Born at Newcastle, New South Wales, William Dobell was first apprenticed to an architect, and studied at night at the Julian Ashton School in Sydney, under George Lambert (q.v.). In 1929, aged 30, he won the Society of Arts Travelling Scholarship, and left to study at the Slade School, receiving private tuition from William Orpen (represented in the British Collection at Carrick Hill). In 1933 his work was exhibited at the Royal Academy. He stayed away for nine years, travelling occasionally to Europe to visit galleries, and particularly to study works by Dutch painters, especially Rembrandt. In absorbing such a wide range of influences, Dobell still maintained his own emerging style.
Both his paintings in the Carrick Hill Collection were done during this period of his life overseas. They exhibit Dobell's then tendency to paint in quiet, traditional ways, before he later developed his masterly technique and deep powers of observation in the depiction of the image. On returning to Australia in 1938, he brought many paintings and drawings back with him, possibly including the two works in the Carrick Hill Collection.
Dobell, who was destined to become Australia's most famous portrait and genre painter, included a wide range of subjects in his works. Edward and Ursula Hayward were great admirers of Dobell. At one stage they owned six of his works, including the controversial portrait of Joshua Smith, with which Dobell won the 1943 Archibald Prize.
The painting, which was successfully CARRICK HILL involved in a court challenge regarding the award, was severely damaged in a fire at Carrick Hill in 1958, and is no longer in the collection.
Unlike many of his landscapes, which were worked up from sketches, OLD HOUSES, BRUGES, 1931, one of his early naturalistic works, was painted on the spot during a month he spent in the city in 1931. Dobell has chosen an unusual rear view of the houses, using even light and subtle colouring. He has observed the sharp angles of the roofs, picking up the pattern made by the rectangular windows, doors and railing.
The buildings seem tightly contained within the frame of the painting, giving the impression of a secure corner of life in this ancient city. Although a conventional scene, the painterly qualities portend a talent that would later mature into one which ensured the painter's singular stature.
Dobell's talent as a draughtsman and as a painter is depicted in another early tranquil and sensitive work, STUDY, BOY ON BEACH, 1933. It seems connected in subject and style with a work Dobell intended to submit as a sumIJer project at the Slade School in 1932. This work, with its touch of latent eroticism, also shows Dobell's capacity to depict his subjects from an unorthodox angle. In viewing the sun baking boy from above, the eye travels up from the feet to the knees, along the body to the outstretched arms, linking corner to corner in a strong diagonal. Heat and sun are evoked by the dry, chalky tones of the sand or rock, which contrast with the dark shadow, and the boy's hat and shoes.