architect and, during the early 1920s, before he went to Sydney to study at the Julian Ashton School, he designed and helped to build a weekender for his family at Wangi Wangi. In the aftermath of the Archibald catastrophe, in a state of nervous collapse, he returned there to stay with his sister, Alice. Although he kept his Sydney, and indeed his international connections alive, he never really left. The beach-side cottage became his home, and over the years he extended it, notably by building a large rectangular studio as a second story. It was where he died of a heart attack, after a lifetime of heavy smoking, in May of 1970. His sister, the eldest of six (he was the youngest) predeceased him by just a few months. The house, now a museum, is still there.

Bevan’s early chapters construct a social history of Wangi Wangi, and it is fascinating to read how it developed from the preferred camping spot of largely working-class Novocastrians and people from other parts of the Hunter Valley, often coal miners, into the small, close-knit, insular, but thriving permanent community it is today. It is fascinating, too, to read how the celebrated artist – Dobell was extremely famous by 1945 and remained so for the rest of his life – was accepted into this community as one of their own, and allowed to continue to live what was essentially an artist’s life, in a place notable only for its ‘ordinariness’. Indeed, this is one of Bevan’s strongest themes: the extraordinary nature of the ordinary, or perhaps the abnormality of the normal.

People in Wangi Wangi were highly tolerant of Dobell’s eccentricities which, while not extreme, were certainly pervasive. And the basis of this tolerance seems to have been mutual respect. Dobell, Wangi people felt, accepted them for what they were; therefore, they would accept him. He was welcome in the pub, where he usually went in the afternoons when he had finished work. Afterwards, those he was closest to, especially later on, were invited to come back to his home, whose door was never locked. A complex web of mutually beneficial relationships built up, as such things do in small communities, and they sustained the artist until his death. This is all the more remarkable given that most Wangi people did not rate him as an artist, or were simply not interested. His homosexuality, about which Bevan is oddly ambivalent, was known in the village but apparently, like the art, considered irrelevant. Bill was a good bloke. End of story.

Well, not quite. The Archibald controversy did not just re-route Dobell’s life; it had a major effect upon his work. Before it erupted, he did not consider himself primarily a portraitist; afterwards, as the commissions rolled in, he found it more or less impossible not to put a large part of his energies into works of public portraiture. Four of them, in the early 1960s, were reproduced on the cover of Time magazine. Along with Robert Menzies, Dobell painted Frederick G. Donner, the CEO of General Motors, the Vietnamese politician Ngo Dinh Diem (just a few months before he was assassinated), and Tunku Abdul Ramen, the Malaysian leader. In Australia, many others among the great and good were memorialised. His public portraiture is, however, the least interesting aspect of his work.

And so, while the humdrum days of work and pleasure unfolded seemingly unchangeably at Wangi, they were interspersed with national and international travel and, intriguingly, visits to the artist’s house by other celebrities, including, for example, Eartha Kitt and Anthony Quayle, whom he painted, memorably, as Falstaff. Sleek expensive cars would pull up outside the house and whoever it was would disappear inside for a time, and then depart. Among those who visited were, apparently, Albert Namatjira, a meeting otherwise unattested in the documentary evidence I have seen. Bevan relates that a Wangi resident saw an Aboriginal man, assumed to have been the Arrernte artist, at Bill’s door. Namatjira would not have come unaccompanied, but Frank Clune was Namatjira’s host on his two Sydney visits in the 1950s, and Clune, with his wife Thelma, was a close friend of Dobell’s; they must have brought him up for a visit.

This side of Dobell’s later life is witnessed, remotely as it were, by the Wangi residents Bevan talks to, but is otherwise largely absent from his book. In this sense, the Wangi view of the artist is considerably less than half the story. We don’t get much insight into Dobell’s private life, whatever that might have been; we don’t hear a great deal of his work as a celebrity artist either; nor do we learn much about the way he maintained his vital connections with the Sydney, indeed Australian, art world. More seriously, although Bevan is good on individual works, there is no attempt to survey Dobell’s achievement as an artist. This is not just Bevan’s deficit; Dobell’s oeuvre has still not yet been properly assessed, despite his notoriety during his lifetime and his enduring fame.

After its description of the foundation of Wangi Wangi and a précis of Dobell’s pre-Archibald life, the book assembles a collection of reminiscences derived from interviews, some of which appear in the text as discrete entities, a few thousand words long: the kind of thing you could publish as a feature in a newspaper. These are by their nature repetitive and somewhat anodyne. They remember ‘Bill’ as he appeared to contemporaries, who knew him more or less well. A map of the community is implied but never really filled out, partly because of the overwhelming focus upon ‘Bill’, and partly because of Bevan’s understandable discretion with regard to the lives of these ‘ordinary’ people.

As a consequence, the Wangi residents, like Dobell himself, move through these pages like ghosts. Their absence is exacerbated by the paucity of Dobell works that take local people as their subjects. An exception is Tom McCall – Bevan calls him McColl, contradicting the titles of the portraits – who emerges as vividly from the narrative as he does from the paintings made of him. At the time of his death, Dobell was planning a major painting of his mates down the pub, which survives only as a series of sketches: a matter for regret. On the other hand, the late Dobells we do have, with one or two exceptions, are so misty and unformed as to make it seem that it may already have been too late for Dobell to make a complex group portrait of the kind suggested by the drawings. Bevan is to be congratulated for his assiduous labours in bringing the Wangi community back into the story; but its people remain as oddly insubstantial as those misty late paintings. You can’t help but think of Lloyd Rees, or even Turner.

The best chapter in the book, and not coincidentally the one in which Dobell appears most visibly, is entitled ‘Nurturing Talent’. It details his sustained and generous acts as a guide, mentor or supporter of local artists, some of whom became very well known. They include the bird artist William T. Cooper, who was admired by David Attenborough; the contemporary painter of figurative and abstract works Tom Cleghorn; and the naive Irvine Homer. Bevan interviews both Cooper and Cleghorn at length, and in their descriptions of the relationships they formed with Dobell, the man comes alive. The traffic of palettes from Dobell to Cleghorn is especially poignant, and reminded me of the peculiar fact that Pro Hart bought the contents of Dobell’s studio, holus bolus, after his death. You can see a reconstruction at the Hart museum in Broken Hill.

Bevan also tells in full the strange and affecting tale of Irvine Homer, who continued painting even when spondylitis, a degenerative inflammatory arthritic disease, confined him to a wheelchair, even when the brushes had to be taped to his fingers. After he went blind, he would continue to tell the stories of those who had appeared in his paintings.

Homer was a former bushman; Cooper was another Newcastle boy; Cleghorn was an English migrant. They are very different artists. Dobell encouraged them, not on stylistic grounds, but because of their local connections, their passion for making art, and their willingness to learn. His commitment to nurturing talent continued after his death: a bequest from his estate went towards setting up the Dobell Foundation ‘for the benefit and promotion of art in New South Wales’, which it has continued to do in variety of ways up until the present day.

The best parts of this book are the anecdotes. Bevan tells the strange story of the mansion in Sydney that Dobell bought but never really lived in. Llandudno was built in Bellevue Hill in 1864 by the Stephens family. It was made of Pyrmont stone with red cedar fittings. Towards the end of the 1930s, the house, but not the land it stood upon, was bought by the Irish fascist Francis de Groot then disassembled and moved, stone by stone, to his property in Castle Hill, where he renamed it Dunrath. Radio personality Ron Beck had it from the de Groots in 1949. Then, in 1963, apparently on the advice of the Clunes – Frank Clune had allegedly been a member, like De Groot, and John Howard’s father, of the New Guard – Dobell purchased it at auction. He planted peach trees and began the construction of a grand drive; it may have been intended as an art gallery, but nothing came of that and, after his death, it fell into disrepair.

Dobell also bought expensive cars – Jaguars were a favourite – but never drove them much, if at all. The last one had just a few kilometres on its odometer. He was disinclined to open his mail, apparently because of all the hate letters he received after the Archibald disaster, even though many of them contained cheques, which remained uncashed. Patrick White, in company, was once accused by his partner Manoly Lascaris of being unfaithful – with Bill Dobell. But White harrumphed and said it didn’t matter, because ‘Bill was no good.’

Dobell explained his nine separate portraits of Helena Rubenstein as serial attempts to crack her cosmetic mask and find out what really lay beneath. It is unclear if he thought he had succeeded. My favourite anecdote, however, is the Eartha Kitt story. She arrived one night at the door of a neighbour’s house in Wangi, looking for the Dobell residence, and was duly sent to the right address. She and Bill spent the evening around the piano – he was an accomplished pianist – with him playing and her singing. Then she departed in her chauffeur-driven car back to Sydney. The music they made may still perhaps be heard drifting along the waters of Lake Macquarie.

Was William Dobell’s career as a painter destroyed by a combination of controversy and success in the aftermath of the Archibald win? This is a question Bevan does not address. Many of Dobell’s contemporaries felt that his work after the first Archibald win (there were others) never attained the quality of that which came before. Certainly, the kind of empathy and disclosure found in a painting like Woman at a Hamburger (1944) became rarer. But what about the series of studies for Rock Fisherman, from the early 1950s, in which the subject – a nephew of Dobell’s – naked, lays his genitals upon the white cloth spread before him, and wears something similar, like a cowl, behind his red and swollen form? The local fisherman used to angle unclothed for some reason, and Dobell became fascinated by that, but when he made the finished painting, the flagrant cock and balls are obscured by an erect fishing rod.

Dobell is a conundrum that will not be solved by trying to read his work autobiographically. It can’t be done. He was too good at concealment – after all, he was a camouflage artist during World War Two. And yet his work is unfailingly honest. In the early 1950s, he took two trips to New Guinea. The first, under the patronage of refrigerator manufacturer, zoo enthusiast and philanthropist, Edward Hallstrom, was made to the Highlands in the company of 27 famous or distinguished Australians, including author and friend Colin Simpson. Dobell returned the next year, courtesy of Qantas, and spent three months there, staying for a time in Port Moresby, revisiting the Highlands, and going up the Sepik River. He had a film and a stills camera with him: where are those images now?

The things Dobell saw in New Guinea sustained him for the next twenty years. His late masterpiece, The Night of the Pigs (1970), a painting of absolute precision, is based upon sketches from those visits; so is the luminous and equally mysterious The Thatchers (1968). Some of his landscapes from New Guinea are reminiscent of his paintings of the storms on Lake Macquarie. Others among those paintings now seem unbearably kitsch, but that may be the result of time-lapsed prejudice. We don’t relate to the paintings of the 1950s the way people did then. Indeed, that whole decade in Australia, from a literary and artistic point of view, needs re-excavation. There are Dobell sketches, too, from the 1960s, in Vietnam and Hong Kong (where he went after seeing Diem), but they don’t seem to have been made into paintings. The forthcoming show at the S. H. Ervin gallery in Sydney, Painter in Paradise: William Dobell in New Guinea, might answer a few questions about both of those decades.

There are a number of Dobell self-portraits from the late 1960s. They are contemporary with his Opera House paintings – done from Admiralty House in Kirribilli, where he was a welcome guest – and anomalous works like The Tired Woman, allegedly taken from a sketch made while watching television. These self-portraits are swathed in mist, perhaps tobacco smoke. Or cobwebs. Or encroaching mortality. Dobell’s backgrounds to his portraits are always equivocal, neither in the world, nor out of it, although the second option appears to be preferred. The late self-portraits propose the mist as primary and the self as secondary. They are possible selves: the question they pose is not how do I want to be seen? but how would you like to see me? No doubt Dobell equivocated about that too but, generously, we have them all and can take our pick as to which we want to engage with. I like the one where he has his drawing pad in his hand, a fag in the corner of his mouth and, with his eyes fixed on the page, is making some indelible mark there. One of his beloved spaniels, attenuated as in a Giacometti, sits beside him. There is a storm raging, Lear-like, out the window behind.

Dobell remains an enigma. Bevan says that nobody knew who he was, not even Dobell himself, but I doubt this. I think he knew himself exactly and chose not to communicate that knowledge to others, except parsimoniously in the paintings, and sometimes in life. Paradoxically, Dobell’s lifelong reticence is what makes Bill: The Life of William Dobell, although it has its faults, a valuable book. It allows us to see another facet, to gain another perspective, necessarily partial, upon a figure in a cubist composition, that is made up of shards of the times in which Dobell lived, and figured in the light of eternity which painters, if they are true, cannot help but witness. In the character and achievement of William Dobell there is tenderness and despair, empathy and a resiling from empathy, disclosure and concealment. There is an embrace and a determination to refrain from embracing. It is up to us, readers and viewers, to reconcile those contraries. If we can.