When E. Phillips Fox returned to Melbourne in late 1892 after five years studying and working in France, he encountered a city in the grip of economic depression. With both Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton having left for Sydney in the hope of finding patronage, Fox soon established himself as the leading artist of the younger generation in Melbourne. By the mid 1890s, when the economic situation had improved, Fox was in demand as a portraitist to Melbourne’s wealthy upper-middle classes and intelligentsia.
Fox’s studies in Paris at the Académie Julian and the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, where the curriculum was based on the academic practice of life drawing and figure composition, provided him with the ideal training for undertaking portrait commissions. His reputation was further consolidated in 1894 when his full-length painting Portrait of my cousin was awarded a third-class medal in the Paris Salon, the highest honour ever received by an Australian artist, and was again exhibited the following year at the Royal Academy in London.
Many of Fox’s portrait commissions were of children, a genre in which he was considered to excel. Dolly, daughter of Hammond Clegg Esq. was painted in July 1896 and depicts the eldest daughter of William Hammond Clegg, a successful Toorak stockbroker. Dolly would have been about six years old when the portrait was painted, and with great naturalism Fox has caught the little girl’s sprawling pose and little finger absentmindedly caught in the corner of her mouth. With a soft light illuminating the figure, Dolly is the undisputed centre of attention. Her pale skin is rendered with small strokes of paint, and in parts colours are left unmixed upon the canvas. In contrast to the delicate painting of Dolly’s face and hair, the treatment of the background is loose and painterly, with the thin paint applied broadly. Fox has taken delight in the contrasts of fabrics and textures; the silky sheen of the white sash, the crinkled pale blue crépon of the dress and the dark, heavy fabric of the sofa are all convincingly rendered. Most notably, Fox’s depiction of Dolly embodies the quality of childhood innocence, a trait that was approvingly noted in contemporary reviews.
Dolly and her two sisters grew up to become leading members of Melbourne society, with younger sister Phyllis (who later became Mrs Simon Fraser) one the six ‘lady pilots’ who welcomed Amy Johnson to Melbourne on her record-making solo flight from England in 1930. In 1914 Dolly married Captain Harold Hall, whose father had been part owner of the Mount Morgan goldmine, and the couple lived in England where she became a keen gardener. In August 1949 The Argus proudly reported that Mrs Harold Hall had been awarded seven firsts, three seconds and one third at the Royal Horticultural Flower Show in Chelsea with gladioli from Australia.
Elena Taylor, Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2014)