In Focus: Dora Chapman

Dora Chapman Constructive Form mixed media on paper sold for $2,000 (IBP)

Dora Chapman was one of South Australia’s greatest creations, and her diverse career from artist, teacher, feminist, carer and wife is a fascinating one. The auction market has recently seen prices for Dora Chapman’s highly collectable screenprint series from the 1970s rocket in price, as collectors are starting to acknowledge her incredible role in 20th Century Australian Art.

Chapman was born in 1911 and was well trained at the South Australian School of Art in the late 1930s to early ‘40s. She was taught by renowned artists Ivor Hele and Marie Tuck, the influences of whom can be seen in both her exceptional portraiture and landscape work. She met her husband James Cant in 1944, who played a seminal role in the development of realism and surrealism in Australian Art, and from that point, stepped back from her own career to elevate and support his. She was a selfless woman, and her devotion to Cant’s practice could indicate why her importance in Australian Art has fallen below that of her husband. She experimented with her love of nature in the 1950s and 1960s, producing a series of landscape works that are strongly reminiscent of Cant’s work of the same period. It was not until the 1970s that Dora developed her own unique style. Hard-edge colour field painting had come to Adelaide and her vibrant semi-abstract works of this period break away from the Realism of her earlier works and her husband’s style. Whilst moving into the medium of silkscreen printing in her later years “her early work demonstrated a forthright realism that later ebbed and flowed between abstraction and expressionism, but she (also) remained consistently preoccupied with portraiture.”[1]

Dora Chapman
Eremophila 1970

This period of creation in the 1970s marks a decisive shift in not only Dora’s technique and approach to her art, but also her opinion of herself as an artist. After retiring from twelve consecutive years as a teacher in 1969, this is the first time since she was a student that we see her breathing new life and energy into her practice. She had created a small amount of works whilst teaching, mainly small scale gouaches and works on paper, however her development during this period was unmatched to her husband’s, who, whilst Dora was teaching full time, spent his time painting. It is also important to remember that Dora travelled to London with James in 1949, and for six years supported and supplemented his art and income by working as a clerk, stepping aside from her own career to allow his to flourish. In a biography of the artist, written by Ron Radford, it was said that “Dora frequently gave and James took”, and it was not until the 1970s that we see this pressure somewhat lifted from Dora, even whilst simultaneously caring for James Cant until his death in 1982.[2]

She threw herself into silkscreen printing and the level of precision and detail demanded by the medium perfectly suited her own artistic strengths. After a period of experimentation, it was clear that she had found her medium and an exceptional body of work followed. Her works from this period are built on strong principles of colour, tone, and design, in a semi-abstract way. One of her works titled Eremophila from 1970 is named after an Australian native that grew in Chapman’s garden and this work is a lovely interpretation of the anthropomorphized plant. Similarly, Stipa from 1970 personifies the native feather grass of the same name.

Dora Chapman Stipa 1970

You can find some exceptional examples of Dora Chapman’s work, including her ‘Head’ works from the 1970s, in the Art Gallery of South Australia and other national collections. She is an exceptional artist whose contribution to 20th Century art cannot be underrated, and I hope you enjoy learning about her work as much as I do.

We are thrilled to present a wonderful collection of Dora Chapman’s screenprints in our upcoming November Prints and Multiples auction.

Ella Perrottet, Art Assistant

[1] Tracey Lock, ‘Chapman, Dora Cecil (1911–1995)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020

[2] Rod Radford quoted from Campbell, Jean. and Cant, James. and Chapman, Dora.  James Cant & Dora Chapman / by Jean Campbell ; with an introduction by Ron Radford and a memoir by Malcolm Otton  Beagle Press Sydney  1995


November 2020