Robert DOWLING, Miss Robertson of Colac (Dolly) Enlarge 1 /1

On display on Level 1


Essex, England 1827 – London, England 1886

  • Australia 1834-1857, 1884-1886

Miss Robertson of Colac (Dolly) [Dolly Robertson] 1885-86 Place made: The Hill, Colac and Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Dimensions: 103.8 h x 127.6 w cm
Acknowledgement: Acquired with the assistance of the Masterpieces for the Nation Fund 2010
Accession No: NGA 2009.562

Dowling painted this portrait of 19-year-old Elise Robertson (1866–1939), known as ‘Dolly’ to her family, in the late summer of 1885 in the garden of her home The Hill, at Colac in the Western District of Victoria.

Dolly was initially portrayed in a white summer dress. Unhappy with the result, Dolly requested Dowling to re-paint her wearing a dark brown dress, which he did in 1886. He also added other elements to the composition: a Japanese cushion and tea service, a book in her left hand and her loving dog at her feet. It was one of his very last paintings.

Robert Dowling: Tasmanian son of Empire
Exhibition extended label text 2010

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

‘If I am never to marry’, Miss Robertson of Colac is reputed to have stormed, ‘then I will be in mourning for the rest of eternity’[1] Although she was courted by a number of suitors, her strict father considered none good enough for his daughter, so she never married.

Dolly (1866–1939), or Elise Christian Margaret Robertson, was the eldest daughter of William and Martha Robertson of ‘The Hill’, a country property near Colac in Western Victoria. Unhappy with Robert Dowling’s first version of her commissioned portrait, showing her wearing a white dress, Dolly requested him to repaint her wearing a dark brown dress, which he did in 1886. Family tradition has it that Dolly insisted that she be repainted to make her look more grown up. Tradition also suggests that the dress was changed after Dolly’s father rejected one of her most recent and dearly loved suitors. She was nineteen at the time.

One of Dowling’s very last paintings, Miss Robertson of Colac (Dolly) is an impressive work which conveys Dolly’s latent sensuousness—with the toe peeping out beneath the dress, the steam rising from the teapot, and the flowers in full bloom behind her. Dowling painted this portrait in a naturalist manner, yet it is a carefully constructed work. When repainting the portrait Dowling added other elements: he depicted Dolly with a cushion behind her and a favourite Japanese tea service on a tea table with vanilla slices. Her faithful brown-and-white spotted spaniel at her side provides companionship.

The artist of this portrait, Robert Dowling, holds a special place in the history of Australian art. He was Australia’s first locally trained colonial artist. He was the most successful portrait painter in Australia in the 1880s. And he was the first Australian to achieve success at the Royal Academy in London. To get such a highly successful artist—with a large demand for his portraits—to repaint her portrait, must have taken some persuasion. Many other portrait painters would have refused. It is evidence that Dowling was a kindly man, and as James Smith, the critic for the Argus remarked on 14 July 1886, ‘genial and sympathetic’. But it also suggests that Dolly had considerable charm, and may even have won the heart of the elderly painter.

Anne Gray

[1] Family hearsay.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010