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.

The White River

The White River, W.E. Pidgeon c.1938

For some years now I was aware of one of Wep’s paintings titled The White River but had no idea what it looked like. It came up for auction in 2002 and the provenance detail showed it had been purchased by Sir Daryl Lindsay from Artlovers Gallery in Artarmon for the I.C.I. Art Collection. Lindsay was an artist and member of the famous Lindsay family and a former Director of the National Gallery of Victoria (1941-1956). Wep’s archives reveal the painting was sold May 1st, 1958 and his proceeds were £29.8.0. The asking price was probably 40gns (£42).

Cheque from Artlovers for £29.8.0 for sale of “The White River”, 1st May 1958

The I.C.I. Art Collection, later known as the Orica Art Collection was purchased by Kerry Stokes for $13 million in December 2001. In August 2002 Sotheby’s Australia auctioned a number of works from the Kerry Stokes Collection including works formerly in the Orica Collection. The painting was then held in a private collection and was re-framed by Maitland Heritage Frames and Art Supplies. In 2005 it was offered for sale in the Hunter Valley Grammar Festival of the Arts. It remained in a private collection until March 2019 when it was offered for sale by Lawsons Fine Art. This was an ideal opportunity to reunite the painting with the family collection of Wep’s artworks.


I was curious to identify the location of The White River, especially as this was a descriptive name, rather than a geographical name. I suspected it was the Snowy River near Jindabyne.

Going through Wep’s paper archives and photos appears to confirm the location is indeed the Snowy River near to the site where Bill and Jess camped in their caravan in 1937. It was also where they took the humorist Lennie Lower in the caravan in 1938. Photographs and other works present a similar landscape to that of The White River. The site is just north of the former road bridge across the Snowy River, now well and truly submerged beneath Lake Jindabyne.

The Snowy River at Jindabyne, believed to be just north of the original bridge, now under Lake Jindabyne where Wep and Jess Pidgeon made camp during their visit with Lennie Lower in 1938.
Bridge over the Snowy River, Jindabyne, May-June 1937
Dating the work

When the painting was offered for sale in 2002, the date was listed as c.1958. I was not so sure about that. The only works Wep sold ‘fresh’ were commissioned portraits or illustrations.  In early 1958 Wep had at least five works on the go. It was also the year he painted Ray Walker, his first Archibald Prize winner. He was fairly busy at the time and unlikely to be dabbling on the side with one of his more favoured pastimes, landscape painting. More likely his friend, John Brackenreg, who owned and ran Artlovers Gallery (now Artarmon Galleries), asked Bill if he had any works which he could offer for display/sale. Alternatively, Bill needed some ready cash to keep things going and approached John with a painting he was willing to let go. Usually in these situations he would look for a suitable painting (as he was not one to exhibit or sell), possibly add some finishing touches and then sign it.

Painting style

In 1937 Wep went on a six-month sabbatical to discover and develop his painting style; mainly landscapes. In his journal he describes how some paintings do not work, some are painted over. Many have distinctive characteristics of Van Gogh and Monet and other Impressionists. He even describes how in one work, “the tortured rhythm of tree form having driven me unconsciously into semblance of Van Gogh technique: can’t see how else I could have done it.” However, this particular painting, the flow of paint and brush style is more typical of Wep’s own approach. So it is unlikely to have been attempted in 1937 during the caravan trip but possibly in 1938 when visiting with Lower or soon afterwards as Wep’s regular annual trips to the Snowy Mountains waned from 1938 onward.


Another point that suggests the work is much earlier than 1958 is the signature “wepidgeon”. Initially Wep signed all his works as “wep”, of which there are several distinct period styles. However, come the 1930s, only illustrations and cartoons were signed “wep” and his paintings, if signed, usually bore the signature “wepidgeon”. Upon leaving Consolidated Press in 1948 to concentrate on portrait painting, Wep made a definitive change to his painting signature to distance himself from the illustrator/cartoonist known as “wep”. From this point onward, all his paintings were simply signed as “pidgeon”. This suggests the painting is at least earlier than 1948. Given the subject matter, the most likely date is c.1938.

Other reference images
Lennie Lower cooking some chops beside the Snowy River at Jindabyne, May-June 1938
Lennie Lower wading in the Snowy River at Jindabyne, May-June 1938

[Snowy River near Jindabyne], W.E. Pidgeon 1937
[Snowy River near Jindabyne], W.E. Pidgeon 1937
[Snowy River near Jindabyne], W.E. Pidgeon 1937

William E. Pidgeon (1909 – 1981) Retrospective Exhibition, 5 – 30 May 2012: Press Release

Artist extraordinaire William (Bill) Pidgeon or WEP as he was affectionately known by his humourous cartoons and illustrations, made his home and established his studio at Northwood in 1941. At the time he was still drawing for the Daily and SundayTelegraph and the Australian Women’s Weekly where he had become famous nationally for his iconic covers, humourous illustrations and the cartoon strip “In and Out of Society.”

In 1949, Bill left the newspaper world to pursue a career in portrait painting and to try and win an Archibald Prize. His early interest in draughtsmanship, design and comic drawing involving human relationships provided him with a special ability to capture the true character of his sitters. His goal was achieved with the recognition by his peers of his skill, being awarded with three Archibald Prize wins in 1958, 1961 and in 1968 of his friend and fellow Northwood artist, Lloyd Rees.

When not painting portraits, Bill sometimes dabbled in abstraction however his true love was landscapes. He claimed people who stated the Australian countryside was colourless were blind. As he described it, it has a “subtle, opalescent quality about it – almost pearl like.” His favourite countryside was the Western Slopes of NSW and the mountains.

This exhibition reflects Pidgeon’s love of painting in all his many spheres of interest: portraits of the greats of our society to intimate ones of friends and family; landscapes of his favourite countrysides, his sketches and drawings. WWII paintings of everyday life of the troops in Darwin and North-west Australia, New Guinea and Borneo and some cover illustrations as appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly; political cartoons and comic strips under his signature, “wep” are all featured. Of the portraits on show, eight former Archibald Prize finalists are included along with several of Bill’s self nominated ten best works.

Bill Pidgeon visited Artarmon Galleries (begun in 1955 by John Brackenreg) quite often as it was near his home in Northwood. Pidgeon was a mentor and friend to many artists and was a founding member of the Lane Cove Art Panel along with Lloyd Rees, Reinis Zusters and Guy Warren.  As art critic for the Telegraph newspaper, Pidgeon endeavoured to review many shows, encouraged young artists and recorded on several occasions past artists’ exhibitions in the gallery.

Now it is Bill’s turn to hold a full exhibition at Artarmon Galleries, which will be launched 8th May at 7.30pm. Long time friends of Bill; Venita Salnajs, fellow artist and wife of Reinis Zusters, along with another former local resident and leading Australian Classical composer, Ann Carr-Boyd and Australia’s elder statesman of caricaturists, Tony Rafty will open the exhibition – a pleasure  for all to see.

Exhibition dates 5- 30 May

William E. Pidgeon Retrospective Exhibition: Artarmon Galleries; Welcome speech – 8 May 2012


Welcome speech given by Peter Pidgeon at the opening of the William Edwin Pidgeon Retrospective at Artarmon Galleries, 8 May 2012

I would like to thank you all for coming tonight in support of this, the first retrospective of my father, Bill Pidgeon and especially to Bill’s long time friends; Tony Rafty, Ann Carr-Boyd and Venita Salnajs for their wonderful memories shared with us tonight. I would also like to thank Philip and Julie Brackenreg of Artarmon Galleries for having the faith in providing me with the opportunity to hold this exhibition. Their father, John Brackenreg, another long time associate of Dad’s founded this gallery in 1955 and being local to our former home in Northwood, it really is most appropriate for this exhibition to be held here.

Apart from a few group exhibitions and the odd art prize competition, Bill never exhibited. He was not a commercial artist in that he did not mass produce or sell his work, other than what was commissioned but happily
gave it away to friends, acquaintances and even strangers who may have expressed pleasure in a particular piece.

Ever since Bill died, Dorothy, my mother, has dreamed of a retrospective of Bill’s work. It came close many years ago with the S.H. Ervin Gallery but funding eluded her and old age caught up. In 2006 when she sold the family home in Northwood to move to Melbourne I had a real concern as to what to do with the paintings. Fortunately, Edmund Capon from the Art Gallery of NSW and Charles Hewitt were very supportive in facilitating storage and kicking off a cataloguing project of the major works.

In 2009, my mother insisted the paintings be shipped to Melbourne. This was not the preferable location as any potential exhibition would best be held in Sydney. At the time, I had not yet realised my mother had suffered a minor stroke, which had played a significant part in this decision.

Having the paintings in Melbourne did however prove advantageous; allowing me to personally take over the cataloguing work as well as their research in conjunction with Dad’s other papers. I photographed all the paintings and have their images imprinted into my cognitive consciousness. As I go through Dad’s papers, sketch books, old photographs, newspaper clipping and writings, I may sometimes notice a few pencil strokes on a scrap of paper which immediately remind me of a painting and a light bulb goes off. For instance, there is a small striking landscape from 1932 featuring the red trunks of two trees with mountains in the background. I really had no idea where it was situated other than I was familiar with the locations Dad would travel in. I found an old note in a journal which had a couple of sketched lines indicative of these two trees and the background with a note stating “Hawkesbury River” even though no river is actually visible in the painting. However, there is also another landscape painted in the same style where a river is featured. On a hunch that it was in the Hawkesbury River region as well, I then used an old map book of Dad’s from the 30s with the roads he had travelled highlighted with pencil and combined with Google Maps and Google Earth where I could view the topography, I was able to identify this picture as being near Wiseman’s Ferry. I quite enjoy this research and get a real buzz when I confirm the location of a landscape or the identity of a portrait using Dad’s photographs and other web resources such as Google image search, Flickr and Trove. At times I have also undertaken trips to confirm my locations of paintings such as those of the Bylong Valley, painted when he and first wife, Jess, took a six month caravan trip in 1937 to travel throughout NSW and south east Queensland.

In 1948 when Bill resigned from Consolidated Press and newspaper work, he set out to win an Archibald Prize. His first entry was that year with a portrait of Frank Broadhurst. He was within the first four in 1951 with his portrait of Jess. In 1955 Bill entered a portrait of Brett Whiteley’s sister, Wendy, or as she is more commonly known, Frannie. Frannie Hopkirk wrote in her book titled “Brett” that this portrait was the judges’ choice however Bill was denied the prize because she was not a subject of a “distinguished person of arts or letters.”  The Art Gallery subsequently purchased that portrait. Finally, Bill won the first of his three Archibald Prizes in 1958 with a portrait of his journalist friend, and President of the Journalists’ Club, Ray Walker. His second Archibald came in 1961 with a portrait for the Great Synagogue of Rabbi Porush and his third in 1968 with a portrait of Lloyd Rees, commissioned by the Lane Cove Council. The portrait of Lloyd hanging in the exhibition was actually the initial painting but mid way through it, Lloyd decided he wanted to be painted wearing his favourite velveteen jacket instead, which he had bought in Paris. Rather than paint over the canvas, Bill painted an alternative portrait, which went on the win the prize. However, the one here on display was his personal favourite of the two.

Bill entered and was a finalist in every competition from 1948 to 1972 except for two years when he did not enter; 1965 and 1971. Coincidentally, in both these years the prize was awarded to Clifton Pugh, another three time winner along with Eric Smith and Bill Dobell.  This exhibition includes six of Bill’s entries; the 1949 Menzies, the 1951 portrait of Jess, the 1953 portrait of Dorothy, the 1954 portrait of Jack Cassidy, the 1969 portrait of Dorothy and the 1972 portrait of Venita.

During the majority of Bill’s portrait painting career, it was a little known fact that he was going blind. Bill was first diagnosed with glaucoma in both eyes in 1956. It would have crippled his ability to obtain commissions if his deteriorating sight had become general knowledge. All in all, Bill underwent six eye operations to treat his glaucoma, remove cataracts and ultimately the removal of his lenses. Shortly after having his first lens
removed he accidentally poked his finger in his eye resulting in an emergency operation to correct the damage. It was at this time that Bill painted his last portrait, the one of Venita, which he personally nominated as one of his ten
best.  Four of those portraits are here on display, the others being his self portrait in the studio, Diana Judah and the one of Mum in yellow.

Ultimately Bill was declared legally blind yet he continued to be engaged in the art world. In 1974, his good friend and editor of the Sunday Telegraph, King Watson, asked him to step in to do the political cartoon whilst
their regular cartoonist was on long service leave. A number of those cartoons are in the exhibition.  King also asked if he would do the art crit for the paper, a task both Dad and Mum took on every week for the next five years. Mum would drive Dad around to all the gallery shows where he would then examine the paintings with a magnifying glass and write up his review, which Mum would then type and submit to the paper – all for $50 a week. He did not do it for the money – that was never his motivation. He did it because he embraced all things about art and he loved fostering the talent of new and young artists as he had always done in the past with the likes of people such as Peter Harrigan, Les Tanner and Brett Whiteley.

According to Bill, the most important aspects of a painting are its design; being the relationship between form and line, as well as the treatment of colour and tone and with his background in newspaper work and cartoons, “the added values of understanding, intensity of feeling and nobleness of mind,” which he said, ”can transmute the diagrammatic structure into art of great profundity.”

Bill would often receive letters from artists he had reviewed thanking him for his insight. One example from George McIvar who wrote in 1977, “It is a great pleasure to get a good criticism written from a point of view and by a critic you respect.” But it was not always so.  Back in the 1940s Dad was the art critic for the Daily Telegraph. Both the Royal Art Society and the Australian Art Society wrote to the paper asking that they not send Wep to review their shows. They felt he was giving them unfair criticism. Wep’s response was that he was entitled to be critical of the works of uninspired or unsophisticated artists who simply made a realistic transcription of what they see and like in the world around them. He said that the society shows “revolve round the works of a dozen regular exhibitors. Apart from these, most of the paintings are the products of the dilettante or the amateur.”  Members of the public wrote to the paper in support of Wep.  Arnold Zimmerman, himself a member of the RAS, wrote saying the ban was unfortunate as Wep is the most sincere and constructive art critic in Sydney.” Another, from Dora Chapman, Secretary of the Studio of Realistic Art wrote, “we congratulate you on possessing an art critic who is well informed, sincere, constructive, and knows how to put his ideas across.”

One day I hope to be able to tell Bill’s story in full; of the extraordinary life he led in conjunction with Jess and Mum and his amazing creativity through his art, photography and writing. Sometimes I like to think that Dad and Jess are guiding me in this quest to uncover his story. I have often found myself simply staring at photos, especially those of Dad and Jess, wishing for them to reveal their history.

My mother was very pleased about this upcoming exhibition. I kept her informed of every detail regarding it. When I described to her each picture I had selected, she would recall them all with pleasure. At the beginning of
April I learnt that Philip and Julie’s mother, Eleanor, had passed away after being ill for some months. Just four days later at Easter, my mother also passed away. This exhibition has proven to be quite a journey for Phil, Julie and I. I can only imagine that our parents and Jess are all celebrating this event with us tonight.

Finally, I want to thank my family for putting up with me as I undertake this journey, especially my wife Liz, whose life has been so impacted by this man she has never met.

So with that, please enjoy the show, please sign the guest book for me and I would love to catch up and hear your own stories as well. And if I can, I may be able to share a little more background to some of the paintings.

Thank you.

Peter Pidgeon


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