JOHN DOWIE: An Artist for Everybody

John Dowie's sculpture Three Rivers in Victoria Square, Adelaide - Photo by SA History Hub

John Stuart Dowie is best known for his sculptures but is also widely known as an artist.

One of four children, he was born in Prospect, Adelaide in South Australia, and from the age of two, lived the rest of his life in the family home in Dulwich, in Burnside, Adelaide.

Dowie attended the Rose Park Primary School, where his aptitude for drawing became apparent at an early age. In 1925, Dowie began attending the South Australian School of Art in Adelaide, where he was taught modelling under the sculptor Robert Craig.

His art teachers included Jessamine Buxton, Leslie Wilkie, Margaret Walloscheck, Marie Tuck and Ivor Hele.

John Stuart Dowie, Self Portrait Tobruk – Photo by MutualArt

John began holding exhibitions in 1933 at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts, which continued until 1969. His work was exhibited during the war, in 1941 and 1944, despite him not living in Adelaide at the time.

In 1936, he enrolled in the University of Adelaide in the discipline of architecture, simultaneously being employed by Hubert Cowell & Co. as a draughtsman. John continued to attend night classes at the School of Art, until June 1940, when he enlisted in the 2/43 Battalion of the Australian Infantry Forces. Dowie was one of the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ the garrison who maintained the Siege of Tobruk, a port in Libya, against the Afrika Corps (aka the German Africa Corps) between April and November 1941.

When the siege had been lifted, Dowie was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and later employed in the Military History section of the Department of War Records in Cairo, assisting sculptor Lyndon Dadswell. In July 1942 he was sent back to the Military History Section in Melbourne where he met fellow artist Charles Bush, with whom he became very good friends.

In 1942, the Contemporary Art Society of South Australia was formed as a splinter group from the Society of Arts and Dowie exhibited with them throughout the late 1940’s.

Jetty at Port Willunga – Photo by Australian Art Sales Digest

When World War II ended, Dowie returned to Adelaide and the School of Art, completing his studies in 1950. He was appointed as a lecturer at The School of Art and President from 1960-1962.

In Adelaide, he maintained the friendship he had formed with Sir Edward (Bill) Hayward whom he had met in Tobruk. Hayward and his wife, Lady Ursula, were avid art collectors and had amassed a valuable collection at their home Carrick Hill. The couple hosted regular parties where Dowie was introduced to art by luminaries including Paul Gauguin, Auguste Renoir, Sir Frank Brangwyn and many others.

These influences along with his war experiences persuaded Dowie to travel to London and Italy, where he studied at Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design (affectionately nicknamed ‘The Cass’) and the Florence Academy of Art respectively. It was at this point that he swapped sculpting for painting.

Dowie himself generally worked in oils; his ‘Jetty at Port Willunga’ (1970) had sold for A$3 800 in September 2008. His highest-priced painting ‘Self Portrait Tobruk’ (1942-3) was auctioned in June 2018 for A$4 200. Another self-portrait painted in 1970 sold at the same auction for A$3 800.

Portrait Bust of Dame Joan Sutherland – Photo by Australian Art Auction Records

His largest sculpture is the ‘Three Rivers Fountain’ in Victoria Square in Adelaide. He made numerous portrait busts, notably of Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland which sold for A$750 in February 2009, Sir Jacob Epstein KBE who had a large influence on Dowie’s work, and English navigator Captain Matthew Flinders (1774-1814), which sculpture sold for A$2 800 in February 2009.

On 8th June 1981, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of service to the arts as a sculptor and painter.

Adelaide University awarded Dowie an honorary doctorate in 2004.

In 2005, he was nominated Senior Australian of the Year.

Despite these honours, Dowie was always apprehensive about a new commission. He is reputed to have said, “I never start a new work without a great fluttering of butterflies and wondering if I can possibly do it.”

John Stuart Dowie, Self Portrait, 1970 – Photo by MutualArt

In 2006, he had suffered a stroke but when interviewed by Samela Harris of The Advertiser, Dowie is quoted as saying “I am very cross with myself for not getting more done. But I have reached an age when I think a lot of people the same age are as bad as I am.”

Dowie was always critical of what he regarded as the decline in standards of the design of Adelaide; Colonel William Light, an artist as well as an officer and the first Surveyor-General of the Colony of South Australia, had conceived the symmetrical layout of the city of Adelaide. Dowie regarded modern development as “what was old and strong and beautiful, being destroyed by building huge and absolutely ordinary things, ugly, commonplace.”

In March 2008, Dowie suffered another stroke in the Adelaide nursing home in which he was living. He died a week later, on the morning of 19th March. He is buried in the small town of Littlehampton in the Adelaide Hills. His niece, Susan Dowie-Parkinson said of her uncle “Quite apart from his brilliance with sculpture and painting, I think just as a human being he was such an example to everybody who knew him.”

Susan Sideris of the Kensington Gallery had this to say; “He was much loved not just because of who he is, but because his works are very vital and lively and stunning and marvellous, and his sculpture is the old-fashioned sculpture where you can see where he put his thumbs in the clay.”

Victor Richardson Gates – Photo by Adelaidia

Artistic ability runs in the family: John’s niece Penny Dowie was awarded first place in the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 1988.

John Dowie’s work can be found throughout Australia – mostly in Adelaide in the ‘Victor Richardson Gates’ at the Adelaide Oval sports ground and the ‘Sir Ross & Sir Keith Smith Memorial’ at Adelaide Airport. The Smith brothers were Australian navigators, the first pilots to fly from England to Australia, in 1919. Dowie’s work can also be found in Sydney in the form of the Governor of New South Wales (1810-1821), Lachlan Macquarie; as can his statue of Queen Elizabeth II in Canberra. Galleries around Australia including the Art Gallery of South Australia, similarly of West Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the Australian War Memorial also hold numerous examples of Dowie’s work.