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Dobell’s barmaids: Just who was the woman who sat for the famous artist?

Ushers Metropolitan Hotel Sydney 1949 ANU

Ushers Metropolitan Hotel, Sydney 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

barmaid ushers hotel 1943 william dobell

Barmaid from Ushers Hotel C1942 by William Dobell

THOSE who appreciate fine art have likely heard of William Dobell’s oil painting, “Barmaid from Ushers Hotel”.

The oil on masonite was painted of a somewhat gaunt looking barmaid at Ushers Hotel, Sydney during World War II.

William Dobell (b.1899 – d.1970) was a renowned Australian portrait and landscape artist of the 20th century.

Dobell, who won the Archibald Prize on three occasions, reportedly paid a visit to Jean Hays’ Sydney pub, where she worked as a barmaid in 1946 and asked if he could paint the Potts Point resident’s portrait. It’s not known whether he went ahead and put brush to canvas to capture Jeanie’s image.

Searching Dobell’s huge catalogue of work, I was only able to find one image of a barmaid that he had painted during his long career, and that was in his famous work, “Barmaid at Ushers Hotel”.

The identity of the barmaid from Ushers Metropolitan Hotel in Castlereagh Street, Sydney, painted by Dobell in about 1942, is a mystery.

Vicki Patterson barmaid Ushers Hotel Sydney 1942

Vicki Patterson

Was it Vicki Patterson (pictured left in the Sydney Sun, August 12 1942), who had worked behind the bar of Ushers Hotel at about that time?

Was it Olga Turner, or Rene Doran, both barmaids at Ushers in 1942? Perhaps it was head barmaid, Elsie Wells, who had been at the Castlereagh Street hotel since 1930? We’ll probably never know.

While the identity of Dobell’s war-time barmaid remains a mystery, a barmaid who he intended to paint in 1946 gained plenty of publicity.

Jean Hayes’ story was splashed across various Australian newspapers at the time.

The Rockhampton Morning Bulletin reported on Saturday 14 December 1946:

This Barmaid Will “Sit” for Dobell

jeanie hayes barmaid“Jeanie” Hayes, Sydney barmaid (pictured), who has agreed to have her portrait painted by William Dobell, is fighting shy of publicity.

When a newspaper cameraman arrived to get her picture, she screamed and ducked down behind the bar. Customers coaxed her out, begged her not to be shy, and amidst cheers end laughter she finally “posed”.

Jeanie (Jean Hayes, of Potts Point [Sydney]) gained herself the role of artist’s model when she claimed she could handle beer with as much dexterity as Dobell could wield a paint brush.

With one sweeping movement of her hand she can grasp four glass beer mugs, gripping the handle of each with a finger, while the other hand flicks on the beer tap.

Dark and bright-eyed, with full, pink cheeks, she refers to her 11-stone weight with jovial unconcern. “We can’t go on with the portrait until Mr Dobell gets a good supply of canvas,” she laughed. “He says he’s got to get in touch with Army Disposals and Wirth’s Circus…”

The Rockhampton Morning Bulletin Saturday 14 December 1946.

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Categories: Barmaids, NSW hotels, Sydney hotels

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