Dora Toovey's Life
Dorothea Elizabeth Toovey was born on 28 December 1898, a
descendant of the early settler families Marsden and Gilchrist, into a grand
household in Bathurst, a wealthy country town in New South Wales.
was a Gilchrist, and was given the mansion ‘Ithaca’ as a wedding present when
she married Mr. Toovey. Dora had two sisters, Eileen and Rosalind The family
sold the building in 1902; it is still a landmark in Bathurst’s Bentinck Street
Dora Toovey painting in her studio, 1930s
Dora’s love of art seems to date back to her
childhood, as she loved to draw from a young age, as her daughter Jacqueline
From 1910 onwards, Dora was sent to board at SCEGGS
School in Darlinghurst/Sydney. The school is an Anglican girl only school, which
today aims to help their students become able, confident and articulate women. In
the case of Dora Toovey, this goal certainly was achieved. The school motto ‘Luceat
Lux Vestra’ meaning ‘Let your light shine’ was fully embraced by Dora in her
attitude to life and the way she lived it.
In 1919, the 20 year old Toovey joined the
Commonwealth Bank to work as a typist. At the bank, she worked under Boy Cole.
He and his wife Win, a very wealthy couple living in Manly, became early
patrons of Dora, purchasing not only her works, but also James R. Jackson's
during the depression helping to support their practice.
Dora took up studies at the Royal Art Society under
Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo. She clearly enjoyed the teaching of Antonio
Dattilo-Rubbo and remembered:
encountered Signor Dattilo-Rubbo at the Royal Art Society School where he
taught drawing at 76 Pitt Street, Sydney, at evenings. He was a most remarkable
teacher – armed with a feather duster which he applied lustily to charcoal
drawings which displeased him. Talking incessantly to make his point and swooping
on a student, he would demand “Do you know what you are drawing?” “Yes Signor”.
He continues “You see it and you know it, eh? – Well DRAW IT” and he would then
throw a drape over the subject and leave the student staring into space, trying
to remember what he said he knew. This method of teaching was designed to
sharpen the student’s observation and wits, to retain the image and impression
of the character of the subject – rhythm, line, mass and action. Yes he was a
colossal teacher of drawing! (From the recollections of Dora Toovey held in
the Manly Art Gallery and Museum archives.)
Dora Toovey and James R. Jackson most likely met when
she was studying at the Royal Art Society sometime in the late 1910s. They
married on 10 December 1924 in St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Middle Harbour. Two
years later, Dora and James set off on their trip to Europe, travelling to
Italy, France and Spain during 1927 and 1928. It proved to be a great
inspiration for both artists.
The surviving somewhat impressionistic paintings depicting
landscapes and towns such Ibiza, Granada, Toledo, Valdemosa and Gerona, and
vistas of Venice with sailing boats and St Marks’ Square are testament to what
must have been an unforgettable experience, where they met with artists Augusts
John (1878-1961) and Pierre Daura (1896-1974).
During their travels, Dora enjoyed collecting memorabilia, among them Greek amphorae caught by fishermen, Spanish
silk shawls, Florentine crockery and antique Spanish plates. Travelling was to
remain one of Toovey’s great loves, travelling throughout Australia until the
Dora Toovey and James R. Jackson, 1927 in Europe
A year after their return to Sydney, their first
child, Jacqueline, was born in 1929, followed in 1936 by their son Murray.
1931 and 1932 were busy years for settling down: Dora
had apartments in Lavender Bay built, and she also oversaw the construction of
their Provincial-style home in Battle Boulevarde in Seaforth,
prominently featured in Australian Home
Magazine in May 1933 with photographs
by Harold Cazneaux. Page 32 reads: ...So much could
be gathered from Mrs Jackson's fascinating story of how it slowly
materialised as more or less the house of her dreams, despite the errors
and stupidities of builders. An architect there was, I believe, but it
was really Mrs Jackson's house.
She it was who did the planning
and altering and devising. ... Her busy mind is still at work on the
problem of "things that should have been done", and the more fascinating
speculations as to "things that might be done," in order that the
perfect house might yet be more perfect. ....
Dora Toovey and daughter Jacqui 1933,
photograph by H. Cazneaux for "The Australian Home Beautiful", 1/5/1933
The depression however did not spare the successful
artist family: they had to lease their home and move to the countryside to live
in camps at Lanyon, Murrumbidgee, Canberra and the Higgins property in
Both Dora and James kept painting under difficult
circumstances, and Dora was able to bring together her first exhibition for
Macquarie Galleries in Sydney in 1934 - apart from regularly showing landscapes
in the Royal Art Society exhibitions from the 1930s onwards. Her works also
received regular favourable reviews in the press.
In the late 1930s, an inheritance from her
grandmother enabled her to continue her interest in design, purchasing land and
building flats and houses in Mosman in the 1940s.
1939 marked another important milestone in Toovey’s
artistic development: she decided to attend the National Gallery School in
Melbourne to study portraiture with W. B. McInnes and Max Meldrum for some
months, taking Jacqueline and Murray with her. Upon her return later that year,
Dora moved to Walker Street in North Sydney, where the children could attend
1943 was the first year a portrait by Dora Toovey was
exhibited in the Archibald Prize: a half-length portrait of Lieutenant Arthur
Roden Cutler, recipient of the Victoria Cross for his brave actions in World
War II in Syria in 1941. She continued to be a regular finalist in the Archibald,
Wynne and Sulman Prizes for over 20 years up until the 1960s, when she started
entering the Portia Geach Memorial Award, winning it in 1970 with a self
portrait and again in 1978 with a portrait of Senator Neville Bonner.
In 1944, Dora attended the court case of William
Dobell about his Archibald Prize winning portrait of artist Joshua Smith, and
recorded the proceedings in oil, while other artists, including Dobell himself,
made sketches of the protagonists. Joshua Smith would become a regular painting
companion, as Yve Close in her publication on this artist recalls.
In her private life, the marriage to James had broken
down and they divorced in 1947. In 1950 Dora married again: George Scott, a
teacher and former headmaster of Cleveland Public School, living with him (as
well as his aged mother and daughter Helen) at 23 Parriwi Road, Mosman, which
was to be Toovey’s home for the rest of her life. By 1951, George Scott had
also graduated in law.
As her son-in-law remembers, Dora was a generous
host, with a sharp, witty and critical intellect, full of energy with wide
interests and talents, from current affairs and politics to music, and she was
an avid reader.
Tending her garden in Mosman her love of flowers was obvious,
as it was fragrant with the scent of gardenias and lilac azaleas.
Dora Toovey in the garden at Parriwi Road, Mosman, c. 1950s
Dora enjoyed the company of ‘interesting people’ who
had something to offer - be it wealth, breeding, intelligence, appreciation of
the arts, and detested laziness or perceived slackness. Sir Herbert Schlink, a
noted gynaecologist and chairman of the Royal Prince Alfred hospital gave the
loyal toast at her daughter’s wedding, and Phillip Wright, chancellor of the
New England University attended as a guest. Other friends included Dora and Kim
Birtles, the political editor of the Daily Telegraph.
It is not surprising that Dora Toovey had often guests
stay at her Mosman home. Among them were painter Stewart Harmon (see Donald
Friend), and Sir Raphael Cilento whom she painted for the Portia Geach Memorial
Award in 1967 (his daughter Diane married Sean Connery).
Toovey’s political views were firmly on the right
side of the political spectrum, which led her to join the Beauty Point branch
of the Liberal Party in 1964.
In April 1980, a gala dinner for distinguished
artists over the age of 80 was held at the Kirribilli Ex-Services Club. Apart
from Dora Toovey, the guests of honour were Lloyd Rees, Douglas Dundas,
Desiderius Orban, George Finey, Sali Herman, Rubery Bennett, Noel Kilgour and
Robert Emerson Curtis. Other guests included Margaret Olley, John Coburn, Roy
Fluke, Guy Warren, Alan D. Baker, John Santry, Peter Laverty and Joshua Smith.
the last time she entered Portia Geach Memorial Award, as her health started to
decline. Dora Toovey died in mid-1986 and was buried at Mona Vale.
A prolific painter, she also created works under the
pseudonym Theodor Scott, painting in a more modernist style than the landscapes
and portraits that we are familiar with today.
Dora Toovey’s paintings are represented in the
National Gallery of Australia, and numerous state and regional art galleries.
Recollections of Dora Toovey Griffith Taylor - Visionary, Environmentalist, Explorer, by Carolyn Strange and Alison Bashford, published by National Library of Australia, 2008, p. 179:
... Taylor had just completed a series of sittings for a portrait by artist Dora Toovey, who had been looking for a '"Famous" subject' to paint for the 1955 Archibald portrait competition. ('We like the result,' Taylor wrote to his brother Evan, 'with a map of the Aus-Ant. [Australian Antarctic] region as a background.')
Diaries of Donald Friend, Volume 3, edited by Paul Hetherington, published 2005:
6 October 1965, Sydney: "And so I'm home at last. .... I went to the Windsor to spy out the land for Stewart [Holman], but no sight of him .... To add something to my miserable suspense, Dora Toovey (at whose place he used to live in a hut in the garden) rang me today saying she wants to come and see me tomorrow to talk over some disturbing events. In her absence the hut had been broken into and four fires lit in it in an attempt to burn it down. She couldn't say more on the phone. I couldn't imagine Stewart's doing such a thing. But I'm sure the rifle he has suddenly acquired came from there."
Joshua Smith Artist (1905-1995), published and written by Yve Close 1998, p. 144-145:
"One of the painters Josh and I me with each Wednesday to paint landscape was Dora Toovey. She knew the northern peninsula from South Head to Palm Beach in intimate detail, the best beach to paint on a dull day or when the sun shone, where we could find shelter from the blast of fierce winds, whether or not convenient toilets were available or a shop for hot food - a fount of useful information.
People, living in houses clutching the cliffs of our coastline, knew her well. Sometimes they trundled heavy trays of afternoon tea up steep drives or stairs to refresh we three.
They provided semi-nude studies as they bared their breast to the elements. She neither flinched nor deviated from her course of action if she caused embarrassment to her unwitting subjects. Dora just worked on.
Portrait of Dora Toovey by Joshua Smith, 1970
One day, after we had spent the morning painting boats at anchor on Pittwater, a body of water cradled by Sydney's northern peninsula, we moved into the nearby beer garden of the Newport Hotel, intending to carry on with more work. People sat drinking at small tables in the dappled afternoon light; interesting subjects, according to Dora. Josh and I, too embarrassed to work openly, made small figure drawings in sketch books concealed beneath the table top. Not Dora! She nonchalantly set up her easel and gear, in full view of everyone, then commenced painting bare-chested young men and their companions. Before long they realised what she was doing, and gathered behind her to see the work. Totally unruffled, she ordered them back to their positions, saying 'otherwise you won't be in the painting'. They returned to the table like lams, allowing Dora to finalise an appealing canvas.
After working all day in the open, we retraced our steps to Dora's home high above Chinaman's Beach, where Josh and Dora often provided a musical interlude. Dora played the piano, while Josh sat beside her singing, both still wearing their hats."