Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia 1899 – Lake Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia 1970
Sketch portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore
c1956 Title Notes: 'Portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore' adjusted 22/12/2009 as requested by Anna Gray
Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on composition board oil on hardboard
Commissioned by the Australasian Book Society to commemorate Dame Mary Gilmore’s ninetieth birthday with a portrait, William Dobell described his first impression as being ‘struck by her dignity and the colour scheme’. In this preparatory oil sketch the dignified lady is there but the colour scheme is temporarily muted, while Dobell concentrates on what he saw as essential to a portrait—the depiction of character. The composition is triangular, the neck attenuated, the filigreed lace at her collar in the final portrait indicated here by a thin, swirly flourish of white paint.
Dobell’s working method underscored his commitment to retaining first impressions. At a sitting he would make a number of pencil sketches, then, back in the studio, create a few small painted studies such as this, without the sitter present. The artist said, ‘I get the main design from my best study and then I put them away. But I never work with them in front of me, it constipates me.’
William Dobell enrolled in evening classes at the Julian Ashton School, Sydney in his mid twenties, commencing full-time study at the Slade School, London in 1929. After a decade absorbing the work of great masters in Europe, Dobell returned to Sydney in 1939 and took up a teaching position at the National Art School (also known as East Sydney Technical College). It is the notoriety surrounding the artist’s 1943 Archibald Prize win with a portrait of Joshua Smith, a work criticised (and challenged in the courts) as caricature, for which Dobell is best remembered. This controversy had a deep, some say inhibiting, effect on the artist, driving him into seclusion. The portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore is widely regarded as his comeback piece, demonstrating his recovery with the assuredness of an expert painter.
Dame Mary provided substantial material for the artist to work with. By the time of their meeting Gilmore was a prominent socialist poet and journalist, a champion of the workers and the oppressed. Her most notable foray, along with other socialist idealists, was the establishment of a communal settlement called New Australia in Paraguay in 1896. It was there she married William Gilmore in 1897. By 1902 the utopian experiment had failed and the Gilmores returned to Australia. Her first volume of poetry was published in 1910 and her reputation grew thereafter. Dame Mary Gilmore has become one of Australia’s most widely read poets.
 H de Berg, interview with William Dobell, 10 Feb 1959, Hazel de Berg Collection, Oral History Collection, National Library of Australia.
 J Gleeson, William Dobell, revised edn, World of Art Library series, Thames & Hudson London, 1969, pp 196–7.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010