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© 2018 National Art School 


William Dobell, 1945

Although a reserved and unassuming man, William Dobell’s two years teaching at the National Art School had a profound effect on his students. Many describe his love for drawing, and his outstanding draughtsmanship was apparent when he demonstrated drawing in his classes at the NAS.

Sir William Dobell was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, on 24 September, 1899. He moved to Sydney in 1924 to study at the Julian Ashton Art School, where he met many artists who would later teach at the National Art School. In 1929 he won the Society of Artists Travelling Scholarship, and lived in London for ten years, painting and studying at the Slade School of Fine Art. When his scholarship ran out after three years, he supported himself by producing posters and illustrations for magazines, acting as an extra in films, and working with fellow Australian artists decorating the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow in 1937.

On his return to Sydney in 1939 his friend Douglas Dundas offered him a part time teaching position at East Sydney Technical College (the National Art School). At first he taught drawing from nature, costume drawing, and painting, and became highly respected as the life master, teaching life drawing in the studios on the top floor of building 16. He taught at the NAS until 1941, when he left to work as a camouflage artist during WW2. After the war, Dobell occasionally filled in as a lecturer at the NAS, teaching the students studying there under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme.


In 1943 Dobell won the Archibald Prize, Australia's principal award for portraiture, for a painting of fellow artist, former NAS student Joshua Smith. The award was immediately challenged on the grounds that Dobell's entry showed a degree of distortion, which made it a caricature rather than a true portrait, but the court upheld the judging panel's decision. Resultant newspaper publicity greatly expanded interest in Dobell's work, but as a result of the controversy Dobell withdrew to Wangi Wangi, a small coastal town north of Sydney, where he set up a studio. He won the Archibald Prize twice more, in 1948 with a portrait of former NAS student Margaret Olley, and in 1959 with a portrait of Dr Edward McMahon.  He continued to draw all his life, filling sketchbooks and recording the life and people of Wangi Wangi Wangi. He was knighted in 1966 and died in Wangi Wangi on May 14, 1970. (Written by Deborah Beck)