Dora Toovey's Life

Dora Toovey painting in studioDorothea 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.

Her mother 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 today. 

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 recounts.

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: 

I first 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 RDora 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 1980s.

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.

Australian Home Beautiful1931 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 Gloucester.

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 Wenona School.

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.

Dora Toovey in gardenAs 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.

1983 was 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:

Dora Toovey by Joshua Smith"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
Private collection

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."

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