THE kitchen in the Wangi Wangi cottage feels small.
Yet it was here in the kitchen that a giant lay 50 years ago.
This was where Sir William Dobell died.
On May 13, 1970, Australia lost one of its finest artists, and Wangi Wangi lost one of its most popular residents.
"They thought he was 'our Bill'," said Norma Hines, whose father, Tom McColl, was one of Dobell's good friends, a portrait subject, and a regular drinking buddy at Hotel Wangi. "He's famous, but he belongs to us."
The body of William Dobell was found by Bill Hilton, a local fruito. Bill Hilton often dropped in to Dobell's house, delivering supplies or to have a drink with the artist. On the afternoon of May 14, Bill Hilton discovered his friend on the kitchen floor.
William Dobell had died from a heart condition.
The police quickly turned up. Bill Hilton also summoned his brother and Dobell's next door neighbour, Norm.
As Norm Hilton told me when I was researching my book, Bill: The Life of William Dobell, he and his brother sat with their mate for hours, caring for him and, just as they had done when he was alive, sipping whisky.
Norma Hines remembered hearing the news.
"I really found it hard to believe, because we'd only spoken to him on the Friday afternoon, and he seemed fine," she said.
Norma Hines said Dobell had been doing a painting as a surprise for her mother, Lena McColl. The artist had told the family to come back the following week, and the surprise would be revealed. They never picked up the painting, and, 50 years on, "We don't know what it was".
Word of the famous artist's death quickly spread.
"Complete shock," recalled David Thomas of his reaction. "Newcastle had lost one of its greatest figures."
At the time, Mr Thomas was the director of the Newcastle City Art Gallery. Just a few weeks earlier, the gallery had hosted a major exhibition of Dobell's work.
The exhibition, "Recent Paintings", displayed that the 70-year-old remained not just a compelling force in Australian art, he was a star. David Thomas remembers the artist being surrounded by well-wishers and autograph hunters at the gallery.
But in the lead-up to the exhibition, Mr Thomas had seen another side to Dobell, as he visited the artist at his modest home by the water at Wangi. The artist was "as nervous as a kitten" about how art critics would review his show.
That nervousness about how he was viewed publicly was why William Dobell moved to Wangi Wangi in the first place.
Born in Cooks Hill in 1899, William Dobell's artistic talent took him out of Newcastle, as he worked and studied in Sydney, then in London for a decade. He returned to Australia just before World War Two broke out in 1939.
Dobell had hoped his art would be noticed in his homeland. His hopes were more than realised when he won the 1943 Archibald Prize with a portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith. But that work also created a nightmare for him.
The notoriously reserved Dobell was turned into a household name, when his prize-winning painting was the focus of huge controversy. Critics, and then lawyers, debated whether it was a portrait or a caricature.
Dobell won the legal battle and kept the prize, but, in the process, he lost his health and his desire to paint. To escape the public eye and his own fame, Dobell retreated to Wangi Wangi.
In the lakeside village, not only was his health and creativity restored, but he became part of the local community. No one really cared whether he was famous or important. Not even when he was knighted in 1966. He was simply "Bill".
Each afternoon, Bill would wander from his house to the pub. When the pub closed, his mates would often follow him home for another beer or two.
The ring pulls from the cans were used to form a Chain of Friendship, which still hangs in Dobell's kitchen. It's a long chain, with tight links.
Fifty years on, there remains an unbreakable chain of friendship between Wangi and William Dobell. Bill has not been forgotten.
As Peter Coyne, the publican of Hotel Wangi said, "He's synonymous with Wangi."
In a way, Dobell put Wangi on the map. As if to return the favour, Wangi put Dobell on the map.
Wherever you turn in the village, you will see his name. Dobell Park. Dobell Drive. The Dobell Room at the workers' club. And his home is a museum, known as Dobell House.
David Thomas remembers being called out to the house, just after Dobell had died, to help catalogue works. Painted treasures were found tucked away all over the house, but, for Mr Thomas, it just wasn't the same.
"It really was the metaphor of it being a home where the light had gone out," he said.
At the pub, prints of two famous paintings, Wangi Boy and The Strapper, are on the walls, and in the main bar is a plaque that his mates from the punters' club erected. It reads, "To perpetuate the memory of Sir William Dobell. A great artist, fine social companion and friend".
Peter Coyne said he was proud that Bill's memory lived on in the hotel.
"We don't want to have people like that fall by the wayside," he said.
David Thomas said that as an artist, Dobell was "the great magician" and was also a "very warm, passionate human being".
"I recall him with such fondness," Mr Thomas said. "For Newcastle, a great and favourite son; for Australia, a great and famous artist."
As Norma Hines said, "He just made Wangi proud".
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