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Creative space

by Eric Smith, 1 December 2004

Eric Smith describes the agony and finally the ecstasy of winning the 1982 Archibald Prize with the portrait of Peter Sculthorpe.

Peter Sculthorpe, 1982 by Eric Smith
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Peter Sculthorpe, 1982 by Eric Smith

I do not like painting commissioned portraits - painting accurately what you see in front of you of people you know a little about, doesn't interest me.

With Peter Sculthorpe I had liked his music, with its close identification with the Australian landscape. I had painted a couple of portraits of Peter mainly head and shoulders, but what intensity of character they had. was too inclined towards the anguished character that is not Peter, One day studying photographs I had taken of Peter in his studio, one photograph of him sitting in profile at the piano, with one arm resting on top of the piano and the other arm with the hand on the keyboard, it seemed to me that on a large canvas, I could suggest more of the feelings of the creative composer at work in a space where I could explore the possibilities.

Archibald prize entries were due in less than three weeks at this stage. I rang Peter and told him of the concept for the portrait and if it came off in time, could be a possibility for the Archibald prize. Work began; Peter visited the studio, to see work in progress and for a few sittings. A week's work found me dissatisfied with the space of the picture and I reckoned the piano was a problem, to me it was like a heavy cake of mud on the canvas, destroying the space I wanted. I told Peter I had to get rid of it. Peter looked a bit agitated at such a drastic change. However, I mixed a warm orange on my pallet and covered the canvas with it leaving the image of Peter and the piano's keyboard and in a moment of inspiration, slashed with my palette knife, white rectangles across the orange ground which became sheets of music exploding into the space. I now had the space I wanted. Viewing what I had done, a little gleam came into Peter's eye and he went away, I think, with a little more hope.

However, the painting had to be m by 4pm the next day. I had assured Peter it could be done! I worked the picture until late that night, went to bed hoping. Viewing the painting the next morning I felt I had achieved a small miracle. Peter arrived at the studio just after 9am and said "it's stunning"! I had then to frame the picture, make a few finishing touches and get it to the Art Gallery of NSW by 4pm! My son Peter helped me put the painting on the roof rack of my car and away we went, leaving home in Bondi Junction about 3.30pm. On the way we had to go through the tunnel at Kings Cross, only to find a stream of cars in a hold up in the tunnel, we were positioned just outside of it -great despair! However in about 10 minutes the traffic started moving, but just before this happened, the heavens opened up and in a sharp, short shower poured rain down on the upturned canvas of the Sculthoipe portrait - fortunately painted in oils! We arrived at the gallery just before 4pm. Peter and I lifted the canvas off the rack of the car and water poured off the canvas!

Peter Sculthorpe had rung just before we left the studio, to say he didn't think I had signed the canvas -he was right. I was so grateful for this phone call: no unsigned canvas had ever won the Archibald Prize! The 'saga' had I thought taken a great deal out of Peter Sculthorpe, he seemed to have aged prematurely, but resurrection was at hand, he regained his more youthful appearance when it was announced that my portrait of him, had won the 1982 Archibald Prize.