William Dobell by W.E. Pidgeon; 1960 Archibald Prize finalist

William Dobell; W.E. Pidgeon, 1960 Archibald Prize finalist
Purchased: Art Gallery of New South Wales; Charles Lloyd Jones Bequest Fund 1966
© Peter Pidgeon, via Viscopy (Copyright Agency)

At the instigation of wife Dorothy, Wep painted a portrait of long time associate and friend, Bill Dobell. He was never really happy with the initial attempt, subsequently abandoning it to commence work on a second canvas, which became a finalist in the 1960 Archibald Prize.

In 1966, Wep noted that there was no specific reason for completing the painting other than that there seemed to be no portraits of Dobell about.

Following the 1960 Archibald Prize Exhibition, the painting was exhibited at the National Gallery of South Australia in March 1961 and The Moreton Galleries in Brisbane in April 1961 as part of  their annual exhibitions of selected Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prize exhibition works.

The Moreton Galleries were particularly keen in purchasing the work but Wep was not happy with it and advised it was not for sale.

Bill’s friend and Director of the National Gallery of New South Wales, Hal Missingham, was also keen to acquire the work and was ultimately successful in 1966, purchasing it for the Gallery in November 1966 for $1,800

The following is a background  to the portrait, which Wep wrote in 1966 at the time of the sale to the National Gallery of New South Wales, now known as the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

I first saw Bill Dobell in 1925. He was a designer at Wunderlich Ltd., and I was an office boy. About 1940 John Santry introduced me to him at King’s Cross. Used to meet him casually after this and did my first sketch of him whilst making a caricature illustration of the Dobell case.

Limited edition reprint of Wep’s caricature of the 1943 Archibald Prize court case concerning Dobell’s prize winning portrait of Joshua Smith; published Sunday Telegraph, 29 October 1944

The painting really started at the opening of the Terry Clune Galleries about 1957. My wife, who had at last met Bill Dobell (she had been wanting to for years) asked him if he would sit for me, and much to her surprise and mine he agreed.

In January, 1958, we spent a few days’ holiday at the Hotel Toronto.

Wep holding a tray of schooners of beer and Dorothy seated behind him with friends at the Hotel Toronto at Toronto, January 1958. Wep’s friends and the former publicans of the Hunters Hill Hotel, Bert and Hazel Gear, had relocated to run the Hotel Toronto at Toronto, NSW before shortly later moving to Orange.
Wep at righjt and Dorothy in centre with flower in hair with friends at the Hotel Toronto, January 1958

One afternoon we drove out to Wangi and called on Bill. We all went to the Local to meet the boys and to help him forget about his consultation with a specialist in Sydney the next day. He promised again to sit for me. We returned to the “White House” and were shown his studio and met his sister and dogs.

Bill’s visit to the Doctor resulted in a major operation. Just before he left hospital, I took him out a sketch of his operation. It amused him. He was going to call at Northwood on his way back to Wangi but didn’t.

Returning from a caravan holiday up north with my wife and son late April or early May we came through Toronto and stayed overnight. I ‘phoned Bill from there (needless to say he also knew the publican quite well) and he promised to give a couple of hours sitting next morning – so out I went.

Bill Dobell posing for Wep in his studio at Wangi, late April/early May 1958

On this first occasion I made some notes and very rough oil sketches from which I laid out a 30 x 40 canvas.

William Dobell; sketch study, William Pidgeon 1958; pencil on paper
William Dobell; composition study, W.E. Pidgeon 1958, oil on canvas, 21.5 x 26 cm
William Dobell; composition study, W.E. Pidgeon 1958, oil on card, 32.0 x 27.5 cm

As far as I can remember in the following Spring he gave me two sittings in my studio. How it was all managed evades me, but friend Rudy Komon was always around, and had always got at him before I could – or wanted to pick him up half-an-hour after arrival.

William Dobell posing in Wep’s studio at Northwood, c.Sept. 1958

On the second occasion I was to pick Bill up at the Carlton I think and then Rudy ‘phoned to make it the Royal Exchange much later. He whisked Bill off to some Wine and Food Society gathering and then took us on to see some Australian trade ship. By the time I finally got him into the studio, the reek of Camembert and Gorgonsola and vintage claret was too much for the flake white. He patted our dogs and we ate more cheese.

Probably in the late Spring I took the canvas with me when with my family I spent another week end at Hotel Toronto.

At this time, I was also working on the portrait of Ray Walker. There is a photo of the Dobell portrait on the easel when a press photographer photographed me in the studio when I won the Archibald Prize with the Walker painting.

W.E. Pidgeon (Wep) at work on his portrait of friend and fellow artist, William Dobell, Dec. 1958

During 1959, I think I made about three train trips to Wangi, equipped with enough paint and canvas to paint ‘The Last Supper’, but Bill was a co-operative sitter and we used to finish up with tea and magnificent pikelets made by his sister, Alice (I got the recipe) – then a beer at the Wangi Hotel or R.S.L. Club (of which he was the Patron). Later I would pat their dogs until Bill got help with his quaint old compressed piano.

Other work and a new son created much distraction, and towards the end of 1959, I was feeling very dissatisfied with the painting.

Wep’s initial portrait of William Dobell which he subsequently abandoned [1958]
oil on canvas on board, 104.0 x 77.5 cm
Exhibted: May 2012, “William Edwin Pidgeon Retrospective”, Artarmon Galleries
By 1960 I had laid out another canvas and started afresh. I showed it in the 1960 Archibald Exhibition although at the time not ready for it. Following this I had several enquiries for its purchase, but I was not happy with it.

The portrait was not unwrapped for more than 18 months after it was returned from Brisbane, where it had gone after the Archibald Exhibition. Then I remounted the canvas to make it slightly bigger. As the mood took me, I worked on the painting intermittently until it was submitted to the Gallery.

As far as I know Bill has never seen the painting. My wife tells me she has asked whenever he was in Sydney and had the time, but Bill like myself doesn’t take much notice of letters.

W.E. Pidgeon, Nov. 1966

Occasionally Wep would be drawn back to the original portrait and fiddle with it. It underwent some minor restoration by Artarmon Galleries in 1977 along with Wep’s two Menzies portraits. It finally saw the light of day when it was included in the 2012 Retrospective also held at Artarmon Galleries, where it too was sold.

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