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The Colourful Figures Behind Australia’s Biggest Art Scandal

By May 21st, 2022No Comments
A Newcastle Sun headline reading "Dobell Picture is Called Cruel and Degrading".
A Newcastle Sun headline
On the morning of 23 October 1944, braving an unseasonably cold wind and looming clouds, a large crowd gathered outside the Supreme Court of New South Wales in Queens Square on Macquarie Street, hoping to witness what the Adelaide News called 
“one of the biggest legal smash hits since Ned Kelly”.

In the 100 years since the Archibald Prize was first awarded (1922), one year stands out beyond all the rest. In 1944—with Australians fighting desperately in New Guinea, and German resistance collapsing round Leningrad—somehow it was a legal battle about portraits that captured headlines nationwide. William Dobell won the world’s richest portrait prize with a radical image of his dear friend Joshua Smith. One of the losers, Mary Edwards, exploded in rage. She enlisted Garfield Barwick QC, Australia’s future Chief Justice, to get the award overturned in the Supreme Court.

Caricature impression of Barwick and Dobell during the trial

The Case That Stopped a Nation is a blow by blow account of what transpired during (and notably after) the Dobell controversy. Featuring artworks, quotes, letters and reflections from some of Australia’s most prominent artists of the time, it plays out like a gripping courtroom drama.

Pick of the Week
– The Age

The book is packed with brilliant and glittering personalities . . . Without Edwell’s treatise, who would have imagined such rage over a painting?
The Australian

With the Archibald celebrating its centenary in 2022 it’s time to revisit this affair as Edwell does in his fascinating book.
– Courier Mail

Edwell does not seek to exonerate Edwards so much as provide a fuller, more nuanced picture of her role as a key protagonist.
– The Sydney Morning Herald

Unsurprisingly, Mary Edwards has gone down as an arch villain in Australia’s cultural history. Peter Edwell was initially drawn to discover what really happened because she was his great aunt. This book reveals the full unpleasantness of her behaviour. However, like everyone involved in this tale, she emerges as a complex figure responding to complex motives. Some of the contentious issues are still revisited year after year in the modern Archibalds—though happily with less acrimony than in 1944.



Dr Peter Edwell is a senior lecturer in the Department of History and Archaeology at Macquarie University. Honing his skills as a Late Antique historian was invaluable training for the researching and writing of The Case That Stopped a Nation. With a family connection to Australian art and the Dobell controversy itself, the topic has always fascinated him and the opportunity to write a book on this important event in Australian history for the first time was irresistible.


Hardback, 235mm x 170mm

ISBN: 9781925043594
RRP $39.95