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Portraits for Posterity

Friday 7 April until Sunday 9 July 2006

Drawn from some of the many donations made to the Gallery's collection, the exhibition Portraits for Posterity pays homage both to the remarkable (and varied) group of Australians who are portrayed in the portraits and the generosity of the many donors who have presented them to the Gallery.

Portrait of Professor Graeme Clark, 2000 by Peter Wegner
Portrait of Professor Graeme Clark, 2000 by Peter Wegner

While the display includes a variety of media from paintings such as John Webber's portrait of Captain James Cook or Rick Amor's pencil sketch of Rolf Harris, it favours photography and includes almost 50 of Greg Weight's thoughtful and beautiful images of contemporary artists donated to the Gallery by Patrick Corrigan AM.

Despite Twain's good humoured appraisal of humanity, the current display in the National Portrait Gallery demonstrates that people are prepared to offer more than just words. The nearly 100 paintings, drawings and photographs in Portraits for Posterity were either gifts to the Gallery, or purchases made with donated funds, which testifies to the generosity and community spirit of Australians.

In 1998 the first acquisitions in the fledgling collection of the Portrait Gallery were displayed. These first works demonstrated a preponderance of gifts that has characterised the Gallery's collecting ever since. Included in that exhibition were the first gifts of Gordon and Marilyn Darling - Clifton Pugh's 1958 portrait of Barry Humphries. This was the first of many gifts the Darlings have made to the collection, in addition to their funding of several significant purchases and commissions.

The assistance of Robert Oatley and John Schaeffer in providing funds to purchase the Gallery's iconic 1782 John Webber portrait of Captain James Cook in 2000 is a well known and spectacular example of the philanthropic imperative. And there have been many more donations to the Gallery since then. Indeed, shortly after he and Robert Oatley made the Cook purchase possible, John Schaeffer gave the Gallery one of the masterpieces of Australian twentieth century portraiture, George Lambert's Self-portrait with gladioli.

Artists are in a unique position in being able to offer their own work. Marea Gazzard, one of Australia's most celebrated ceramicists, is depicted in a cool blue pinafore against a background of appropriately warm earth tones by renowned portrait painter Judy Cassab, who donated the portrait.

The Gallery has been fortunate in receiving significant gifts of photographs from many photographers. Juno Gemes has donated images of many of Australia's most important Indigenous activists and entertainers. John Elliott maintained the focus on performers when he gave the Gallery a suite of 20 portraits including photographs of some of Australia's best known country singers including newcomer Kasey Chambers and elder statesmen of song, Chad Morgan and Smoky Dawson.

Before his death, David Moore selected over one hundred of his best portraits which were included in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition Face to Face. He gave a substantial number of these portraits to the collection, and with the assistance of Gordon Darling and Tim Fairfax, the Gallery was able to purchase the remainder of this important collection.

Similarly, the Gallery was able to acquire a substantial group of vintage Max Dupain portraits due to the generosity of the photographer's son, Rex Dupain and Tim Fairfax. Art collector, Pat Corrigan donated a body of 101 photographs by Greg Weight documenting Australian artists. The portraits of Brett Whiteley, Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Lloyd Rees offer rare insight into the lives of three individuals who gave so much to Australian culture.

Big business, often called on by cultural institutions to support their exhibitions and programs, can also be a source of donations and the record of corporate donation to the Gallery is admirable. Alcoa World Alumina Australia recently donated a portrait of industrialist Sir Arvi Parbo created in 1993 by Sir William Dargie. A second portrait by Dargie, of BHP Chairman Essington Lewis, was donated by BHP Billiton. A third painting by the artist, a portrait of Albert Namatjira, was able to be purchased as a result of funds donated by Marilyn Darling and Philip Bacon.

Not everyone is in a position to donate a portrait directly but support can come in other forms, notably cash donation or bequest. Mary Isabel Murphy assisted greatly in the commissioning of a portrait of HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark by Jiawei Shen, the newest icon for the Gallery and a potential rival to Webber's James Cook for the public's attention and affection. This magnificent portrait will be the centrepiece for an exhibition of Australian portraiture Australian Visit assembled by the National Portrait Gallery to display in Copenhagen in April this year. (See the write up on the exhibition on this website).  While Mrs Murphy's legacy will be in Denmark, a second painting by Jiawei Shen, of the Hon. Tom Hughes AO QC funded by his daughter Lucy Turnbull and son-in-law Malcolm Turnbull, will maintain a strong presence for the artist. Basil Bressler's life was spent as an amateur of art. In his estate he left funds for the purchase of portraits of living artists, allowing the Gallery to successfully match artist with subject as the painting of Peter Porter by Tony Clark, the gouache of Fred Gruen by Erwin Fabian and photograph of Norma Redpath by Mark Strizic show.

Bob Edwards, retired director of touring agency Art Exhibitions Australia, donated a remarkable suite of lithographs by colonial artist and surveyor, William Henry Fernyhough who produced some of Australia's first portraits of Indigenous Australians. Like the charcoal portrait of Sydney eccentric Bee Miles by Roderick Shaw donated by Brian Griffin, they graphically illustrate that the Gallery represents more than just the rich and the powerful and that donors to the Gallery reflect a similar diversity.

National Portrait Gallery Director Andrew Sayers said the Gallery was delighted to receive such generous gifts, explaining that 'over 90 percent of the Portrait Gallery's Collection has been acquired through private benefaction. Our collection has been shaped by good will and that's important as this is a collection for the people of Australia and intended to be enjoyed by Australians who visit the National Portrait Gallery, for generations to come. '

The National Portrait Gallery receives substantial financial support from the Federal Government through the allocation of annual operating funds, and now with funds for the construction of a dedicated building. But support from business and the community is central to building the collection of the Gallery. Donations, bequests, gifts, grants and sponsorships from individuals, foundations, corporations and government agencies all help the National Portrait Gallery to build and maintain the Collection, as well as present permanent and temporary exhibitions.

Michael Desmond