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Bill and Ted's excellent portrait.

by Dr Sarah Engledow, 9 March 2016

Sarah Engledow on Messrs Dobell and MacMahon and the art of friendship.

Dr Edward MacMahon, 1959 by William Dobell
Dr Edward MacMahon, 1959 by William Dobell

Say 'William Dobell' and 'Archibald Prize' in the same sentence, and odds-on, the talk will turn to 1944. That year, two artists - 'disgruntled nonentities' in the words of the late, beloved Andrew Sayers - sued the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales over their decision to award the prize to Dobell for his portrait of his friend, Joshua Smith. It remains the most sensational, absurd and lamentable event in Australian art history; but in fact, the trustees’ decision having been found reasonable, Dobell won the Archibald twice more in the years to come. The subject of his third Archibald-winning portrait was a Sydney surgeon, Edward 'Ted' MacMahon, and coming sixteen years after the Smith fiasco, the victory was a much happier affair for all concerned. 

Edward MacMahon was one of many children of a Cootamundra solicitor. Fortunate enough to have been born in 1904, he belonged to that small group of men who were too young to serve in the First World War, and established in essential professions by the time of the second. After schooling at St Patrick’s, Goulburn, he studied medicine at the University of Sydney, graduating in the mid-1920s. (Four of the MacMahon children became doctors; MacMahon’s sister Lucy was the first female anaesthetist in Australia, but she ceased to practise after her marriage.) After working for a time at the University of Sydney and the Sydney Hospital, in early 1929 MacMahon sailed to London as ship’s surgeon on the Orama. Douglas Mawson was also aboard, with a view to organising his next Antarctic expedition; MacMahon toyed with the idea of going. Instead, having obtained his FRCS in London, he operated at the Woolwich War Memorial Hospital for several years, learning from Lawrence Abel, an eminent, flamboyant man who was especially interested in surgery of the colon and rectum and the treatment of cancer. 

The painter William Dobell, born in 1899, grew up in Newcastle, where his father was a tradesman. At school, Dobell was only good at drawing, and after he left, he worked at various jobs including 'dog-walloping' - discouraging dogs from urinating on goods displayed on footpaths. He was apprenticed to an architect and studied art in Sydney before leaving Australia for Europe in 1929 on the Society of Artists' Travelling Scholarship. He had a year at the Slade school during his nine years' absence. In London, his figurative work evolved from the gentle Boy at the Basin to more powerful, discomfiting paintings that, while not caricatures, nor portraits, were full-blown human 'types'. Works such as Mrs South Kensington, The Dead Landlord and The Duchess Disrobes were ugly, but not entirely cruel; depressing, but kind-of funny, too. In 1936, he joined the fun-loving team of Australian artists led by Arthur Murch who were decorating the Wool Pavilion for the Glasgow Fair of 1937; it was the only time during his time away that he had any discretionary income. Classically trained, he equally imbibed London modernism; when he returned to Sydney in 1938, bringing nearly all of his English paintings with him, he managed to impress conservative and progressive art factions alike.

By that time, MacMahon had been back in Sydney for five years. In 1933 he took up an appointment at St Vincent’s Hospital. Over the course of his career he was also senior honorary consultant general surgeon at Lewisham and the Mater Misericordiae hospital on the North Shore, where he frequently operated on the poor on Friday nights and was doted-on by the resident Sisters of Mercy (who attended him in his own last illness in 1987). MacMahon had a particular keenness and skill for operating on cancers; surgeon Thomas Hugh recalled that 'he had a special ability to keep out of trouble surgically, with an uncanny sense of how far matters could be taken safely in a given case.' A colleague recalled that MacMahon belonged to the last generation to train when medicine was a vocation; 'One of his great interests was people, and among the least was material gain, though a vast practice assured it. Charity and patience with him were commonplace...  Saturdays and Sundays were not sacred to him but less demanding than other days', he wrote.

For twenty years, MacMahon worked in a pioneering surgical partnership with Noel Curtis Newton, who taught at St Vincent’s Hospital in his own scant free hours - on Sunday mornings. Outside work, Ted MacMahon was an affectionate family man. From 1950 he, his wife Elizabeth and (eventually) their six children lived at 5 Bennett Ave, one of the oldest houses in Darling Point. Later, they owned 57 Darling Point Road, the house Edmund Blacket designed for Thomas Sutcliffe Mort. MacMahon was an avid collector of Georgian and Victorian furniture, clocks and especially silver; in his shining hoard he had a spoon which had belonged to Sir Francis Drake. 

For a while after he came back to Sydney, boarding in Kings Cross, Dobell worked through what he remembered, with at least one interesting consequence. One of his Sydney paintings from 1940, The Cypriot, looks as if it could have been painted after the war. It depicts a man named Aegus Gabrielides, to whom Dobell had been close (and had painted several times) in London. Years later, Clive James wrote with wonder of how the portrait of the Greek foreshadowed the great social changes that were to come in Australia in the late 1940s and 1950s: 

A man whom he had loved and seen asleep...
But then he had the sudden wit to keep

The clothes, and thus the heritage, in the next
Picture. A window from a men’s-wear store,
It doubles as the greatest early text
Of the immigration. What we were before
Looks back through this to what we would become.
We see a sense of nuance head our way
To make the raw rich, complicate the sum
Of qualities, prepare us for today.

In World War 2, Dobell served in a camouflage unit and the Civil Construction Corps of the Allied Works Council. Out of this experience, in 1943, came the quintessential twentieth-century Australian portrait: that of Joe Westcott, a loudmouthed, indolent wharfie, titled The Billy Boy. Dobell painted his fateful portrait of a fellow artist and camoufleur, Joshua Smith, the same year. Both the paintings were hung in the Archibald, with that of Smith announced the winner of the Prize in January 1944. Perhaps the portrait of Westcott would have sparked litigation, too; but at least he wasn’t a particular friend of Dobell’s, as was Smith, who had to go through the humiliation of having his features analysed against the figure Dobell had painted, which resembled, in the testimony of a medical man, a corpse in an advanced state of decomposition. The fact that the portrait was eventually judged not to be a caricature, but a good likeness, was thus a Pyrrhic victory. In the period following the hungrily reported court case, Dobell retreated to the hamlet of Wangi Wangi, on the edge of Lake Macquarie. He developed a severe case of nervous dermatitis; he was cared-for by his sister, who swept up his shed skin every morning, but the affliction damaged his left eye and caused his left leg to fail. As he recovered physically, he plummeted mentally and emotionally. Slowly, he built up his career again; he won both the Wynne Prize for landscape and the Archibald Prize, with a portrait of Margaret Olley, in 1948. 

Edward MacMahon’s relationship with ‘Bill’ Dobell began remotely in the early 1940s, when, having operated on an impecunious Sydney jeweller, MacMahon was constrained to accept a painting of Dobell’s as payment. The jeweller, himself, had acquired the painting from Dobell in exchange for a watch repair. Sometime later, Frank Clune brought Dobell to MacMahon’s house to see the painting, and the friendship between Dobell and MacMahon began. In 1957, the year of his astounding portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore (‘This work will still be carrying my identity when my own work is forgotten’, she predicted, accurately), Dobell was diagnosed with bowel cancer, and in 1958 MacMahon performed two difficult operations on him. The men spent much time together during Dobell’s long convalescence in St Vincent’s, and their friendship intensified. In the second half of that year Dobell made a start on MacMahon’s portrait, making innumerable pencil sketches, and studies in watercolour and oil that are now owned by the MacMahon siblings. The studies for the portrait show MacMahon in ordinary clothes, not surgical garb, although when Dobell was questioned about the significance of the splash of red in the painting he denied that it was an allusion to MacMahon’s sanguinous profession, and claimed it was simply a patch he forgot to paint over. This painting won Dobell his third Archibald, in 1959. ‘Dr MacMahon is an enormous person. I owe everything to him’, said the artist, who was a regular in the doctor’s circle for the rest of his life and is warmly remembered by MacMahon’s sons and daughters. 

From this period on, Dobell enjoyed great success and renown as a portraitist. At the age of 59, after 55 hours' instruction, he obtained his driving licence and bought a Jaguar, which he only used to get around Wangi. Time magazine commissioned him to paint a portrait of Sir Robert Menzies for the cover of its issue of 4 April 1960, which contained a very long article describing to Americans 'the speed with which Australia is coming of age' under Menzies’s 'decade of unabashed wooing of free enterprise'. (The piece quoted a senior Australian diplomat who asserted 'Nowadays we can talk to anybody in the world without any sense of innate inferiority.') In 1965, Dobell was made OBE while MacMahon was made CBE. In 1966, however, MacMahon was visiting the artist at Wangi when an aide from Government House rang. Characteristically, Dobell had neglected to open a letter from the governor-general; MacMahon stood by as he rifled through a heap of intact correspondence, and tore open the envelope containing the offer of his knighthood. MacMahon said at Dobell’s memorial service that his friend was 'a remarkable man: soft, gentle, kind and considerate'. It was, perhaps, an unusual and brave tribute from one Australian man to another in 1970, especially in the punters' corner of the bar of the Wangi pub. 

When Ted and Elizabeth MacMahon opened their Bennett Avenue home for the National Trust in May 1964, the guidesheet noted 'The drawing room is a particularly pleasing room, with its fine proportions, hand-made plaster ceiling with good cornice and centrepiece treatment, and its delicate and elegant colour scheme. One feels that William Dobell’s Archibald Prize-winning portrait of Dr MacMahon was painted especially for this room: notice the difference in colour tone used in the study for the portrait hanging nearby.' Whether or not Dobell kept the colour scheme of the MacMahons' study in mind as he worked on the final canvas, MacMahon was fortunate, in terms of his own posterity, to have had one of Australia’s great portraitists on his surgery list. In weighing up the suitability of a portrait for the collection, National Portrait Gallery curators, the director and board consider the interplay between the achievements of the sitter and the success of the portraitist, in conveying a sense of what the sitter was, or is, like to be around. Because MacMahon’s portrait is a brilliant one, his life’s work will become part of the Gallery’s broad fabric of stories. Many years after his death, his children’s generous donation  initiates a new phase in the life history of the bold, benign surgeon whose image hung for decades on the walls of his historic homes. 

Related people

Sir William Dobell OBE

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