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John Dowie is best known for his sculpture, which is to be found in almost every Australian capital city. It is also found at in Mawson Base in Antarctica, Scheveningen in The Netherlands, the Australian Embassy in Washington DC; the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby and Windsor Castle, London. Adelaide, Dowie’s home town, is fortunate in having many of his works on public display. He was also a talented abstract painter. Several of his paintings are held by the Art Gallery of South Australia and by Carrick Hill, Springfield.

Early talent

Dowie’s artistic ability was evident at an early age. His Grade 3 teacher was so impressed by his creativity that she convinced his parents to send him to the South Australian School of Art, located in the Jubilee Exhibition Building, North Terrace, Adelaide. He began modelling classes there at the age of 10 in 1925.

John Dowie continued his studies at the School of Art through the 1930s. His teachers included designer Robert Craig, sculptor Joseph Choate and painters Ivor Hele and Marie Tuck. He began exhibiting works with the Royal South Australian Society of Arts in the Institute Building from 1933 (and continued until 1969). He also commenced studies in architecture at the University of Adelaide. From 1936 he worked with Hubert Cowell & Co. as a draughtsman, while maintaining his art classes at night.

Reflecting the slow acceptance of modernism in Australia, training in sculpture in the 1930s tended to be conservative and orientated to the smoothly classical form. However, Dowie was struck by the energy and emotion of dynamic forms illustrated in The Sculptor Speaks by American-born British sculptor Jacob Epstein. The day he first saw that book, published in 1932, Dowie tried the approach, modelling a representation of fellow student Dave Dallwitz. Epstein’s profound influence on Dowie was such that he later said, ‘I can claim Epstein as my teacher’.[1]

[1] Lock-Weir, p24

War experience

In June 1940 John Dowie enlisted in the 2/43rd AIF. He served in Tobruk, Palestine and New Guinea. He was promoted from private to sergeant in November 1941 and commenced service with the Military History Section in Heliopolis, Cairo. He worked for six months as assistant to sculptor Lyndon Dadswell, war artist for the Australian War Memorial, before returning to Australia in 1942. Based in Melbourne, Dowie continued his service with the Military History Section and work with fellow war artists. Dowie’s war service is reflected in his memorial sculptures located at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra and in Adelaide.

Dowie continued to produce his own works and exhibit with the Royal South Australian Society of Arts during the war. The Art Gallery of South Australia purchased the painting Cats in the Garden (1944), from one such exhibition. While he was away from Adelaide, the art scene divided, with some actively pursuing modernist principles. The Contemporary Art Society of South Australia was established in 1942 by modernist teacher, painter and linocut artist Dorrit Black, along with Grace Crowley, Ruth Tuck, Horace Trennery and Jacqueline Hick. Dowie exhibited with this society on his return to Adelaide in 1945. He became a founding member of ‘Group 9’ (also initiated by Dorrit Black), exhibiting with the group between 1945 and 1949.

Emerging artists in Adelaide following the Second World War benefited from the active support of Sir Edward and Lady Ursula Hayward. The talented Dowie was among them, having previously met Edward Hayward when both were serving in Tobruk. Dowie was able to meet notable Australian and overseas artists, musicians and actors at the Hayward’s stately home, Carrick Hill. The Haywards were passionate art collectors, purchasing works from contemporary and nineteenth century artists on their travels to Europe. This enabled young South Australian artists, including Dowie, to view works not yet available in the major Australian galleries such as those of Epstein, Stanley Spencer, Augustus and Gwen John, Paul Nash, Boudin, Renoir, Gaugin and Vuillard.

Learning overseas

In 1950 Dowie sailed for London, paying his way by working as a ship’s steward. From his London base, he travelled to Norway and Sweden to see the sculpture of Gustav Vigeland and Carl Milles. He then began studies in stone sculpture at Sir John Cass College, London. From Cass College sculptor Bainbridge Copnall Dowie ‘learnt the bold freehand approach of hammer and chisel which was to become his trademark’.[2] He also visited Epstein, and was impressed by both the man and his works. Of Epstein’s bronze portraits he said, ‘the best of them show a power, an expressiveness of handling and a living characterisation that deserves the rating “great”’. [3]

Dowie went on the study bronze casting and modelling at the Porta Romana College and Accademia, Florence. For the next three years he continued his studies and travelled through England, Spain, Italy and France. He completed paintings and sculpture, and took time to enjoy what was to become a favourite pastime; skiing. Regrettably, his art from this period was lost in transit back to Australia in 1953.

[2] Coleman, p41

[3] Lock-Weir, p25

Teaching, public sculpture and awards

The following year Dowie commenced teaching in modelling, painting and drawing at the South Australian School of Art, where he continued to teach until 1962. In 1960 he became President of the Royal South Australian Society of Arts; a position he held for four years. At the same time, he continued to paint and sculpt. In 1954 he received a commission for a public sculpture. This was the first of many public commissions for the rest of his life.

In 1977, after two decades of commissions, Dowie returned to Europe. There he met Viennese Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, whose art he greatly admired. Reflecting on this journey and his meeting with Kokoschka, Dowie said:

My journey to Europe was the result of a general dissatisfaction with my work and was mainly a search for a cure of my ills. In the painting of Kokoschka I could see much that I needed. It shows in the highest degree courage, that inspirational quality without which art is lifeless, a tenacious keeping to essentials, and a contempt for compromise – strong medicine. I had seen the works and to go to the master himself was, perhaps, a commitment to the attitudes and standards that made them possible.[4]

In June 1981 Dowie was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service as a sculptor and painter. In 2004 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Adelaide for his contribution to the spiritual and artistic life of Adelaide and the nation. He was named South Australia’s Senior Australian of the Year in 2005.

Dr John Dowie received a State funeral upon his death in March 2008. At a memorial service in Bonython Hall at the University of Adelaide on 22 April 2008 many came to pay tribute to a renowned artist and an unpretentious, witty and affable man.

A bust of Dowie, sculpted by John Woffinden, is in front of the State Library of South Australia on North Terrace, Adelaide.

[4] Lock-Weir, p40

Public sculpture by John Dowie located in South Australia

1954–55 The soldier, doorway, Roseworthy College War Memorial Chapel, Roseworthy College, Roseworthy

1957–58 Captain Sir Ross Smith KBE MC DFC AFC, Lieutenant Sir Keith Smith KBE, Lieutenant JM Bennett MSM AFM and Lieutenant WH Shiers AFM, sandstone bas-relief, Sir Ross and Keith Smith Memorial, Adelaide Airport

1960 Platypus, fountain, Raleigh Walk, Elizabeth Town Square, Elizabeth

1960 Piccaninny, fountain, Rymill Park, East Terrace, Adelaide

1961 Alice, bronze sculpture, Rymill Park, East Terrace, Adelaide

1961 Sir Hans Heysen, bronze sculpture, Hahndorf Academy Public Gallery and German Migration Museum, Hahndorf

1962 Pan, fountain, Veale Gardens, South Terrace, Adelaide

1963 Stilt Boy, bronze sculpture, Adelaide High School, West Terrace, Adelaide

1966 Lord Florey, bust, North Terrace, Adelaide

1967 Victor Richardson Gates, Eastern Entrance, Adelaide Oval, Adelaide

1968 Three Rivers Fountain, Victoria Square/Tarndanyangga, Adelaide

1970 Sir Mellis Napier, bust, North Terrace, Adelaide

1970 Sir Edward Morgan, bust, Art Gallery of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide

1972 Tjilbruke, gneiss boulders, Kingston Park

1972 The Art of Learning, relief mullions, Main Hall and Library exterior, University of South Australia, Mawson Lakes Campus, Mawson Lakes

1972 Tribute to Russack, foyer, Adelaide High School, West Terrace, Adelaide

1973 Sir Thomas Playford, bust, Parliament House, North Terrace, Adelaide

1974 Aumbry Memorial Door, Saint Columba’s Anglican Church, Cross Road, Hawthorn

1976 George, bronze sculpture, Zoological Gardens, Frome Road, Adelaide

1977 The Slide, bronze sculpture, Rundle Mall, Adelaide

1978 Sir Mark Oliphant, North Terrace, Adelaide

1978 Child with a hula hoop, bronze sculpture, Nurses Memorial Gardens, off King William Road, Adelaide

1980s Discus, Rowing, Football, Hamish Bruce Memorial Gate, St Peters College, St Peters

1980s Dr Mildred Mocatta Fountain, Hackney

1980 2/43 Battalion Memorial Cairn, gateway, Woodside Training Camp, Woodside

1981 Thomas & Co. Fountain, Port Adelaide

1982 Sir Douglas Mawson, bust, North Terrace, Adelaide

1985 Sir Robert Torrens, bust, Lands Titles Office, 101 Grenfell Street, Adelaide

1985–86 John Bishop, bust, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide

1986 Matthew Flinders, bust, entrance Registry Building, Flinders University of South Australia, Bedford Park

1986 Sir Robert Helpmann, bronze sculpture, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide

1986? WAN Wells QC, bust, Lands Titles Office, 101 Grenfell Street, Adelaide

1990 Hon John Jefferson Bray, bust, State Library of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide

1996 The Ursula Hayward Fountain, Carrick Hill, Springfield

1997 Alexander Cameron, bronze sculpture, Church Street, Penola

1997 The Skater, bronze sculpture, Burnside City Council, Burnside Town Hall, Tusmore

1998 John Rymill, bust, Rymill Winery, Riddoch Highway, Coonawarra

1998 John Riddoch, bust, Rymill Winery, Riddoch Highway, Coonawarra

2004 Turner Boy, bronze sculpture, Carrick Hill, Springfield

2005 Sir Hubert Wilkins, bust, State Library of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide

2005 Charles Mountford, bust, State Library of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide

Selected public sculpture by John Dowie outside of South Australia

1964 Downer Memorial Fountain, Garema Place, Canberra

1969 Dr CEW Bean, bust, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

1970s Dr John Gunther, bust, University of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

1970-71 Icarus, sculpture, Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne

1973 Governor Lachlan Macquarie, sculpture, Mint Building grounds, Macquarie Street, Sydney

1979 Sir Zelman Cowen, bust, University of Queensland, Brisbane

1979, Beethoven, bust, Beelden Aan Zee Museum, Scheveningen, The Netherlands

1982 Sir Douglas Mawson, bust, Mawson Base, Antarctica

1982 Lord Casey, sculpture, Australian Embassy, Washington DC

1987 Queen Elizabeth II, bronze sculpture, Queen’s Terrace, Parliament House, Canberra (bust also in St George’s Hall, Windsor Castle, London)

1988 AIF Malaya Memorial, bronze sculpture, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

1990s Vouza, bronze sculpture, War Memorial, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands

By Jude Elton, History SA

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Image: painting of religious figures hangs on a white brick wall behind an altar
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Image: Elderly man with mustache poses in three quarter profile in front of artwork
Image: bronze sculpture of man’s head
Image: Bronze statue of girl on sandstone plinth inscribed "ALICE for the children from Josephine and Norman Lewis 1962"
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