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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Chapman, Dora Cecil (1911–1995)

by Tracey Lock

This article was published online in 2020

Dora Chapman, self-portrait, c.1940

Dora Chapman, self-portrait, c.1940

Art Gallery of South Australia

Dora Cecil Chapman (1911-1995), artist, was born on 24 March 1911 at Mount Barker, South Australia, fourth child of South Australian-born parents Henry Bruce Chapman, licensed land broker, and his wife Ida Florence Pearl, née Jackson. Educated at Mount Barker Primary and High schools, Dora won studentships (1928-31) to study at the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts. A ‘spirited girl,’ she had a ‘lively mind that made her an avid student’ (Campbell 1995, 12).

In 1935 Chapman was awarded the John Cresswell scholarship to continue her tuition at the school. Taught by the European-trained Marie Tuck and the virtuosic figure painter (Sir) Ivor Hele, she was particularly inspired by Hele’s technical approach. She won the Clarkson prize for modelling in 1935 and, demonstrating an early talent for draughtsmanship, the John Christie Wright memorial prize in 1935, 1936, and 1937. In the next year she was awarded the Royal South Australian Society of Arts prize for her portait of a fellow art student, John Dowie. By 1938 she was working as an art teacher at the Stawell School for Girls, Mount Lofty, and had set up a studio in Mount Barker. She was elected a fellow of RSASA (1939) and in 1940 won the society’s prestigious Melrose prize for a portrait, thought to be Self Portrait (c. 1940). Her early work demonstrated a forthright realism that later ebbed and flowed between abstraction and expressionism, but she remained consistently preoccupied with portraiture.

Following the recommendations of Hele and Dorrit Black, Chapman was appointed to a teaching position at the South Australian School of Art (SASA) in 1941. On 9 February the following year she began full-time duty with the Australian Women’s Army Service and served in Adelaide as a clerk in the 4th Military District’s stationery section. Transferred to the Army Education Service in August and promoted to acting sergeant in September, she attended courses, lectured, and organised exhibitions. From 1944 until her discharge on 6 April 1945 she was stationed in Sydney. There she met a fellow artist, James Montgomery Cant and, after his divorce, they married on 30 June 1945 at St James’s Church of England, Sydney; they had no children. Dora adopted her husband’s surname, but continued to exhibit under her maiden name.

Around this time the Cants joined the Australian Communist Party (Communist Party of Australia) and, with other artists, established the Studio of Realist Art. As a paid employee and talented administrator of the studio, Dora played a significant role in the delivery of its artistic activities as a centre for the promotion, exchange, and implementation of avant-garde ideas in postwar Sydney. Notably, she privately executed a series of small-scale abstract paintings that were in opposition to the philosophies of SORA. In 1949 the couple went to London where she supported James’s studio practice by working as a clerk. They returned to Australia on 19 May 1955, settling in Adelaide two years later. Resuming teaching at SASA, Dora was well regarded and considered a ‘great teacher’ by the artist Ann Newmarch (Campbell 1995, 81).

On 16 May 1969 Cant retired from SASA and, with her husband’s encouragement, began exploring silkscreen printmaking. Although a bequest from her mother’s estate meant that she was free from financial responsibilities and able to recommence full-time artistic practice, she juggled her creative output with caring for James, who was progressively debilitated by multiple sclerosis. Nevertheless, she produced an unrivalled series of delicately coloured semi-abstract prints (The Kiln, 1973) as well as modest scaled expressive paintings that revealed her profound connection with nature. She also explored ceramics and photography.

Following James’s death in 1982, Dora realised that her artistic career had languished and a period of productivity followed. A retrospective at the Bonython Meadmore Gallery in 1987 restated her importance and she was included in major group exhibitions at the Art Gallery of South Australia: Adelaide Angries (1989-90); South Australian Women Artists (1994); and Modern Australian Women (2000-2001). She held five solo exhibitions and two jointly with James, and exhibited in group shows throughout her career. AGSA staged a retrospective exhibition of her art and that of James in 1995. Plagued by intermittent health problems since 1943, she succumbed to dementia late in life and died on 15 May 1995. She was buried in Willunga Uniting Church cemetery alongside her husband. In 2009 local residents commissioned a headstone funded by artist, Jeffrey Smart. Her work is well represented in the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Art Gallery of South Australia Research Library. Artist file: Dora Chapman
  • Campbell, Jean. ‘Artist Embraced Education Role.’ Australian, 13 July 1995, 12
  • Campbell, Jean. James Cant & Dora Chapman. Sydney: The Beagle Press, 1995
  • Chapman, Dora. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 10 August 1962. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Dutkiewicz, Adam, ed. A Visual History: The Royal South Australian Society of Arts, 1856-2016. Vol. 2, Other Significant Artists. Adelaide: Royal South Australian Society of Arts Inc., [2017]
  • Jew, Betty. ‘Meet the Artist: Dora Chapman.’ Kalori: Royal South Australian Society of Arts Journal 7, no. 3 (September 1969): 7
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, SF64725

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tracey Lock, 'Chapman, Dora Cecil (1911–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/chapman-dora-cecil-29683/text36719, published online 2020, accessed online 21 October 2020.

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