Justice Stephen Hall and the Case For Robert Dickerson


Judges, lawyers and art abounded at Gallows Gallery in Mosman Park last week.
The occasion: the launch of the “Aspects of Law” exhibition, a collection of works by Robert Dickerson, showcasing lawyers at work.
It was a chance to feast the eyes on a gallery-full of the artist’s distinctive angular faces, and appreciate that deceptively “less is more” pared back style which conveys so much human expression.
Opening the show was Supreme Court judge, Justice Stephen Hall, who famously presided over the lengthy “Claremont Killer” trial. (Away from the bench, he appears way less formidable!)
An art lover himself, the judge treated us to an illuminating talk about the figurative artist, who died six years ago, aged 91.
Here is what he had to say:

Thank you, Kathryn and Gallows Gallery, for inviting me to open this wonderful exhibition.

It is fair bet that you are here tonight because you either love art or love the law.  If you love both, then, like the quality of mercy, you are twice blessed.  Because, of course, Bob Dickerson’s subject in the art you see tonight was the law.

This was not merely an extraordinarily clever marketing manoeuvre on his part.  As it happens, he had a genuine interest in the law and particularly for the rituals and mystique of the courts.  As early as the 1960s, he was commissioned to paint a picture of a judge for the cover of The Bulletin.


Hon. Justice Stephen Hall


That commission exposed him to another branch of the law. He was living in Kings Cross at the time and police raided looking, they said, for “obscene works”.  I think police officers always find artists deeply suspicious characters.  The only painting they found was that of the judge.  According to Dickerson, the police “didn’t say whether they thought it was obscene”.  They did, however, spend some time trying to find a secret passage into the brothel next door, without success.



His fascination with the law was fed by personal experience.  In the late 1960s, he was involved in three years of bitter and bruising litigation following the failure of his second marriage.  He had the opportunity to see barristers and solicitors at work and could not help but see them with an artist’s eye.



His own legal bills were often paid with drawings and paintings.  At one stage his ex-wife, in support of her claim for a higher financial settlement, claimed he could make 365 drawings a year if he wanted to.  He laconically told the judge that that was all very well but he would need to draw himself some buyers too.



By 1971 Dickerson had wasted so much in time in court that he vowed to get some profit from the law.  His drawings and paintings of lawyers were popular with the profession and were bought for solicitors’ offices in Melbourne and barristers chambers in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.  Later a set of his lithographs was acquired by the WA Bar Association, where some of you will have seen them.   The Commonwealth Attorney General’s Office used one of his drawings for a Christmas Card and the NSW Law Society used another for a poster.



Dickerson was the archetype of a self-made artist.  With no formal training and no financial support he managed to develop and refine a personal style while working in various manual labouring jobs to support his young family.  He received some early recognition from John and Sunday Reid and entered and won art prizes in the 1950s – including one in South Australia which, on winning, he found had no prize money because the donor had died the year before and nobody had realised.



But perhaps it was participation in the Antipodeans Exhibition in 1959 that assured him a place in Australian Art History.  The Antipodeans also included David and Arthur Boyd, Clifton Pugh, Charles Blackman, John Brack and John Percival. Apparently, Sidney Nolan and Fred Williams also wanted to be involved, but weren’t invited. All of the Antipodeans are now, sadly, gone.  The group produced a strange manifesto, that Dickerson claimed not to have read, which has been described as a “historically wobbly, vituperative, repressive and censorious document” that pretended to rescue the youth of Australia from the disease of abstraction. Whatever the theory, Dickerson’s contributions were large, complex and impressive.



Whether Dickerson’s subject is a lawyer, or a jockey, or a bank clerk, the impression many get is of loneliness.  I think this is an accusation that he grew a little tired of and there is much more to his subjects than isolation.  He is recorded as saying “there was a lot of rubbish talked and written about me painting my own loneliness and misery.  Just because I painted a single figure didn’t mean that person was lonely”.  And, indeed, his subjects are not always alone, but when they are they are not despairing or frightened.  Rather they are islands of deep contemplation.



He captures people in a quiet niche of their lives where they are thinking outside themselves.  As if suddenly aware of being watched or known by something larger. Hal Missingham wrote that Dickerson depicts people “who, you feel, have existed through all sorts of trials and tribulations, by a cunning and at the same time pathetic naivete which produces a most direct sympathy in us”.


Nor are his works without humour.  He can mischievously undermine the conceits of his subjects.  Take for example the pastel of the judge sitting on his bed getting dressed.  Caught, literally, with his pants down.  And yet the subject is wearing his official face as if he has put it on with his socks.  In another work the robed and wigged barrister runs between towering modern buildings, like a bird caught in a cage of its own making, drawing attention to the absurdity of the anachronistic costume.  But Dickerson was not mocking – he was, I think, intrigued by the costumes and the drama – by the essential performative nature of the law.   He was drawn to it like he was drawn to boxing, horse racing, the ballet and geishas.



But all this performance draws attention to the vulnerable humans who play the various roles.  The wigged barristers who look out at you are conscious of their own weaknesses and foibles but put them aside to speak for others.  There is a paradox here – the lawyers have power and purpose – yet, the individuals you see depicted seem acutely aware of the burden they bear, the calmness and the confidence are a part of the costume.



However calm they are, you can always see the whites of their eyes. As Elwyn Lynn has said: “with Dickerson there are no painterly subterfuges and emotional deceptions.  His painting comes from a hard scrutiny of life, without the slightest desire to flatter, reform or condemn”.

Dickerson’s genius is to paint the costume while revealing the underlying, necessarily imperfect, humans beneath.



The Aspects of Law exhibition is on at Gallows Gallery, 53 Glyde St, Mosman Park, until October 10. All the works are for sale.