State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 33 April 1984


William Dexter (1817–1860): Some New Sources for his Paintings

History has virtually ignored William Dexter, for he is not widely represented in public collections and the little written on him has often been inaccurate.1 Traditionally he has been thought of as a bird painter who was heavily influenced by his training at the Derby China Factory.2 We are now, however, in a much better position to discuss his life and work. Although Dexter called himself an animal painter in the British Census of 18513, we know that he painted a wide range of topics. In 1855 he had at least two exhibitions which included paintings with Australian subjects: the first was an art union with twenty prizes4, the second a collection of at least six paintings at Ross's Australian Gallery, Bridge Street, Sydney5, At least twice in his career he advertised himself as a general artist who could paint portraits and landscapes amongst other things6.
Recently the La Trobe Library acquired a collection of letters and other archival material on Dexter and his feminist wife, Caroline Harper Dexter. The letters are mainly from Caroline to her husband and his relatives and chronicle the breakdown of their marriage and the family quarrels subsequent to the artist's death. There is also a graphic description of the artist's last few months in a letter from his young cousin, William Smedley. In this article, however, I wish to discuss the references made to Dexter's paintings and compare them to related sources7.
The earliest is an undated scrap of blue paper, apparently part of a letter to Caroline, listing items for the first exhibition of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts in December, 18578:
Potrait of Dog and Dog
Blacks Camp
Birds nests
Oppossan (sic) Moonlight
Ducks — dead
Your Mother potraits
Partridgs in oil on Pamile (ie. Panel?)
It continues with a list of Aboriginal artifacts, which were eventually exhibited under the name of Mrs. Dexter9.
The portraits, however, were not exhibited and there appears to be no other mention of them. Number 1 in the catalogue of the Exhibition was Opossum, by Moonlight (oil, £6). It was parodied in Melbourne Punch10 as being a “portrait of an oppossum (sic) who has been canonised and for that reason has been depicted as being surrounded with a nimbus or aureole, which the old masters conferred upon such saintly subjects”. This was accompanied by a suitable illustration. The painting was used at the end of December, 1857 for a vignette in Caroline Dexter's Ladies almanack 185811 and is in fact the only demonstration that William Dexter supplied the originals for the illustrations.
“Blacks Camp” became Native Camp, Gippsland12. It remained in the collection of William Lynch, Caroline's second husband;
a description of his collection in Table talk includes the following:
William Dexter, an artist of great merit, who visited Australia some 40 years ago, and died in Sydney, is well represented in the gallery of Mr. Lynch, who was his pupil. A picture painted on Mr. Angus Macmillan's (sic) run in Gippsland — An Encampment of Blacks — is interesting to Australians, but is technically of much less merit than others by the same artist.13
The painting was auctioned in 1903 with the rest of the Lynch collection.14
“Birds nests” must surely refer to the two water colours each titled Bird's Nest in the exhibition15. There is a minor difficulty over "Ducks — dead” and "Partridgs in oil on (Panel)“. The exhibition catalogue lists no. 3, Ducks in Ferns (oil, £5), and no. 8, Dead Ducks on Panel (oil, £6). The partridges were not exhibited, but turned up later in the Lynch collection16. We must assume then that “Ducks — dead” became no. 8 in the exhibition.
This leaves “Portrait of Dog and Dog”. The catalogue contains no. 2, Dead Pet (oil, £10), and no. 4, Lady's Pet (oil, £50). The outrageous price of £50 was met with incredulity by the critic of the Examiner, who was most unimpressed by the general standard of the exhibition:
They either do not see that they have admitted hideous monstrosities, or they do not care what they admit, so long as they fill up the catalogue. Did they not see that no. 4, a “Lady's Pet”, valued at fifty pounds, is not worth fifty halfpennies? Fifty pounds, quotha, for a stupid, staring dog, and something like a muslin handkerchief! The artist will be dextrous indeed if he succeeds in entrapping a purchaser.17
In 1981 the Art Gallery of South Australia acquired an oil painting of a Blenheim, now known as a Cavalier King Charles, spaniel.18 The animal sits coyly on red velvet material; beside it is a lady's plumed riding-hat with a silver trimmed riding-crop. In the subdued background is a greenish blue hanging and a column rising vertically above the apex of the dog's head. In the foreground is a white diaphanous veil with the monogram C H D, ie., "Caroline Harper Dexter”. The painting is signed lower left “W. Dexter Sydney 1855”. There is a similar painting of a spaniel in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra.19 The dog sits in an almost identical position, but the composition is dominated by a large vase partly covered by a dark veil. In the foreground is a dead parrot lying amongst some roses. The description in the Examiner seems closer to the Adelaide painting. We know that it was in Lynch's collection, for it was described in Table talk:
a King Charles Spaniel with a lady's hat, veil, whip and glove, lying on red velvet, with a wonderful blue velvet curtain for background, is not less marvellous for the rendering of the dog's expression than for the painting of the various textures, including the animal's hair. The story of the two owls in the “Arabian Nights” is the subject of another fine picture by this artist, and The Lark's Nest — a cornfield with poppies and a hawk hovering in the air — would be by some regarded as his very finest production.20
In 1888 Lynch lent the painting for the Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne, where it was called Blenheim Spaniel, the Ladies’ Favourite.21 When his collection was auctioned, it was called Pet Blenheim Spaniel.22 The fact that the Adelaide painting was either a "Ladies’ Favourite" or a “Pet” suggests a connection with such a title as Lady's Pet. The likelihood increases when one considers the price demanded, obviously to minimize the chances of a sale. The painting is of a personal nature and has the appearance of being a gift from the artist to his wife after her arrival in Sydney at the end of December, 1854.23
We know that Caroline Dexter did consider a similar painting to be her own property. In an undated fragment of a letter in her hand we read:
The picture of my Dog is on its way to Europe where it will be in safer keeping than in mine.
The other pictures and saleable articles I have converted into cash and would have done the same with these I send you had they been marketable stuff.
You see that I would not keep even one remnant in my sight.
It is possible that William Lynch's father bought them, for in the letters he appears to have assisted her on several occasions. It would also explain how they came into the son's collection, if indeed Caroline's letter is completely accurate.
It seems safe, then, to assume that the Adelaide painting is indeed Lady's Pet. If we are to understand Dexter's note to mean two pictures of dogs rather than one painting and one live dog, then possibly the Canberra painting, which seems to have been painted in Gippsland, is in fact Dead Pet. This becomes more credible when we remember the dead parrot in the foreground. For those interested in details the following lines from Caroline's letter postmarked Melbourne, 6 December, 1858, supply a possible name for the animal:
Dear William I have got my pretty little Linnet chirping in the woodbine bower, Phocion is keeping up his ancient habit of stretching himself full-length upon the table, Pussy is amusing her little son Tommy and my garden flowerets are looking merry smiles in the gay sunshine.
Perhaps little Phocion was too used to being painted on table-tops.
Amongst the letters is a draft of a political speech in William Dexter's hand and signed "DEXTER”. The date is unknown and the context unclear, except that it is about "fellow working men" being “cheated out of their Hard earnings Penny after Penny by a Company of grinding Money Mongers”. At the end is a pen sketch of three men with sledgehammers about to strike at a chain over an anvil. Each has a suitable caption attached. One is forced to remember the miners’ banner, which Dexter designed in 1853 during the demonstrations over mining licences,24 and the various emblems in the Ladies almanack 1858.25
After William's death in February, 1860, Caroline wrote several letters attempting to regain her earlier letters and a few books. In addition she requested a copy of a portrait which William's uncle, Samuel Smedley, had taken from his house and to which Mrs. Smedley had become rather attached.26 One assumes it was a painting rather than a photograph. It may well be the self-portrait mentioned by William Smedley:
on one side of the Doorway or Passage entrance he Painted his own likeness on the other side his Dog Tipp.27
Perhaps this was more in the nature of a billboard than a proper portrait. Certainly the only likeness of the artist I have come across is an oval oil on board which is still in its original gilt frame and is unlikely to have been hung outside the entrance of a business.28
The letters contribute some colourful details from the lives of the artist and his wife, although the story of their grim separation can make painful reading. It is unnecessary to discuss here the unattractive side of Dexter's personality and character, except to say that we know more about him than any other artist in Australia in that period. I shall conclude by adding one minor detail of chronology. In a letter dated 6 March, 1859, Dexter wrote to Caroline:
Caroline this is my last letter to Melbourne when you are here I shall have no need to write again. Another birthday alone on the 11th.
This at last would appear to fix his date of birth to 11 March, 1817.


The most flagrant example is W. Hardy Wilson, “The Dexter mystery”, Art in Australia no.8, 1921, no pagination.


Consider the comments in D. Thomas, Outlines of Australian art: The Joseph Brown Collection, expanded edition, Melbourne, 1980, p.20.


I am indebted to the genealogical library of the Latter Day Saints for a copy of the relevant portion of this census. Note that he was aged 34 in 1851 and hence was born in 1817; the traditional date is 1818.


They are all listed in the Sydney morning herald, 4 May, 1855, p.1. The first prize was The Death of the Kangaroo, which measured 7 ft. by 5 ft.; the last prize was Woolloomooloo Bay: sketched from the Reef at Garden Island.


Sydney morning herald, 16 August, 1855, p.1. Amongst the titles were Death of the Old Man in the Bush and Tooth's Brewery on Fire. The latter is now owned by Tooth & Co. Ltd., Sydney, and is illustrated in Art in Australia s.3, no.70, March 1938, p.38.


A circular of 1847 informed "the Gentry of Nottingham" that he did “Portrait Painting in every possible style; Landscapes, Flowers, Fruit, &c., accurately copied from Nature or Originals of the best Masters” — quoted by J. Haslem, The Old Derby China Factory, London, 1876; reprint, London, 1973, p.139–141. A similar, though more strident, advertisement appeared in the Gipps Land guardian, 8 January, 1858, p.1.


MS 11630, La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria.


It is in Dexter's hand. I have tried to keep the original spelling throughout the article, explaining where necessary. This can be difficult in Dexter's case, for he did not distinguish between "a" and “o” and was poor at spelling.


For Dexter's interest in Aboriginals see a letter in the Gipps Land guardian, 17 September, 1858, p.3.


Melbourne Punch, 10 December, 1857, p.153.


Ladies almanack 1958: The Southern Cross, or Australian album and New Years gift, Melbourne; W. Calvert, [1857], p.20.


Catalogue of the pictures and other works of art forming the First Exhibition of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts 1857, Melbourne, 1857, no.9 (oil, £12). This work could also be the original of the vignette on p.30 of the Ladies Almanack 1858.


Table talk, 6 February, 1891, p.4. It was also exhibited with the Victorian Artists’ Society, August, 1893, no.229.


Gemmell, Tuckett & Co., Catalogue of the oil paintings and water colour drawings collected by W. Lynch, Melbourne, 1903, no. 128: Black's Camp on Angus M'millan's Run, Bushy Park.


Catalogue … of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts 1857, nos.6 and 7, each priced at £2.


Gemmell, Tuckett & Co., op. cit. no. 114: Pair of Partridges (oil). Dexter often repeated subjects, for the fourth prize of his 1855 art union had been Brace of English Partridges. Lynch exhibited the work twice in 1869: Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute, Catalogue of Fine Arts Exhibition, Ballarat, 1869, no.184; Melbourne Public Library and Museum, Catalogue of the works of art, ornamental and decorative art exhibited by the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library and Museum in March, April, May and June, 1869, final edition, Melbourne, 1869, p.15, no.294c.


Examiner, 12 December, 1857, p.8.


Oil on board, 60.8 by 84.4 cm.; illustrated in the catalogue of Joseph Brown Gallery, 10–24 September, 1981, p.16, no.12.


Oil on canvas, 47.4 by 58 cm., signed lower left “W. Dexter Victoria”. This painting was possibly the one in the possession of W. Hardy Wilson. See James R. Lawson, Catalogue of the Hardy Wilson Collection of works of art, auction May 3, 1922, Sydney, 1922, no.372: Spaniel and Still Life.


Table talk, loc. cit. The Lark's Nest is now in the Joseph Brown collection; see D. Thomas, op. cit. no.18.


Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, Official guide to the picture galleries and catalogue of fine arts, compiled and edited by J. Lake, Melbourne, 1888, p.91, no.21.


Gemmell, Tuckett & Co., op. cit. no.81.


Sydney morning herald, 1 January, 1855, p.4; the Marie Gabrielle arrived 31 December, 1854.


Argus, 19 August, 1853, p.4.


Ladies almanack 1858, title page and p. [4]. The second motif is repeated on the title page to the "Album" at the end of the book.


Letter to Samuel Smedley, dated 13 March, 1860, p.5: "I have no desire to deprive Mrs. Smedley of the Portrait.” Compare an undated letter [1860] to William's young cousin, John Smedley, p.4 and 11, where she wants “a copy only of his portrait.”


Dated 11 February, 1860, p.7.


Private collection, oil on board, 39.5 by 30.7 cm., unsigned but inscribed on verso.