Skip to main content
Menu

History

How the National Portrait Gallery and its unique collection came to be

National Portrait Gallery
National Portrait Gallery

Though it's the youngest of our national cultural institutions, the idea of an Australian national portrait gallery is over a century old. A number of attempts at establishing collections of Australian portraits were made during the 19th century; and during the first decade of the 20th, the Australian painter, Tom Roberts, encouraged the Commonwealth government to give some thought to the creation of a ‘painted record' of the nation's ‘prominent statesmen'.

While the suggestion ultimately resulted, in late 1911, in the formation of the Historic Memorials Committee – the body that, since that time, has commissioned official portraits of prime ministers, governors-general and chief justices of the High Court – it was not until the final decade of the 20th century that the possibility of a dedicated place for a national, publicly owned portrait collection began to take shape.

In 1988, with the then almost 80-year-old Archibald Prize having more than proven our interest in images of other people and portraiture's place in Australian art, the Melbourne philanthropists Gordon Darling AC CMG and Marilyn Darling AC decided to make a reality of the idea of an Australian national portrait gallery, visiting the already established examples in London and Washington DC.

Thereafter, and with the particular encouragement of then National Portrait Gallery Washington Director, Alan Fern, they conceived the vision for an Australian counterpart, consequently seeing to the development of an exhibition that would ‘show people in various parts of the country a sample of what a National Portrait Gallery would do for Australia'. Featuring 116 portraits, in various mediums, of sitters representing spheres such as politics, exploration, the arts, science, business and sport, the exhibition Uncommon Australians: Towards an Australian Portrait Gallery opened at the National Gallery of Victoria in May 1992 and then toured to Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide, introducing visitors not just to the concept of a national portrait gallery but also to the unique interpretive approach such an institution might take: an approach which, through the interplay of art, word and biography, could succeed in creating an enriching and accessible narrative of the country's history, culture and people.

In the wake of Uncommon Australians, the Federal government allocated funds towards the establishment of a portrait gallery, to be located in three rooms in Old Parliament House and managed by the National Library of Australia. This new venture's first exhibition, About face: aspects of Australian portraiture 1770–1993 was launched by Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1994. For the next three years, the Gallery fulfilled its brief to present three or four exhibitions per year drawn from the ‘distributed national collection' of portraits from public and private sources.

In 1997, early on in his term as prime minister and again at the instigation of Gordon and Marilyn Darling, John Howard visited the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, encountering there an Australian tourist who expressed to him the opinion that there should be ‘one of these at home'. Subsequently, the Howard government announced that the Gallery was to become a institution in its own right, with a budget and a brief to develop a collection of portraits reflecting the breadth and complexity of Australian history and society.

Andrew Sayers, 2012 by Mark Mohell

The Gallery's first Director, Andrew Sayers, was appointed in April 1998 and in May, the National Portrait Gallery's advisory board, chaired by Dr Robert Edwards ao and with Marilyn Darling as Deputy Chair, met for the first time. In March 1999, just short of seven years since Uncommon Australians had been launched, the National Portrait Gallery's first exhibition as an independent institution, The possibilities of portraiture, opened in the expanded gallery spaces at Old Parliament House. At the same time, the Gallery unveiled its founding acquisitions – including Clifton Pugh's Barry Humphries 1958, the first of many artworks to be gifted by the Gallery's founding patrons; Tracey Moffatt's wisecracking photograph of actor David Gulpilil, The movie star 1985; and Howard Arkley's lurid and striking portrait of musician Nick Cave, one of the first two works commissioned by the Gallery and now one of the icons of the collection.

Granted, the opening displays in 1999 answered in part the expectation that the latest addition to the small fraternity of national portrait galleries worldwide would maintain an acknowledgment of the traditional function of public portraiture – a space for the celebration and honouring of Australia's most important, historically substantial or best-known individuals. Indeed, one of the National Portrait Gallery's founding documents, its Collection Development Policy, adopted in 1998, underpins this aspect of the Gallery's role, stipulating that, for a portrait to enter the collection, it must be a depiction, made from life, of a known or named subject, who is Australian (by either birth or association) and who is considered highly significant in his or her field of endeavour.

One might be easily mistaken for thinking that, in prioritising portraits of those who have made the most distinguished contributions, the Gallery's collection amounts mainly to a hall-of-fame or a visual record from which all but the rich, powerful and elite have been excluded. On the contrary, the equal weight accorded to artist and subject and the adaptability of the Gallery's collecting policy – specifically, the allowance also for the acquisition of portraits of those whose lives set them apart as individuals of long-term public and historical interest – has supplied a formula for the creation of a diverse and textured national collection, one which presently takes in four centuries, nine major media categories, 2300 individual artworks, and numerous professions and areas of human achievement. This approach to collection-building has, furthermore, furnished the Gallery with the means to present a national story that reads, as Sayers once phrased it, ‘like a tapestry, rather than a tombstone'.

The Gallery's Collection Displays, consequently, encompass the great, the good and the famous alongside the humble, the flawed and the obscure, and those whose existences and experiences are no less vivid, worthy or illustrative for having been typical, mundane and ordinary. For instance, the collection's centrepiece – John Webber's tremendous Portrait of Captain James Cook RN 1782 – shares a room with the tiny watercolour on ivory portraits, by an unknown artist, of architect Mortimer Lewis and his wife Elizabeth; with Benjamin Law's affecting plaster busts, created in 1835 and 1836, of Tasmanian Aboriginal leaders Trukanini and Woorrady; and with the painting of colonial shipwright, John Eason, executed in Hobart in 1838 by ex-convict artist and perennial blackguard, William Buelow Gould.

In other areas of the Collection Display, powerful contemporary works – such as Guy Maestri's Archibald-winning Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu 2009, Adam Chang's Charles Teo 2012, or Brook Andrew's stunning 2009 unique screenprint of academic Marcia Langton – might be found alongside those in a more traditional idiom, among them the immensely popular paintings of actor Deborah Mailman (by Evert Ploeg), scientist Frank Fenner (by Jude Rae), Indigenous leader Lowitja O'Donoghue (by Robert Hannaford) and Portrait of HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark by Jiawei Shen.

Throughout the Gallery, photographs, prints, miniatures, cartoons, collages and caricatures are to be found in the vicinity of paintings and sculptures, proving the Gallery's collection to be not just an anthology of significant faces, but a detailed, lively compendium documenting the history of portraiture and the various ways – formal or informal, public or private, doting or irreverent – in which the genre has been explored in Australia. In recent years, this has been expanded to include portraits in new media, such as Warwick Thornton's 2013 portrait of musician Paul Kelly, and the 2008 video depiction, by David Rosetzky, of actor Cate Blanchett. These portraits, along with some forty others now in the collection, have come about through the Gallery's program of commissions – wherein savvy combinations of artist and subject have resulted in some of the most successful and bold examples of recent Australian portraiture: Ah Xian's glazed ceramic sculpture, Dr John Yu 2004; Bill Henson's dramatic photographic triptych, Simone Young 2002; Petrina Hicks' arresting 2008 image of world champion surfer, Layne Beachley; eX de Medici's 2001 watercolour on vellum portrait of rock band Midnight Oil; or the Victorian Tapestry Workshop's woven Portrait of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch 2000.

Through gift, purchase and commission and particularly with the support of many donors and benefactors, the National Portrait Gallery's collection has multiplied almost a hundredfold from the 28 paintings, photographs and works on paper acquired during its first year as an independent institution. And as early as 2001, the possibility of the Gallery one day occupying its own, purpose-built home began to be investigated. Soon after taking on the role of Chair of the Board, Marilyn Darling ensured that the case for the Gallery's growth and future direction was put to the highest level of government. Following the Federal election in 2004, the returned Howard government fulfilled its promise of committing funds for a dedicated building for the National Portrait Gallery, ultimately contributing $87.8 million to the project.

Simone Young, 2002 by Bill Henson

In 2005, the Sydney architectural firm Johnson Pilton Walker Pty Ltd was announced as the winner of the competition to design the new building, the construction of which commenced in August 2006 and finished in December 2008 when the National Portrait Gallery on King Edward Terrace was declared open by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Constructed from materials sourced throughout Australia, the award-winning new home for the National Portrait Gallery was designed with the experience of looking at portraits in mind. Rather than in lofty, rarefied or intimidating spaces, the Gallery's collection and temporary exhibitions are housed in carefully proportioned rooms inviting a personal engagement with the artworks. 

Since 2008, the Gallery has mounted an average of four shows each year in its major temporary exhibition galleries; while around 400 works from the collection have typically featured in the permanent Collection Displays, which occupy spaces honouring the National Portrait Gallery's most significant and generous benefactors. Jiawei Shen's portrait of founding patron, Gordon Darling AC CMG, is a permanent feature of the entrance hall named after him; and the Marilyn Darling Gallery introduces visitors to the experience of the portrait collection. The crucial and prodigious contributions of Robert Oatley AO, John Schaeffer AO, Tim Fairfax AC and the Ian Potter Foundation to the development of the Gallery, its programs and the collection are honoured in the names of other permanent display spaces; as is the immense generosity of the A & S Liangis family, after whom the Gallery's theatre is also named. Individually and in partnership, these benefactors have enabled the acquisition of many of the true gems of the collection: such as the painting of James Cook, acquired in 2000 with the assistance of Robert Oatley AO and John Schaeffer AO and the Commonwealth government; Jean Francois Rigaud's 1780 painting of Cook's second expedition cohorts, Johann and George Forster, purchased with funds provided by the Liangis family, Schaeffer and the Ian Potter Foundation in 2009; William Gould's 1838 portrait of John Eason, acquired with the assistance of the Liangis family in 2013; the virtuoso 1922 Self portrait with gladioli by George Lambert, a gift from Schaeffer in 2003; and the self portraits by John Brack (1948) and Tracey Moffatt (1999/2005), acquired with funds provided by Tim Fairfax AC in 2010 and 2013 respectively.

On 1 July 2013, the National Portrait Gallery ventured into the next phase of its development, with the coming into effect of the legislation establishing the Gallery as a statutory authority. A little over three months later, a group of primary school students from the Amanbidji community, 448 kilometres west of Katherine in the Northern Territory, pushed the number of visitors to the new building past the 3 million mark, confirming that the potential and appeal of a National Portrait Gallery amounts to substantially more than the patriotic, ‘painted record' forecast a century earlier. From its outset, the National Portrait Gallery has signalled its direction as a museum offering a distinct brand of visitor experience, underscored by the specific capacity that portraiture has for enabling up-close encounters with others and hence the effectiveness of a national portrait collection as a means of relating information about our identity, history and culture.

Through its temporary exhibitions, permanent displays and related programs, the National Portrait Gallery has continued to demonstrate portraiture's flexibility, energy and relevance as a genre; while the interpretation of the Gallery's ever-growing collection creates a means for people to connect with the lives of others: the people we variously revere, revile or desire; those we are most inspired, moved, perplexed or intrigued by; those who best illuminate historical experience and circumstance; and all of the other past or present-day companions whose lives might cause us to reflect on or understand our own.