Shortlist year: 2022

Shortlist category: Non-fiction

Published by: Halstead Press


A thorough telling of the 1944 Archibald prize scandal involving William Dobell's winning portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith, and the court case that ensued. Features a who's who of the Australian arts scene in the first half of the 20th century.

About the author


Peter Edwell

Peter Edwell lectures in history and archaeology at Macquarie University. His previous book was 'Rome and Persia at War'. Honing his skills as an ancient historian was ideal training for writing 'The Case that Stopped a Nation'. He lives in Wollongong with his young family.

Judges’ comments

When the Archibald Prize was awarded to William Dobell for his portrait of Joshua Smith in 1944, it sparked huge controversy. Was it art or caricature? The modernist painting not only shocked Australians but made international news. Australians, many who had never visited the Art Gallery of NSW, lined up in huge numbers to see the painting for themselves. In this compelling book, Peter Edwell takes readers into the art world, the corridors of power, examines media coverage and the subsequent dramatic court case that captivated a nation. The book examines the controversy from multiple angles: the artist and his subject, the trustees of the Art Gallery and the wider artistic community, and the court case that put Dobell and his art on trial initiated by artists Mary Edwell-Burke and Joseph Wolinski, assisted by counsel Garfield Barwick. Edwell reveals unknown aspects of this story, including a previously unpublished oil on paper study of Smith by Dobell. It is the only complete study of the dispute that echoes to this day. Accordingly, this book about the portrait that shocked and stunned a nation and the impact it had on Dobell, makes a substantial contribution to Australian art history.