He received lessons from Thomas Bock and Frederick Strange, and in 1850 advertised as a portrait painter. In 1856 Dowling left for London partly with the help of friends in Launceston. He exhibited 16 pictures at the Royal Academy between 1859 and 1882 and others at the British Institute.
Returning to Launceston he afterwards came to Melbourne and painted portraits of Sir Henry Loch, Doctor James Moorhouse, Francis Ormond, and others
He went to London again in 1886 but died shortly after his arrival. Dowling was a conscientious painter of figure subjects, often scriptural or eastern.
He is represented in the Melbourne and Launceston galleries. On 2 May 2007, one of Dowling"s paintings – Masters George, William and Mission Harriet Ware with the Aborigine Jamie Ware – was bought for A$823,500 by the National Gallery of Victoria.