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The Story So Far...

by Simon Elliott, 1 June 2002

A reflection on the National Portrait Gallery's first four years.

David Williamson, 1974 (printed 2001) by Gordon Glenn
David Williamson, 1974 (printed 2001) by Gordon Glenn

Everyone has a face, everyone has a story and everyone has the potential to make an impact on the world. The images on display at the National Portrait Gallery are faces and it is through these images that stories are told. The National Portrait Gallery is where Australia's history is both personified and personalised.

The National Portrait Gallery's latest exhibition The Story so far... showcases the Gallery's collection since 1998 with nearly 300 works from the collection across the Gallery's three spaces. For the first time, the majority of works in the collection are displayed together, allowing unprecedented access not only to the stories of the people depicted, but also the Gallery's own collecting history.

In four short years, the Gallery has built up a collection of portraits of people who are Australian by birth or association and who have contributed significantly to our history, culture or society. Over that period, the collection – including paintings, photographs, sculpture, cartoons and drawings, ceramics and textiles – has reached 400 items. The acquisition in 2000 of the portrait of Captain James Cook made front-page news. Without private funds from two individuals, Robert Oatley and John Schaeffer, the painting would, no doubt, now be in another part of the world. However, there are many less complex stories of how important works of art entered the collection. In fact, since 1998 a remarkable 86% of works have either been gifted or purchased with donated funds for the collection.

The commissioning of portraits has been another important strategy for building the collection. Howard Arkley's portrait of Nick Cave was one of the last paintings completed by the artist before his death in 1999. The Arkley work rapidly became one of the Gallery's recognisable signature images. It acted, too, as a marker of the Gallery's determination to collect contemporary art, and to demonstrate how portraiture could be a significant aspect of contemporary art, rather than a sideline practised by a group of portrait specialists. Since 1999 paintings of Leo Schofield (by Brent Harris), Peter Doherty (by Rick Amor) and Eva Burrows (by Gabrielle Martin) have been among some of the many commissioned works. Perhaps the most interesting part of the commissioning program, however, has been works in mediums other than painting. The Victorian Tapestry Workshop's tapestry portrait of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, and eX de Medici's vast and complex drawing on vellum – a group portrait of the band Midnight Oil posed against the backdrop of the Ranger uranium mine – have proven to be among the Gallery's most fascinating works for visitors.

The Story so far...purposely reduces the barriers between past and present. Certain groupings of works highlight common fields of endeavour, such as science, business or the arts. Others, such as suites of work by photographers David Moore, Lewis Morley, Kate Gollings and Peter Brew-Bevan, provide pictures of particular historical moments. The exhibition presents portraits of people who displayed an exceptional burst of achievement, and others whose lives have been marked by quiet determination and generosity of spirit. It presents a host of stories replete with bravery, perseverance, insight and humour, with outcomes encompassing both success and failure.

Our ambition is for people viewing The Story so far... to leave with not only a feeling that Australian history is more complex than first realised, but a richer sense of their own personal history as it has unfolded alongside the lives of the people on display. For the Portrait Gallery, however, The Story so far... is only the beginning.