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Janet Dawson

Janet Dawson

Explore the exhibition

by Dr Sarah Engledow

The Popular Pet Book features more than 100 colour images of paintings in the exhibition, with 15 lighthearted yet informative essays by exhibition curator Sarah Engledow and an introduction from our Top Dog, Angus Trumble. Order your copy!

Janet Dawson, 2016 by Mark Mohell
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Janet Dawson, 2016 by Mark Mohell

When soulmates Janet Dawson and Michael Boddy moved from Sydney to a faraway New South Wales property in 1974, Boddy was clear about why: ‘Our marriage is one long conversation,’ he said. ‘We moved to the bush so we could talk to each other without so many interruptions.’ The pair nested there for some forty years.

In 1956, as an art school graduate, Janet Dawson won a National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship and went to study in London. Subsequently, she worked in a Paris lithography studio. When she came back to Melbourne in the early 1960s she ran the print workshop at the avant-garde Gallery A. She was, and is, a petite dark beauty, and the fashion photographer Bruno Benini used her as an occasional model.

Michael Boddy studied at Cambridge before coming to Australia for ten quid in 1959. By 1965 he was in Sydney, becoming the gigantic, high-spirited presenter of the children’s TV series Crackerjack.  

In 1968 Michael and Janet married. That year, she was one of only three female artists out of forty included in an audacious exhibition of abstract works, The Field, at the new National Gallery of Victoria. Boddy set to work with Bob Ellis on the play The Legend of King O’Malley, which debuted in Sydney under John Bell’s direction in 1970. His next play was Hamlet on Ice, which featured many big names of the day. His Cradle of Hercules was commissioned for the opening season of the Opera House in 1974; it starred Jack Charles and David Gulpilil.

In 1973, Janet won the Archibald Prize with a portrait of Michael, in pink t-shirt and straw hat with a book and gardening tools.

Over their years at Scribble Rock, near Binalong, Janet painted and drew trees, clouds, vegetables and animals. Boddy wrote dozens of plays for young people and the couple set up a youth theatre group in Canberra in the 1980s. Together, too, they established the Bugle Press and published the newsletter Kitchen Talk. Before his time, Michael became a regular newspaper columnist and author on food, consumer affairs, natural history, sustainability and small farming.

Summer 1986, 1986 by Janet Dawson
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Summer 1986, 1986 by Janet Dawson

In the spring of 1978 Michael and Janet drove to Canberra to choose a kelpie cross puppy. Lulu became the third person in their family, with a paw in every farming and gardening task and a permanent place in their yellow Ford ute. That’s her in the corner of Michael’s portrait; the hot day’s taken it out of them both.

Janet cared for Michael until his devastating death. Afterwards, she moved into a cottage in Binalong, helping to restore the town mural while exhibiting art in Sydney and Canberra. In her early widowhood she found a cruelly mistreated puppy in the bush, named him Bosco and tended his wounds. He watched her sort through art works for several major exhibitions, and depict herself, by invitation, for the 2015 self-portrait prize of the University of Queensland. On hot days, Janet and Bosco would sit under a big tree in their front garden, where he’d bark at passers-by. In January 2016, their tree blew down in a mini-tornado. Shaken, they left town, wedged into a car full of young people whom Janet found invigorating.

Living with three generations of her family on a property at Ocean Grove, Victoria, the artist greets Michael’s Archibald-winning portrait every morning. Bosco regressed with relocation. Mournfully, Janet consulted a local sheepdog trainer, who gave him a go; miraculously, he excelled at herding and now works full-time. Meanwhile, Janet’s painting and drawing the ocean, and reacquainting herself with the Melbourne art scene. 

> More information: Bronwyn Watson writes about Summer 1986 for the Popular Pet Show.

More information