Unknown photographer
Portrait of Robert Dowling c 1855
albumen silver photograph
private collection



Robert Dowling: Tasmanian son of Empire

A travelling retrospective of Australia’s first home-grown artist


Robert Dowling was Australia’s first major colonial-trained professional artist. Within Australian art historical terms, this was a milestone of great significance. It may seem surprising, then, that the National Gallery of Australia travelling exhibition Robert Dowling: Tasmanian son of Empire is the first retrospective of the artist’s comprehensive body of work. This exhibition shows his portraits, including his portraits of pastoralists and their properties, portraits and compositions of Indigenous people, biblical subjects, social history subjects and his Oriental subjects. The exhibition opens on 6 March at the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania, where Dowling arrived in Australia in 1834 at the age of seven.

Dowling gave up his saddlery trade to launch himself as a professional portrait painter in Launceston in 1850. It was still pre-gold rush Australia, and our first locally formed professional painter emerged at the age of 23. Dowling made claims of being self-taught but, despite the fact that the colonies had no academies of art for formal training or public art collections to study, the young artist had opportunities to learn from other colonial artists, including Frederick Strange and Thomas Bock, and from the work of Henry Mundy.

In Tasmania, a balanced colonial microcosm of late-Georgian English culture supported sophisticated architecture, furniture makers, silversmiths, frame makers and, importantly for Dowling, a surprising number of portrait painters—as well as still-life, marine and landscape painters. Indeed, Tasmanian art from the 1830s to the early 1850s was richer and more diverse than that of any other Australian colony.

'The Reverend Henry Dowling' and 'Mrs Elizabeth Dowling' 1851–52 oil on board National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Dowling’s interesting early portrait oils and miniatures executed in Tasmania appear superficially sophisticated, yet their often oversized heads and undersized hands betray the fact that he was deprived of the benefits of academic training and life drawing. Even so, his understanding of modelling and use of colour at this early stage of his professional career and his grasp on the character of his subjects was already more advanced than that of many of his colonial forebears and contemporaries.





John Jones curated the exhibition and is the author of the accompanying book published by the National Gallery of Australia. The book is the first dedicated to the work of this central and critical figure in late colonial art. Jones delves into Dowling’s early career in Tasmania (1850–54), his time in Victoria (1854–57), his London years (1857–84), and his return to Victoria (Melbourne) (1884–86) before he died back in London in 1886. He is now placed highly as Australia’s major portrait and figure painter of the late colonial period of around 1850–85.

Robert Dowling with the painting
'Miss Robertson of Colac (Dolly)'

This photograph was taken at The Hill near Colac in 1855 and shows Dolly wearing a white summer dress which the artist changed to brown at her request. Private collection

The exhibition has been sponsored by the National Gallery of Australia Council Exhibitions Fund, which is based upon generous personal donations from members of the Gallery Council made for the particular purpose of sponsoring special exhibitions. The publication has been generously sponsored by the American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia Inc, New York, with the special support of Dr Lee MacCormick Edwards.

The exhibition also has generous support from the Federal Government’s Visions of Australia and the National Collecting Institutions Touring and Outreach Program. I sincerely thank these funding bodies.

Ron Radford AM


Exhibition book

This beautifully designed and lavishly illustrated exhibition book is a great addition to any art lover’s collection. Read more

$39.95 special NGA shop price