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New Exhibition to Return Artist to Proper Place in Australian History
Robert Dowling, A Sheikh and his son entering Cairo on their return from a pilgrimage to Mecca, 1874. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Presented by a committee of gentlemen 1878.

CANBERRA.- The first retrospective of Australia’s first major colonial trained professional artist, Robert Dowling (1827–1886), opens today at the National Gallery of Australia.

“This exhibition, organised by the National Gallery of Australia, aims to place Robert Dowling in his proper place in Australian cultural history. When he first advertised himself as an artist in Launceston in 1850, he became the first locally trained Australian artist and went on to be the first to achieve success overseas. He was Australia’s most successful portrait and figure painter when he returned to Australia in the mid 1880s yet surprisingly he remains little known today,” said Ron Radford AM, Director of the National Gallery of Australia.

The exhibition curator and author of the first book dedicated to the work of Dowling, John Jones said, “Robert Dowling: Tasmanian son of Empire is the culmination of many years of research discovering and tracking down lost works held in collections all over Australia and overseas.”

In his research for the Robert Dowling exhibition, John Jones has made exciting discoveries. For example, his investigations have helped reinstate the attribution to Dowling of one the artist’s finest works, Breakfasting out 1859, Dowling’s first Royal Academy exhibition success. The Museum of London acquired the painting in the 1950s bearing the false signature of the betterknown English artist Charles Hunt and the false date of 1881. Similarly, at the British Museum Jones’ research has reclaimed for Dowling a group of the artist’s paintings of Indigenous Australians that had been incorrectly attributed to fellow Australian artist Thomas Bock.

The exhibition will be complemented by a completely new display in the early Australian colonial gallery dedicated to Tasmanian colonial art from the late 1820s to the mid 1850s.

“The National Gallery has long collected Tasmanian colonial art and craft and has recently more than doubled its collection, despite the fact that it is now difficult to secure major early colonial works. This newly extended display will serve to contextualise the Robert Dowling exhibition for visitors, allowing them to experience the work of his contemporaries,” said Ron Radford.

The new display shows works long-owned by the Gallery and a large number of new acquisitions never before shown. It includes oil paintings, watercolours, prints, drawings, photographs, silver, furniture and objects made from whalebone, and demonstrates the rich early Tasmanian culture from which Robert Dowling emerged.

Richer and more diverse than that of all other Australian colonies, Tasmanian colonial art from the late 1820s to the early 1850s saw the emergence of artists such as John Glover, Thomas Bock, Henry Mundy, Knut Bull and Frederick Strange who were Dowling’s teachers and contemporaries. All of these artists are represented in this new comprehensive display of Tasmanian art from the collection.

Comprising more than 70 works borrowed from London, New Zealand and around Australia, Robert Dowling: Tasmanian son of Empire brings to light one of the most significant artists of the late-colonial period and demonstrates the sheer diversity of Dowling’s oeuvre during his 36-year career.

“As well as portraiture, Dowling painted subjects from history, literature, modern life and orientalist and biblical works. His body of work includes the largest number of images of Australian Aborigines in Victoria and Tasmania in the mid-19th century,” said John Jones.

Fittingly, the exhibition opened in Launceston and travelled to Geelong where many years ago Dowling worked as an artist. In its Canberra showing, the exhibition will feature an additional work, Ruth and Boaz 1876, from the Aigantighe Art Gallery in Timaru New Zealand. Ruth and Boaz was painted after Dowling visited the Middle East in 1876 and depicts an Old Testament story. Dowling’s biblical subjects were a major component of his career in England.

Dowling’s work is now held extensively across Australia in both state and regional galleries. Overseas he is represented at the British Museum and the Museum of London in England, the Paisley Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland, Philadelphia Museum of Art in the United States, and Aigantighe Art Gallery in Timaru New Zealand.

National Gallery of Australia | Robert Dowling | Ron Radford AM |

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