Important Australian + International Fine Art
9 May 2007

Robert Dowling

(1827 - 1886)

oil on canvas

68.0 x 96.0 cm

$550,000 - 650,000
Sold for $810,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 1 - 9 May 2007, Melbourne

Commissioned by Joseph Ware of Minjah, Western District, Victoria, 1856
Thence by descent, private collection, Victoria


Jones, J., 'Robert Dowling's visit to the Western District of Victoria in 1856', Art and Australia, vol.25, no.2, Summer 1987, pp.203-204 (illus.)
Jones, J., 'Robert Dowling', in Joan Kerr (ed.), The Dictionary of Australian Artists: Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers to 1870, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992, p.218
Jones, J., 'The Ware Family of Koort-Koort-Nong, Minjah and Yalla-y-Poora in the Western District of Victoria and their Patronage of the artists Robert Dowling and Eugene von Guérard', National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1997

Catalogue text

British-born Robert Dowling migrated to Tasmania in 1834 at the age of seven, his father, The Rev. Henry Dowling establishing the first Baptist Church in Launceston in 1840. Robert worked first as a saddler. In 1850, following his earlier interest in art, he changed to a career as a painter, specialising in portraits. His teachers in Launceston could have included either of the two portrait artists Frederick Strange or Henry Mundy, although it is traditionally believed that he studied under Thomas Bock, the leading Tasmanian colonial portrait painter of the time. No doubt an earlier acquaintance was made with John Glover who, in 1838, painted a baptism in the Ouse River performed by The Rev. Henry Dowling. Robert Dowling was influenced by the high ideals of his father and of his friend, John West, who espoused the views of John Ruskin that art was a force for good. In 1851 Dowling painted West's portrait as well as some of the notable citizens of Launceston and Hobart Town. Robert Dowling, his wife Arabella, and daughter Marion moved to Victoria in 1854 where his portrait commissions included The Right Rev. Charles Perry, first Anglican Bishop of Melbourne, and numerous members of the Ware family of the Western District. Dowling was related to the Ware family through his older brother Thomas, who, in 1842, married Maria Jane Ware, sister of the pastoralists John, Jeremiah and Joseph Ware. Thomas Dowling, who also rose to prominence, acquired the Western District station of Jellalabad near Darlington in 1853, where brother Robert was later to paint their portraits.

Masters George, William and Miss Harriet Ware with the Aborigine Jamie Ware is one of the six paintings commissioned by Joseph Ware of Minjah Station in 1855-56. They are of particular significance, especially the two Aboriginal group subjects - Minjah in the Old Time, in the collection of the Warrnambool Art Gallery (fig.2), and Werrat Kuyuut and the Mopor People, Spring Creek in the Queensland University Art Museum. A fourth, Mrs Adolphus Sceales with Black Jimmie on Merang Station (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) (fig.1) painted for Ware's neighbour, together with the children's group portrait are likewise of special importance for the inclusion of Aboriginal figures with European settlers.

Robert Dowling went to London in 1857 to further his art and achieved much success. He exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of British Artists during 1860s and 70s, painted portraits of members of the Royal Family, and sent paintings back to Australia for exhibition. The large, Victorian narrative painting, A Sheikh and His Son Entering Cairo, on Their Return from a Pilgrimage to Mecca, was exhibited at the Royal Academy, followed by Launceston and Melbourne before its purchase by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1878. Dowling returned to Australia in 1884, when he settled in Melbourne. He exhibited widely and involved himself with the Victorian Academy of Arts. Notable portrait commissions of the members of the Melbourne establishment included Sir Henry Loch, Governor of Victoria, James Smith, art critic for The Argus and future controversial reviewer of The 9 x 5 Impressionism Exhibition, and Sir Redmond Barry, who pronounced the death sentence on Ned Kelly.

During the 1850s and 1860s, colonial artists showed increasing interest in depicting the Aboriginal peoples and their relationships with the European settlers. They ranged from the scientific to the compassionate, with emphasis on dignity, some touches of the romantic, and images of the noble savage continuing ideas of the Age of Enlightenment. In Tasmania, they had been preceded in 1840 by Benjamin Duterrau's highly symbolic history painting The Conciliation (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart), with George Augustus Robinson among the Tasmanian Aborigines for whom he was protector. William Strutt gave great dignity to his Aboriginal troopers and trackers, and Eugene von Guerard saw them as an integral part of God's design, peopling his panoramas of an antipodean Arcady with their presence. He saw the tragic side of Aboriginal displacement too in such a work as Stony Rises, Lake Corangamite 1857, (Art Gallery of South Australia), and continued his symbolic references in commissions received from landowners, using metaphors of fighting bulls and the fallen gum in Bushy Park 1861. Von Guerard also painted the Ware properties of Koort Koort-Nong 1860 and Yall-y-Poora 1864.

Alexander Schramm and Charles Hill were prominent in South Australia . Notable among Schramm's paintings of the meeting of Indigenous and Non-indigenous peoples are two oils in the Art Gallery of South Australia, A Scene in South Australia c.1850 of itinerant Aborigines mixing with Europeans outside a settler's hut, and Civilization versus Nature 1859. Hill's The Artist' Wife and Children 1857 (also Art Gallery of South Australia) continued the subject of interaction. Then there was S. T. Gill who, from his early days in Adelaide through to later times in Melbourne showed a deep interest in the ways of the Aboriginal peoples and the impact of white culture. There are watercolours of corroborees, fishing and burials; both peoples watch the departure of Charles Stuart's inland expedition from Adelaide in 1844, and the satirical side of Gill comes to the fore in the clash of cultures in Native Dignity (Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia) and The Newly Arrived (Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales). Another who must not be overlooked is the greatly gifted Ludwig Becker, especially his watercolour drawings of Aborigines met on the Burke and Wills Expedition. They are now in the collection of the La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria.

In the history of Australian colonial art, especially in Victoria, there are no other known works which display such intimacy and equality between the two peoples as in Dowling's Masters George, William and Miss Harriet Ware with the Aborigine Jamie Ware.

During his first years in London, Dowling painted a number of Australian subjects, including the historical Group of Natives of Tasmania 1859, (Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston). The Aborigines are based on portraits by Thomas Bock. A smaller version is in Art Gallery of South Australia, and a related painting, Tasmanian Aborigines, is in the National Gallery of Victoria.

Within this wider context, Dowling's group portrait, Masters George, William and Miss Harriet Ware with the Aborigine Jamie Ware 1856 is an important example of both colonial portraiture and the relationship developed between Aboriginals and settlers. To give the black servant Jamie their name and include him in their children's portrait is indicative of the very high regard in which the Wares held the native people. (Significantly, the name Ware is still found among Aboriginal people in the Camperdown area.) This is continued in the additional Dowling commissions of two group portraits of Aborigines - Minjah in the Old Time 1856 (Warrnambool Art Gallery, see fig.2) and its companion, Werrat Kuyuut and the Mopor People, Spring Creek; and again in Mrs Adolphus Sceales with Black Jimmie on Merrang Station. The significance of the presence of the Aboriginal figure, whose looks suggest he may be Jamie Ware, takes on even greater importance when the highly commemorative nature of the painting is realised. Adolphus Sceales had died, his harnessed horse is riderless, given to Jimmie's care, and his wife stands nearby in widow's weeds.

The respect shown by the Wares and the artist to the Aboriginal people is palpable and moving. A corollary is found in the figure of the servant, Jamie Ware in Masters George, William and Miss Harriet Ware with the Aborigine Jamie Ware. The poses of the three children, by comparison with Jamie, look a little stiff, as if frozen by the long exposure required for a daguerreotype. The better resolution of Jamie's pose, indeed its pictorial superiority, is due to its source - Michelangelo's figure of Adam in the fresco, The Creation of Adam on the vault of the Sistine Chapel. The figure is derived from, not copied, with changes in individual components such as the angle of the head, an arm and a leg. Nevertheless, the inspiration was Michelangelo - and it is tempting to think that Dowling may have had Adam, the first man, very much in mind when painting Jamie Ware of the local Mopor tribe. The use by Dowling of a Michelangelo reference is not unique to this painting and is, of course, part of the academic repertoire, seen later in the classical manner adopted for his larger Aboriginal group paintings. History paintings engage the noble and the heroic pose, so Jamie can be seen as a progenitor of Dowling's later Aboriginal figures. Furthermore, in the National Library of Australia there is an oil by Dowling, Study of a Tasmanian Aborigine c.1860, in which he adopted the pose used by Velasquez in his celebrated Venus c.1640-48, in the National Gallery, London. Moreover, his friend, the sculptor Charles Summers called on Michelangelo's Florentine figure of David in his Aboriginal figures for an early concept of the Burke and Wills memorial sculpture.1 The dog at Jamie's feet is, of course, a symbol of fidelity.

John Jones has described the Ware children's portrait 'as a disarming record of mutual trust and affection between an absent Joseph and Barbara Ware and "Jamie", the Mopor Aborigine who took their name; seated at a higher level is the young heir to Minjah (part of the Mopor's traditional lands)'.2 The triangular composition adds to the classical balance, the young George, seated at its peak is cast as the future seigneur, the staff in hand having a Biblical reference to Moses leading his people (black and white) into the promised land. The Wares, originally from Tasmania like Dowling, were leading pioneer pastoralists, first squatting in the Port Phillip District in 1838. Not only were they among the chief landholders and notable figures in the district, but they were also important patrons of the fine arts. There were numerous family portraits by Dowling, including the Wares parents, another Jeremiah and Mary, and homestead landscapes commissioned from Von Guerard. Joseph Ware was one of Dowling's most important patrons. In addition to the six Minjah commissioned works, he later purchased Dowling's important biblical painting, Miriam 1864. Unfortunately, Dowling's portraits of Joseph and Barbara Ware have not survived. The painting of their three children with Jamie Ware in the park at Minjah, however, survives, a rare and engaging evocation of a bygone age of reconciliation and respect.

1. Christine Downer, 'Charles Summers and the Australian Aborigines', Art and Australia, vol.25, number 2, Summer 1987, pp.206-7
2. Jones, 'The Ware Family of ...', op. cit., n.p.