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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

A potpourri of portraits

by Natalie Wilson, 3 July 2023

The Archibald Prize. A century. Over 6000 works and 1500 artists. Where do I start!

In 2018, as the honour – and enormity – of curating an exhibition tracing the history of Australia’s most beloved portrait award finally dawned on me, the herculean job of tracking down that vast number of past works from which a selection of paintings from across the decades would be brought together for Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize began. The Archie 100 project team – comprising myself, assistant curator Ciara Derkenne and online producer Kirsten Tilgals – started writing emails. Lots of emails. We contacted institutions, both public and private, across Australia and further afield to find out what portraits they held in their collections: art galleries, museums, libraries, schools, universities, churches, sporting organisations, town halls and the many agencies of government. Of course, there were the artists and their families, as well as the subjects of Archibald portraits and their families.

Many people assume, understandably, that every work that has appeared in the Archibald Prize must have been documented and photographed. Yet it is only relatively recently, in a digital age, that this has been possible. Not even a list of works survives for the inaugural 1921 Archibald Prize, and that first exhibition, held in January 1922, garnered little interest in the press. We’ve been able to determine there were 41 works, and identify many of them, from scant records kept in the Art Gallery’s archives and a few newspaper reviews. In the years that followed, the winning work was always reproduced in the press, but little else.

For the first few decades, artists were able to submit as many works as they wished, and all entries were displayed. Then the rules changed. With nearly 200 Archibald portraits lining the Gallery’s walls in 1945, the Trustees declared that, from 1946, a selection of works would be made for exhibition. Artists could enter just two works, with both portraits eligible for selection. In 2003, this was reduced to one work. Even knowing the details of the paintings in the prize, we rarely knew what happened to them after they were exhibited – not even the winners (the prize is not acquisitive). Some have found their way into public collecting institutions, but the vast majority are in private hands, with their current owners often unaware of the work’s history.

In October 2019, the production company Mint Pictures began filming a three-part series on the history of the prize – Finding the Archibald – to premiere on ABC TV in May 2021, and wanted to follow me in my hunt for Archibald portraits. Our first shoot began the day I visited a private collector to view a work we had just located, a self portrait by the artist Tempe Manning. There on the wall, 80 years after her first appearance in the 1939 Archibald Prize, her visage was as vivid and commanding of attention as she had been then. Manning’s early post-impressionist experiments in Sydney in 1916, positioning her at the forefront of modernism in this country, made this portrait one I knew I had to have in the exhibition. It now graces the cover of the Archie 100 book and is a welcome addition to the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Over the following months, I looked at a lot of portraits. Right up until late February 2020, when I travelled to Canberra to view works in our national collections, including the National Portrait Gallery, National Library of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Australian War Memorial and Parliament House, all with the Mint Pictures crew in tow. Then, in early March, COVID-19 thwarted my best-laid plans, and everything came to a standstill. At least for a while. Not wanting to surrender the search, my tack changed and, taking advantage of a literally captive Australian audience, I began a series of interviews on local, regional and national radio and television – a call-out for Archibald works. Steadily, information and images of portraits began trickling in via our Archie 100 email, and some long-lost treasures resurfaced.

One such jewel was, until recently, rolled up in a cupboard in Victoria. The identity of the subject painted by Melbourne artist Violet McInnes – wife of the inaugural and seven-time winner of the Archibald Prize, WB McInnes – was a mystery to the owner. After receiving an image of the newly restored work, I had my suspicions. I had been searching for one of the artist’s works, her 1941 Archibald portrait of Melbourne painter Sybil Craig. Alongside Nora Heysen, the first woman to win the Archibald Prize in 1938, Craig was one of three women appointed an official war artist during the Second World War. We compared the portrait with photographs of Craig of that period to verify the identity of the sitter, and Craig’s 1941 diaries confirmed she had three sittings with Violet McInnes between March and April that year. One mystery solved, several hundred to go ...

We’d been searching for works for about 18 months when I began to narrow my selection and establish a structure for the exhibition, based on a thematic approach rather than traversing a chronological path across 100 years. Each decade of the prize would be represented by around 10 works, allowing a diversity of artistic styles and approaches to portraiture. The stories about the artists and their subjects would be compelling, and the selection would ensure there were artists from across Australasia. Most importantly, Archie 100 wouldn’t just be about the winners, rather the myriad histories that lay within every stroke of paint. Those tales from across the past century were often long forgotten and, I felt, in need of recounting.

As I spoke to people across the country, I began to grasp the passion audiences have for the prize … everyone has a vested interest in the Archibald, so getting the selection of works ‘right’ was paramount for me. There needed to be something for everyone.

The story of John Feltham Archibald himself had to be told and the exhibition begins with a portrait of the man – a former Art Gallery of NSW trustee – by the Tasmanian artist Florence Rodway. Known as ‘Jack’ or ‘Archie’ to his family and colleagues, Archibald established the Bulletin magazine in 1880. His admiration for the work of John Longstaff led him to commission a portrait in 1900 of poet and Bulletin writer Henry Lawson, which the Art Gallery of NSW purchased the following year. Archibald’s admiration for Longstaff’s portrayal of Lawson, his belief in the value of establishing a national portrait gallery, and, I believe, his desire to honour the memory of his recently deceased, half-brother Carl Archibald – himself an aspiring artist – were the motives that led him to bequeath part of his considerable wealth for the establishment of the Archibald Prize. The inaugural 1921 Archibald Prize went to Melbourne artist WB McInnes with his portrait of renowned Bendigo-born architect Harold Desbrowe Annear, and was the first of seven Archibald wins for McInnes over the next 15 years. It’s here we start our journey through Archie 100.

From the outset, portraits of the artists themselves became the mainstay of works in the prize, and Archie 100 kicks off with 10 self portraits in the first of 11 themes, ‘Wielding the brush’. George Lambert’s bravura painting from 1922 – disqualified from the prize due to the artist’s contested residential status and removed by Lambert after a fortnight from the display – is one of the National Portrait Gallery’s masterworks. With his command of texture and tone – from the crush of velvet and rub of corduroy in his smoking jacket, to the contrast of vivid white, red and pink flashes of gladioli blooms against a dusky background – Lambert’s self-assured pose demands our attention. So too does Peter Tyndall’s monocular gaze, directed squarely at the viewer. His 1991/92 self portrait challenges the culturally constructed and conditioned manner we view art in the context of its display in a museum and encourages alternative ways of perceiving.

1 Self portrait with gladioli, 1922 George Lambert. 2 Studio self-portrait, 2018 Vincent Namatjira OAM. Art Gallery of New South Wales [240.2018] Gift of Geoff Ainsworth AM and Johanna Featherstone 2018 Photo: AGNSW. © Vincent Namatjira/Copyright Agency, 2022.

The bond between artists and family members – whether partners, siblings, grandparents or in-laws – is explored in ‘The intimacy of familiarity’, where portraits of loved ones bear the hallmarks of passion, admiration, and sometimes, strained emotions. Vincent Namatjira’s 2018 Archibald work, a self portrait in his studio with the imagined presence of the artist’s great-grandfather, Western Aranda artist Albert Namatjira (who appears in Archie 100 in another much-loved painting by William Dargie), affirms unbreakable ancestral connections across time.

1 detail … A Person Looks At A Work of Art / someone looks at something.. 1991 Peter Tyndall. Michael Buxton Collection, University of Melbourne Art Collection. © Peter Tyndall. 1991/92 Archibald Prize. 2 Ola Cohn, 1961 Jean Goldberg. © Jean Goldberg/Copyright Agency, 2023, Currently on display.

Portraits of fellow artists are the most ubiquitous of all Archibald Prize winners. In fact, 37 portraits of artists – including 13 self portraits – have won the award from 1921 to 2022. From the rich offerings available, 11 works make up ‘Artists by artists’. Harry Linley Richardson’s flawless portrayal of painter Dorothy Richmond brings an example of an early Archibald Prize work from Aotearoa into the potpourri of portraits. The rendering of sculptor Ola Cohn by Jean Nethercote (later Goldberg) is as strong and enduring as the stone carvings seen in the studio behind the seated form of the artist. Described by writer and friend Barbara Blackman as ‘a big flour bag of a woman, healthy as bread, strong as a millstone’, Cohn’s studio-home was a meeting place for Melbourne’s artistic community.

‘Recasting the gaze’ focuses upon the indelible mark female artists have made on the Archibald Prize since 1921. While just 11 women – from a total of 63 artists to date – have won the Archibald, the trailblazing paths women continue to forge are celebrated in portraits by such painters as AME Bale, Vaike Liibus, Jacqueline Hick and 1996 and 2018 winners Wendy Sharpe and Yvette Coppersmith. Tjungkara Ken’s bravura self portrait defies the Western art historical canon, with her painting of self as a living embodiment of Country. A century after the inaugural Archibald Prize, the notion that a person’s identity may be revealed in portraiture through codified cultural designs has progressively become accepted practice.

1 Molly, 1983 Wes Walters. Collection of Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, Melbourne. © Estate of Wes Walters. 1983 Archibald Prize. 2 Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal), 1965 Clif Peir. © Estate of Clif Peir.

One of the most memorable moments in my hunt for lost portraits came when, one day, I received a video call from Mint Pictures. Online was Finding the Archibald presenter, actor Rachel Griffiths, with none other than the subject of Wes Walter’s 1983 Archibald portrait, Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum. I had wanted to include the portrait in the display since I first saw a black-and-white photograph of the work, and there it was, in living colour in Molly’s living room – an embodiment of Egyptomania, complete with the mural of sand dunes, pyramids and date palms that fills the background of Walter’s portrait. Displayed alongside stars of the stage and screen in the theme ‘The cult of celebrity’, the work is my own personal ‘brush with fame’. In ‘Local heroes and national icons’ we commemorate those who have united people through their ideals and deeds, including poet, environmentalist and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal, whose portrait by Clif Peir is another of the National Portrait Gallery’s striking works included in Archie 100.

1 The billy boy, 1943 William Dobell. Australian War Memorial. 1943 Archibald Prize. 2 Matron Muriel Doherty, RAAFNS, 1948 Alfreda Marcovitch. Australian War Memorial. © Estate of Alfreda Marcovitch. 1948 Archibald Prize.

We then look at the impact that the Second World War had on the prize, with portraits produced by artist-soldiers, official war artists and artists on the home front, and, importantly, the impact that émigré artists fleeing war-torn Europe had on art and culture in this country. Alfreda Marcovitch’s depiction of nurse Muriel Doherty – who was principal matron for the recently liberated Bergen-Belson Concentration Camp in Germany – was another astonishing discovery. Now in the Australian War Memorial’s collection, the work was brought to my attention by the artist’s granddaughter, who had heard about our search for works.

Controversy and the Archibald Prize seemingly go hand in hand. Archie 100 explores the biggest controversy in the history of the prize, in which two artists took the Gallery trustees to court after they awarded the 1943 Archibald Prize to William Dobell, for his portrait of artist Joshua Smith. While the winning portrait is not included in Archie 100 – it was all but destroyed in a fire in the 1950s – this seminal Archibald moment is told through a selection of other works by the key protagonists, and includes another of Dobell’s three 1943 works, The billy boy. ‘What lies beneath’ explores the potential of portraiture to illuminate the inner workings of both artists and their subjects. Brett Whiteley’s confessional self portrait of 1978 – a brutally honest depiction of his heroin addiction – is the second of two by Whiteley awarded the Archibald Prize.

Spiritual figures, politicians and other individuals whose beliefs and endeavours have impacted the way our society has grown and prospered are presented through the theme ‘In polite conversation’. Josonia Palaitis created the head-turning portrait of Bennelong MP John Howard, then serving as treasurer of Australia, in sandals and shorts for the 1979 Archibald; yet another surprising discovery during my Archie 100 hunt as, like so many of the portraits, we had no reference image on file. It has to be one of my (many) favourites.

Finally, ‘The art world’ acknowledges those who have championed the creative endeavours of artists throughout the past century: art critics, gallerists, curators, collectors and patrons. The enduring friendships between Archibald artists and those who support their creative endeavours are made tangible through many of these works.

The multi-layered interconnections between many of these portraits and their distinct stories are remarkable, something I only realised at the end of my journey when the works were first displayed. I hope that visitors – as they explore Archie 100 – will make their own discoveries and individual connections with these portraits that have captivated us across the century of the Archibald Prize.

 

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