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Labour of love to preserve piece of history

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Stepping inside Dobell House, you get an immediate sense of the character Sir William Dobell was.

“He didn’t have a bedroom as such; he had an easel in every room and just conked out wherever he was,” Friends of Dobell vice-president Sharon Pearl tells Newcastle Weekly.

Volunteer Cliff Curran in the exhibition area.

The revered Archibald Prize-winning artist was born in Cooks Hill and moved to Wangi Wangi after a soul-destroying court case in 1943, in which he successfully challenged a claim that his painting of Joshua Smith was a caricature and not a portrait, and therefore not eligible for the Archibald Prize.

The win came at the expense of Dobell’s health, and he retreated to Wangi – sick, exhausted and unable to paint.

A few years later, the scenery took his interest and he began to paint once more.

In 1948, Dobell illustrated a portrait of young artist Margaret Olley, whom he met at a party, in a beautiful silk dress.

He was seen running through the streets of Sydney with the still-wet painting to submit it to the Art Gallery of NSW by the skin of his teeth before entries closed for the 1948 Archibald Prize, which he won.

Dobell went on to win a third Archibald Prize, in 1959, for his portrait of Dr Edward MacMahon, who had operated on Dobell in 1957 after he was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

Dobell lived at Wangi with his sister, Alice, until he died in 1970.

His home and studio are now preserved as accurately as possible by Friends of Dobell, a volunteer organisation that jointly owns the heritage listed property.

The group has about 30 volunteers, although numbers are dwindling due to age and ill health; and receives no permanent funding apart from the money it raises through busloads of visitors and the occasional government grant.

The exterior of Dobell House, Wangi Wangi. Photo: Peter Stoop

“There’s a core group of us that are really passionate and want to keep it going,” Ms Pearl says.

The original 1920s home, which has been extended over the years, showcases many of Dobell’s artworks as well as original furniture and belongings – right down to dried-up tubes of oil paints.

Its volunteers care deeply about telling the life and story of Sir William Dobell, and none more so than 92-year-old Cliff Curran, who developed and acts in a 45-minute skit about Dobell’s notorious court case.

Dobell House is open to visitors between the hours of 1pm and 4pm on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, or by appointment.

If you are interested in volunteering, phone Sharon Pearl on 0423 434 372.

Visit the website, dobellhouse.org.au, or Facebook page for more information.

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