HELEN BLAXLAND AND TONIA, 1941
oil on wood panel
44.5 x 53.5 cm
signed lower right: WILLIAM DOBELL
dated and inscribed verso: Mr Gregory Blaxland / 11 Wallaroy Road / Woollahra/ Painted / 1941
Commissioned by Gregory and Helen Blaxland, Sydney
Christies, Sydney, 3 March 1972, lot 99 (as ‘Conversation Piece’)
Private collection, Sydney
Geoff K. Gray, Sydney, 12 November 1984, lot 45 (as ‘Conversation Piece’)
Mr and Mrs René Rivkin, Sydney
Sotheby’s, Sydney, 3 June, 2001, lot 18 (as ‘Conversation Piece’)
Gould collection, Melbourne
Annual Exhibition, Society of Artists, Education Department’s Gallery, Sydney, 6 – 26 September 1941, cat. 162
Margaret Preston and William Dobell Loan Exhibition, National Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 19 March – 16 April 1942, cat. 10 (label attached verso)
William Dobell, David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney, 1 – 26 August 1944, cat. 50 (as ‘Mrs. Blaxland and Tonia, 1942’)
William Dobell: Paintings from 1926 – 1964, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 July – 30 August 1964, cat. 83, (as ‘Mrs Blaxland and Toni’) (label attached verso)
100 Years of Great Australian Art, Gould Galleries, Melbourne, 2 – 28 March 2004, and Gould Galleries, Sydney, 6 April – 9 May 2004, cat. 13 (illus. in exhibition catalogue)
The Director’s Choice 2015, Celebrating 35 Years, Gould Galleries, Melbourne, 1 May – 13 June 2015, cat. 5 (illus. in exhibition catalogue)
Best in Show: Dogs in Australian Art, Orange Regional Gallery, Orange, 9 April – 3 July 2016, cat. 14
Penton, B., The Art of William Dobell, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1946, 1946, pp. 8, 122 (illus. as ‘Mrs Blaxland and Toni’)
Gleeson, J., William Dobell, Thames and Hudson, London, 1964, cat. 98, p. 193
Helen Blaxland and Tonia, 1941 belongs to a small suite of celebrated and beautifully realised portraits painted by William Dobell in Sydney in the early 1940s, a halcyon period before the destructive traumas inflicted on him by the notorious Archibald Prize court case of 1944. Technically, this stylised double portrait shares many of the classic Dobell traits evident in such contemporaneous works as The Tattooed Lady, 1941 (private collection), Elaine Haxton, 1941 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney) and particularly, another society commission Jacqueline Crookston, 1940 (private collection), where the ‘poses and groupings have the artificial feel of the studio about them … touched with such breath-taking lightness and with such an exquisite sense of rhythm … Dobell is attracted by the possibilities of this highly finished artificial elegance.’1
When Dobell returned to Australia from London in 1939, he had already developed a unique and penetrative talent for depicting people from all walks of life. He had spent the previous decade experiencing ‘exile, study, want and adventure’2 whilst attending the Slade School as a result of winning the Society of Artists Travelling Scholarship. On arrival back in Sydney, Dobell quickly found himself a two-bedroom apartment above a bank in Kings Cross, with one room used as a living space, the other as a studio.3
At that time, Kings Cross was Australia’s most densely populated area and a vibrantly tolerant melting pot of artists, émigrés, street life and homosexuality. Many of Dobell’s friends in London were Australian artists and a number of these were now living nearby, including Eric Wilson, Paul Haefliger and Donald Friend. Through these contacts, he soon met other significant characters such as Russell Drysdale, Nora Heysen and the young Joshua Smith. Additionally he renewed his acquaintance with the influential publisher Sydney Ure Smith who had previously been instrumental in Dobell being awarded the Travelling Scholarship through his (then) position as President of the Society of Artists. Ure Smith actively promoted Dobell and soon the artist was painting a range of notable society and Government figures. Donald Friend records dinner parties in his diaries which included Ure Smith, Dobell and ‘Mrs Greg Blaxland’4 so it seems apparent that the publisher also introduced the artist to this potential sitter.
‘(E)legant and lovely’,5 Helen Blaxland (nee Anderson, 1907 – 1989) previously studied at the Julian Ashton School of Art and when the second world war started, she worked as a fundraiser with the Australian Red Cross Society (NSW Division). Following the war in 1946, she collaborated with the photographer Max Dupain and artist Elaine Haxton on a book on flower arranging. In 1959, Helen joined the nascent National Trust and, as a result of her important and extended contribution to the conservation group, was awarded a DBE in 1975. An honorary member (1970) of the Society of Interior Designers of Australia, she was also a foundation trustee (1970 – 89) of the National Parks and Wildlife Foundation (New South Wales); and in 1978 she became foundation chairman of the Australiana Fund, set up to acquire Australian furnishings for the four official Commonwealth residences.6 Tonia Blaxland became a noted photographer in her own right following an apprenticeship with Dupain.
Helen’s husband Greg traced his ancestry to an earlier Gregory Blaxland, the Blue Mountains pioneer, and the couple lived in a prominent location on Sydney’s Bellevue Hill. Noted art collectors and patrons, they owned significant pieces by Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, Dupain and Haxton. Another whose paintings they purchased was the famed modern designer Loudon Sainthill who, in turn, was responsible for the decor of the sumptuous lounge room where Helen and her daughter Antonia are seen sitting. With glimpses of Cooper Park beyond the curtains and crested by a Sainthill-designed wall sconce, Dobell presents a mother and daughter comfortable within their own stylish environment. The family’s white terrier seems very content too.
1. Gleeson, J., William Dobell, Thames and Hudson, London, 1964 (revised edition 1969), p. 80
2. ‘William Dobell: an Australian genius’, People, Sydney, 21 June 1950, p. 43
3. Corner of Darlinghurst Road and Roslyn St, the building is now a backpackers’ hostel
4. See: Hetherington, P. (ed.), The Diaries of Donald Friend (Volume 2), National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2003, pp. 68, 88.
5. Hetherington, P., op. cit., p. 88.
6. Details of Helen’s life sourced from: Simpson, C., ‘Blaxland, ‘Dame Helen Frances (1907 – 1989),’ Australian Dictionary of Biography online (accessed 07.01.17)