State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 74 Spring 2004


Figure 1. Julian Smith, photographer. [William Dargie] [1934] Gelatin silver photograph. H2000.233/1. La Trobe Picture Collection.


Roger Dargie
The Artist and the Musician:
William and Horrie Dargie


The Name of Dargie is prominent in the Edinburgh telephone book and on the Roll of Honour at the War Memorial there. But not so in Australia, where few Dargies migrated. Among those who did were Alexander Dargie and his family. Alexander was born at Hagmuir Farm near Loch Rescobie. The nearest town of significance is Forfar, which flourishes on the local farming economy. Hagmuir Farm exists to this day; a property of approximately 200 acres where cattle are tended and barley is grown. The original stone farmhouse and a number of outbuildings still stand in gently undulating country which slopes down to the loch. According to the local parish records, Alexander Dargie was born in October 1820. His predecessors came from around the nearby village of Abelemno, where one of most mysterious and intriguing of the Pictish stones stands in the churchyard amongst Christian gravestones.
Alexander Dargie, his wife Jane (née Reid) and their one year-old son Alexander sailed for Australia in 1850 in the sailing ship The Sea.1 The perils and dangers of long voyages in those days are well documented, and were no doubt well known at the time. The family arrived in Melbourne at the time of the gold rush but did not participate, choosing instead to go into the timber business. Alexander's son, Alexander, was a young man when he married Clara Neale, a nurse at the Melbourne Hospital (then located in King Street), in Melbourne in October 1871. The couple moved to Blue Mount, near Tylden, where Alexander operated a sawmill. It was there that the first of their children were born; sadly the first four barely survived infancy and were laid to rest in small graves in the cemetery at Trentham. It must have been heartbreaking to lose four children in quick succession. Their fifth child, Andrew Dargie, was born in May 1877 – and another seven children followed.
Andrew Dargie married Adelaide Sargent in 1910 in Melbourne. Adelaide was one of the early women who took up teaching as a career in Victoria. One of her first postings was at Jerusalem Creek which is now under Lake Eildon. Adelaide once told of her arrival there on a stagecoach. As she alighted with the other passengers, members of the local community who had gathered to greet their first teacher were asking ‘Where is our teacher? where is he?’ Adelaide had to announce herself, and despite misgivings that she was not a man the small community soon accepted her.
My father, William Alexander Dargie, the first child of Andrew and Adelaide, was born in June 1912. Their second, christened Horace (Horrie) Andrew, was born in July 1917. By this time the family were living at Walhalla, where William commenced his school days. Although
the glories of the Long Tunnel Mine were almost exhausted, there was still a push to have the small gauge railway extended through to Walhalla, a proposal strongly supported by the local population. Andrew and his younger brother Percy were contracted to build some of the wooden trestle bridges that brought the railway to the town.
Throughout their childhood, which appears to have been unremarkable, both William and Horrie were strongly influenced by their mother. As a married woman in those days she had to resign from the teaching service. She did not let her knowledge go to rest, however; instead passing on to her children many things of literature and general knowledge beyond what many of their peers in school learnt by day in the class room. Perhaps because of this both boys possessed from an early age a sound knowledge of poetry.
Most of their school days were spent in Footscray. William later attended Williamstown, Footscray and then Melbourne Technical College, ultimately winning a teaching bursary that led to primary and secondary teaching. He was a keen tennis player – he played at pennant level – and, as fate would have it, this led him to art. When he was about 19 years old, tennis being washed out for the weekend, a friend suggested they visit the art studio of A.D. (‘Archie’) Colquhoun. Within no time William was captivated – for life, as it turned out. He is recorded as saying in a number of articles about that defining moment that something ‘just went click’ and from then on that all he wanted to do was paint; 20 minutes in Archie Colquhoun's studio and he ‘was lost’. Archie Colquhoun was an exponent of the tonalist works of Max Meldrum, a discipline that was strongly influential in William's early training by Meldrum, Napier Waller and Tom Carter.
It was during William's years as a young teacher at Williamstown that he met fellow-teacher Hal Porter, who was later to become one of Australia's important writers of his era. William once said of their friendship that while Hal had wanted to become a painter he had been interested in becoming a writer – he had had a couple of poems published anonymously – but events led the two to exchange their ambitions. They were life-long friends until Hal Porter's tragic death when he was hit by a car in Ballarat. It is fitting that William's portrait of Hal Porter hangs in the same gallery of the State Library as that of his brother Horrie.
William's portrait of Horrie as ‘The Young Recruit’, painted in 1933, shows that after only two years of painting this was indeed his calling. The work is strong and definite, and shows from an early age what was to come for at least the next 60 years. Horrie would have been 16 at the time; apparently, he joined the army so that he could work with horses. William, however, hated horses; he recounted on a number of occasions his experience of trying to catch his father's horse ‘Charlie’ in the paddock of their farm in the Otways. It was even worse he said when he had to ride the hated animal to school on cold frosty mornings. He often refered to horses as ‘vile quadrupeds’.
At the time as his brother painted his portrait, Horrie was also on his way to his chosen life; his father, Andrew, had given him a mouth organ for his twelfth birthday. He had a natural

William Dargie, artist. Study for a portrait of Mr. Hal Porter. [ca. 1962] Oil on canvas. H89.209. La Trobe Picture Collection. On display in the Cowen Gallery.

‘ear’ for music, and perhaps by the chance of his father's present of a mouth organ he found he had the natural ability to pick up a tune and play it. One of his early performances was at the Palais at St Kilda where he performed ‘Rhapsody in Blue’: it had taken him months of practice to play it, and he realised from that experience that he should learn to read music and learn to play other instruments. He went on to learn the clarinet and saxophone and study musical arrangement and composition.
Horrie once described himself as a child of the Depression. Although the Depression afflicted many lives during the early 1930s, the Dargie family survived by good Presbyterian practices. Even so, William learnt the skills of thrift for life during his student days when the family lived at Williamstown. He was proud of his ability to save a penny; to do so he caught the Williamstown ferry at Newport across the Yarra, then walked all the way along Fishermen's Bend, eventually arriving at Prince's Street Bridge to travel by tram up Swanston Street in all apparent grandeur to his teacher-training classes at Melbourne University. This saved him a penny a day and also kept him fit to play pennant tennis.
Once William was employed as a teacher, he was able to enjoy the security of a teacher's salary, but he took one year of absence from teaching in the 1930s to further his studies in painting. It was a brave decision to forego the security of his teacher's salary during the Depression. This was an early sign of his own self-belief that was to carry him through the rest of his life.
He first exhibited and sold in a mixed show in 1934. The very first painting he sold was a self-portrait. He once said of his feelings at the time that he ‘was wrecked on the shores of Bohemia.’ And perhaps he was, for a while; at that time Melbourne's intellectual and arts communities were small but nevertheless vigorous, and William became part of that small and active part of society. He was interested in the visiting ballet companies, particularly the Russian Borovansky Ballet, making many sketches of dancers reminiscent of the work of Degas. As for his social life, he was a well-known patron of one of Melbourne's early avant-garde cafes, the Café Petruska, that was patronised by emerging artists and writers.
William Dargie's first major art prize was the Geelong Art Prize awarded to him by Sir John Longstaff in 1938. William also had the unusual opportunity of opening his own exhibition at The Stair Gallery, Collins Street, in August 1938. He said at the time ‘there was so much discussion about war and politics and people were of the opinion that art was futile and childish’. He thought, however, that ‘painting pictures and listening to music was far more intelligent than going out and murdering people.’ An art critic at the time wrote that ‘W. A. Dargie reveals a point of view in art which, while leaning in some degree to the emotion of the impressionist, keeps well in touch with the actual form and substance of the things represented.’ The exhibition was recommended to readers of the Age in an article by Harold Herbert who said that ‘Mr Dargie's outlook is clearly original … his eye is quick to discover tone … his drawings of the ballet are all good.’ He is said to have made £10 from the exhibition after expenses.

William Dargie, artist. [J.K. Moir] [ca. 1951] Oil on canvas. H89.54. La Trobe Picture Collection. On display in the Cowen Gallery.

The Second Word War was looming, and when it broke out William enlisted with fellow-artist Murray Griffin. However, their enlistment was withdrawn and they both were appointed war artists. In those days war artists were civilians, and it was not until 1941 that William was officially enlisted into the army. They departed Australia at the same time; William was sent to the Middle East and Murray Griffin went to Singapore, where he was ultimately captured and spent several years as a prisoner-of-war in Changi. Despite the difficulties of obtaining painting material in a prison camp, Murray Griffin was able to make a significant contribution to the War Memorial collection of works depicting the lives of prisoners-of-war in Changi. William commented on a number of occasions that fate was kind to him; it could have easily been he instead of Murray Griffin in Changi for the duration of the war.
At first William found it hard to settle down as a war artist; he wanted to depict the inner reality of war. He believed that George Lambert and Ivor Hele depicted the feeling of war with élan; however, he felt his best work was depicting people's emotions in the circumstances of war. William did not always follow military protocol as an officer and managed to move with troops to places of battle; he felt this was his best way to make a contribution as a war artist. He once accompanied a patrol on the Kokoda Track with fellow war artist Tony Rafty that was ambushed by Japanese soldiers and some of the Australians were wounded. After the attack he made sketches of the wounded being carried out by soldiers and native carriers, and later transformed the sketches into one of his many notable paintings that hang in the Australian War Memorial. Although William's contribution as a war artist is well documented, there is one painting that stands out as memorable and evocative of the Anzac spirit; this is the portrait of Corporal Jim Gordon V.C., which was painted in Syria during freezing weather. There was no heating and both artist and the sitter suffered; Jim Gordon especially, because he wore only summer uniform of shirt and shorts for the portrait. William said he was awe-struck by Gordon's bravery and reiterated his belief that war is terrible. The portrait of Jim Gordon V.C., which was awarded the Archibald Prize in 1942, is a painting full of life, showing to full extent the laconic character typical of many brave Australian soldiers. William's work as a war artist ultimately amounted to approximately 600 paintings and drawings for the Australian War Memorial. He was discharged in 1946 as a Captain.
Upon his return to Melbourne William became the head the School of Art at the National Gallery Victoria. In those days the school was located within the premises now occupied by the State Library; the large windows faced south towards what is now the Queen Victoria Centre. The studio walls were thick with an impasto of paint wiped on by generations of students – no doubt a great fire hazard – and the place reeked of a wonderful mixed aroma of oil paint, linseed oil and turpentine. (On visits during my boyhood, I was struck by the rat traps, loaded with cheese, set around the room.) As head of the Art School, William followed in the steps of William McInnes, Louis McCubbin and Charles Wheeler. Some of his students also became well known but did not always follow his approach; John Brack, Lawrence Daws and Clifton Pugh were some of his better-known students who later came to prominence in their own way.
During the next few years William won the Archibald Prize for portraiture on a number of occasions. Even in those days the prize was not without controversy; William Dobell's 1943 prize-winning portrait of the artist Joshua Smith certainly added early spice to the controversy surrounding the Archibald to this day. William Dargie's 1953 prize-winning portrait of Essington Lewis elicited a protest by Sydney art students at the Art Gallery of NSW. A young woman with the students led a dachshund with a notice on its collar; ‘Winner Archibald Prize 1954 – William Doggie’. The students then marched around the gallery singing, ‘How much is that Dargie in the window?’; a parody on the popular song of the time, ‘How much is that doggie in the window?’. William thought this was good healthy fun and regarded it as probably good publicity for him, anyway. What did not amuse him so much were the spiteful attacks by some whom he described as non-artists who held positions ‘and were saying which way art in Australia would go … artists should be able to control their destiny’, he said. As early as 1947 he described modern art ‘as being wrongly named – it should be called “anti-democratic” art, as it is the last refuge of the snob and the reactionary.’
William's eighth Archibald Prize, awarded in 1957, was of the Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira. Previously they had painted together at Glen Helen Gorge in Central Australia. In a radio interview in 1992 William described Albert Namatjira as possessing a unique ability to convey the feeling of the outback without embellishment or overstatement.
William's most famous portrait was of Queen Elizabeth, painted in 1952. It took four sittings at Buckingham Palace to complete the work. Even to his own family William was most reticent about his conversations with the Queen during her sittings, except that he found her to be a very intelligent woman. There was much in the press immediately after the portrait was completed and brought back to Australia. There was an amusing account in the press when he arrived; he was photographed descending the stairs of an aircraft with a long cardboard cylinder held aloft. He was asked by members of the press if the portrait was in the cylinder; ‘no’, he said, ‘just landscape sketches’. The portrait was unveiled by the Governor-General, Sir William Slim, on 1 April 1955 at King's Hall in the Old Parliament House before a crowd of about 500 people. Coincidently it was Her Majesty's 29th birthday. It was said at the time that the portrait would serve, amongst other aspects, as a memorial to the late Jim Beveridge who commissioned William to paint the portrait for the Commonwealth of Australia. The then Prime Minister, R. G. Menzies, said that the Queen had told him that ‘no portrait had ever given her greater satisfaction’. Copies of this painting adorned the walls of government offices and schools for many years. It was reproduced as a stamp in 1994.
And what was it like to have your portrait painted by Sir William? Alan Gregory who sat for him in 1994 said:
It is rather embarrassing to be painted – you feel as if you must have an ego or something, yet Bill Dargie somehow made me feel at ease and that such was not an issue.
The thorough professionalism of the man also struck me, his paints were ready, the background was ready, the seat was ready – all was set. Then when he started, it was clear he was taking as much care and using all the skills he could command as if it was his first portrait. He was also
getting to know you and one had a sense that his view of the inner you was part of what he did.
Doing his work was the main feature – silences were never a problem. He would converse at times and not only pleasantly so but what he had to say was fascinating. Over the series of sittings we ranged over many topics. Furthermore he didn't forget previous conversations so he did not repeat himself.
The process was of course establishing what one would wear and then sticking to wearing that at each sitting. This and where the portrait was to hang had been determined prior to the first sitting. He explained that he does a charcoal sketch of the face first. Also he clearly worked on the portrait between visits – not just painting in background but re-working sections and immediately checking them at the next sitting.
He was patient in answering questions that all sitters inevitably must ask him. My questions were about what other people wore, about famous people he had painted and about techniques such as him looking into the portrait in progress with a mirror. His concentration was amazing and the sessions ended more for easing the sitter than any tiredness on his part.
His skill and thoroughness impressed. What also emerged was not only what a delightful man he was to be with but one realised, despite his genuine modesty, that one was in the presence of a great man.
For his own part, Sir William wrote in 1974 for the opening of an exhibition of his works in Sydney that he had spent a good part of his life making pictures more or less for his own pleasure … there must be several hundred scattered around the world: how many it would be he could not say as he kept few records.
William Dargie was awarded the O.B.E. and later the C. B. E. He was knighted in 1970. Sir William was particularly proud of being awarded the O.B.E., which was his first award. His other awards were in recognition of his extensive service to the Australian War Memorial, Chairman of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, the Papua New Guinea Museum in Port Moresby and services to Art in Australia.
Like his brother, Horrie Dargie was honoured for his achievements. In 1996 he was inducted into the Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Awards Hall of Fame in recognition for his effort in being the first Australian to achieve gold record status.
Horrie Dargie joined the Army in 1941 and was transferred to the Entertainment Unit as musical director. He served in New Guinea and later in the occupational forces in Japan. He returned to Melbourne in 1947 and subsequently formed ‘by accident’ the famous Horrie Dargie Quintet. By 1952 the Quintet had risen in popularity by dint of hard work, sometimes doing two shows a night. They performed at the Tivoli, and it was during that time that Horrie and members of the Quintet learnt their stagecraft. Their famous farewell concert held at the Sydney Town Hall in 1952 was a success beyond their expectations. By chance, a recording was made of the performance on a wire recorder using just one microphone. Horrie and members of his quintet were quite happy to take £10 each for their performance to spend on the ship en route to England. The 10″ record of the farewell concert, however, became Australia's first Gold Record, selling 75,000 copies. Upon arrival the Quintet performed at the Empire in London and by chance an agent recognised the group's performance as unique – there was nothing quite like them in England, it was said. In fact the Horrie Dargie Quintet was unique because
of their distinctive sound, humour, and individual style. They never copied or made renditions of numbers by overseas performers – ‘if you copy you are second class’, Horrie once said.
Whilst on tour in London Horrie contracted polio – apparently he collapsed on stage. The disease affected his diaphragm and legs, at the time he was told he would not be able to play a wind instrument again. He once described the illness as a ‘bit of a problem’ – he was paralysed except for his right arm and he could swallow. With persistence he recovered and the Quintet later performed upon their return at the Tivoli in 1958. One of their more well known numbers was ‘Green Door’ which become a hit in its own right. After a series of concerts at the Tivoli, Horrie moved to Channel 9 where he was in charge of the talent division – variety was very popular at the time and Horrie did four or five shows a week. He compared the ‘BP Super Show’ and also was responsible for the ‘Delo and Daly Show’, He was the first Australian compere of the show ‘The Price is Right’ and managed the ‘Go Show’, a pop music show that regularly featured entertainers such as Johnny Young, Ian Turpie and Olivia Newton-John. Horrie is also to be remembered for his musical arrangements for the film ‘Crocodile Dundee’ and the TV show ‘The Leyland Brothers’. He also played the background music for the well loved TV show ‘Skippy’.
William and Horrie made a joint but unsuccessful attempt to gain the licence for Channel ‘O’, which later became Channel 10. Sir Reginald Ansett was the successful tenderer – William was later to comment that he was not sorry they missed out, it would probably have ruined his career as an artist and he would ‘probably have been dead at 70’.
The two brothers who grew up in Australia during a difficult time – first the Depression Years and then the Second World War – had humble beginnings; however, they had the benefit of a mother who encouraged them and were fortunate to believe in their own talents. Despite illness and criticism they went forward with their lives and were successful.


My father was affectionately known to his close friends as Darg or Bill. My mother in particular called him Darg – for as long as I can remember. His parents and many others called him Bill; he was happy with either. He often said he was a shy man and I believe that; he was quite comfortable with his close friends and colleagues although he did not like large crowds.
He loved his family – he and my mother exchanged many letters when he was away painting overseas or interstate. These letters speak of their devotion to each other and their ongoing discussion about family matters. My parents had an unusual and fortunate life together. From their early years my father worked from home. He built his first studio when living at Olinda after the War and later at Canterbury where he worked from the early 1950s
until the late 1990s. With my mother's early training as a commercial artist and later as a student of George Bell, she was often on hand to give him suggestions.
My father was not one to desire more than he needed – perhaps it was the result of his formative years during the Depression. He did not price his pictures excessively; he seemed to know where to set his prices and be assured he would substantially sell every picture he had in an exhibition. He seemed to have developed a fine balance between his supply of pictures and what people would pay to maintain a comfortable life without the need for excessive wealth.
In latter years his grandchildren gave him particular pleasure. He was always interested in what they were doing and encouraged them in his own quiet way. My father's sense of duty to his family was exceptional. My mother tragically fell and irreparably broke her leg in 1996. From then on for the next seven years he rarely failed to visit her each day in the nursing home. He joined her in the same nursing home in March 2003 where they spent their last couple of months together, until my mother's death in May 2003. He died in July 2003.
My uncle Horrie was a somewhat different man. He was a natural showman. It showed through in his character as a kind and open man. He had a great sense of humour and fun – I think these characteristics were probably one of the main reasons why his stage performances were so popular.
Horrie had a great inner strength – he had several tragedies in his life that would have set back lesser men. When he was stricken by polio on tour in England during the 1950s he did not let this deter him – he recovered and performed again for many years. The loss of his wife Betty to cancer in 1972 was not something at that stage of his life, with two teenage daughters, that anyone could pull through without great strength. But having to bury your own child must be one of the hardest things anyone could be called to do. Horrie's daughter Lynne died of cancer in 1997. I was deeply moved by his strength of character at the funeral; he delivered a wonderful eulogy at what must have for him been a very difficult and emotional time. He stood up to be strong – not just for himself, I believe, but to give reassurance for all his family. After his death in July 1999, harmonica player Larry Adler, who had always praised Horrie as a musician, was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald (21 September 1999) as saying that he was ‘the original model for Mr Nice Guy’.