painter, was born in Melbourne, Derbyshire, son of William Bull Dexter, a lace-maker, and Jane, née Smedley. Apprenticed at the Derby China Factory, he became a painter of fruit, flowers and birds, excelling in oriental decoration. In 1839, and again in the early 1840s, he visited France where he worked as a vase painter. In July 1841 Dexter married the feminist Caroline Harper. They lived in Nottingham where, in 1847, William advertised as an artist 'in all the various branches of oil and water colour’ and as a teacher of enamel painting.

The Dexters later moved to London, where William produced watercolours of birds’ nests, flowers, dead birds and game in the manner of the then popular William Henry ('Birds’ Nest’) Hunt. Haslem described Dexter’s versions as 'slight’, but 'executed in a clever and pleasing manner’. He exhibited with the Royal Academy in 1851 and 1852 and with the Society of British Artists at Suffolk Street in the latter year. In 1855, while he was in Australia, his painting The Lark and Her Young was exhibited with the British Institution.

Dexter arrived at Sydney aboard the Bank of England on 8 October 1852. He taught for a time at Lyndhurst College, Glebe, but by mid 1853 was at the Bendigo diggings taking part in the demonstrations against the exorbitant fee for a miner’s licence. He was on the miners’ committee and designed the Bendigo 'Diggers’ Banner’. In Land, Labour and Gold (London 1855) William Howitt reported Dexter’s speech of Saturday, 14 August 1853, on the symbolism of his flag with its pick, shovel, cradle (labour), 'the Roman bundle of sticks’ (union), scales (justice) and kangaroo and emu (Australia). Howitt considered Dexter a contemptible 'Red Republican’ and noted with disgust that he was claiming to represent 'the French nation’.

Dexter returned to Sydney in December 1854 and was joined in the new year by his wife, by then a well-known Bloomer lecturer. Together they opened a 'Gallery of Arts and School of Design’ in Bathurst Street where he taught painting and drawing and she 'elocution, composition and literature, grammar, writing and conversation’. During the year William held an exhibition at his gallery of twenty of his paintings, prizes in an art union he was organising for 100 subscribers at 2 guineas each. In August he exhibited more than six paintings at Ross’ Australian Gallery, Bridge Street, at least two being of Australian subjects. In December he won first prize of £20 in a competition to design a gold vase to be executed by the jewellers Hogarth & Ericksen of George Street for presentation to W. Randle. He also worked as a decorator, specialising in painting imitation stonework. He gave painting lessons to his young cousin, John Smedley , who proved a precocious pupil.

In April 1856 the Dexters settled in the bush at Gippsland, Victoria, first at Stratford, later at Sale. An acquaintance of the respected pioneer settler Angus McMillan, Dexter nevertheless acquired a notorious reputation in the district. In November 1857 he stood for the Legislative Assembly as 'the working man’s candidate’; the result was humiliation. He then followed his wife to Melbourne where she had gone to work as a writer (she later set up a women’s clinic and dabbled in spiritualism). Dexter exhibited nine paintings and watercolours with the Victorian Society of Fine Arts in December 1857 when living in High Street, Prahran, but he sold none. He supplied illustrations for The Ladies’ Almanack 1858 , written and edited by his wife, including vignettes of Gippsland scenery, a view of McArdell’s steam flour mill at Gippsland, An Opossum by Moonlight , and a woman outside a slab hut, presumably Caroline. The frontispiece purportedly depicted Hothpathapatha, the Favourite Lubra of the Dargo Chief .

In September William Dexter returned to Sydney. There, on 16 October 1858, he advertised that he would execute anything 'with the brush, in any material and at any price’, but again had little success. Caroline remained in Melbourne, a separation that was to prove permanent and ultimately acrimonious. William lived in poverty at 224 Castlereagh Street and seems almost virtually to have abandoned any attempt to live by his art. Before he died, on 4 February 1860, he had been working for a few months as a painter and decorator in partnership with William Smedley, another Sydney relative.

Dexter alienated people with his political views, his irritating manners and his atheism. His unusual attire marked him as an eccentric. He does not seem to have been a prolific artist—according to Haslem, 'like some other talented men, Dexter was not at all times in the humour to work’—and contemporary critics were divided on the quality of his painting. The Melbourne Herald considered him one of the principal exhibitors with the Victorian Society of Fine Arts and the Age wrote of his 'inimitable Touch’, but the Argus was slightly cool and the Examiner ( James Neild ) insultingly hostile. Of his Lady’s Pet , a painting of Caroline’s Blenheim spaniel (NGA?), Neild wrote: 'Fifty pounds, quotha, for a stupid staring dog, and something like a muslin handkerchief! the artist will be dexterous indeed if he succeed in entrapping a purchaser; and if he sell, no. 1, a football in front of a dinner-plate, described as 'An Opossum by Moonlight’, he will deserve praise as a dealer he will never get as a painter’.

Dexter’s experience as a vase painter is evident in his surviving work, especially in his birds and nests, which are virtually enlarged motifs from pottery designs. The detail is extremely fine and the composition invariably limited. Nor was he above a little sentimentality, as is evident in his Blenheim spaniels, a superior specimen of which is in the Art Gallery of South Australia. Although now considered primarily a painter of English subjects, he produced several works with an Australian content. Paintings of Aborigines are recorded, while other colonial subjects were Fire at Tooth’s Brewery (c.1853, oil, Powerhouse Museum), Woolloomooloo Bay and Death of the Kangaroo (unlocated). The last, already under way in April 1855, was on a monumental scale (213 × 152 cm) but was never completed. Reviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 March 1861, after Dexter’s death, it was considered to have 'a raggedness of appearance, as indeed do all the paintings of this artist, evidently arising from a want of tact [sic] in finishing off that will always prevent his pictures from being favourites’.

As well as numerous bird and game pictures, paintings auctioned on 7 January 1863 in final settlement of his estate included Fish Caught off Garden Island , Illawarra Scenery , Australian Alps , Death of the Kangaroo , Ten Virgins and Portrait of Dexter . The Bendigo flag was also there. Australian collections mostly hold his bird and game pictures: Landrell [sic] and Lark (w/c, NLA), Wood Ducks (c.1857, oil, NGV), Game (oil, QAG) and Lark’s Nest (oil, Joseph Brown Collection).

Watson, Michael J.
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