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Study for John Bell as King Lear
, 1998-2001

by Nicholas Harding (artist)

ink, charcoal and conté on paper (frame: 56.8 cm x 45.8 cm, sheet: 43.9 cm x 33.5 cm)

John Bell AO OBE (b. 1940) is Australia’s preeminent Shakespearean actor and director. Having graduated from the University of Sydney in 1962, he acted at the Old Tote and with all the state theatre companies before spending five years at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK. On return, he co-founded the Nimrod Theatre in Sydney, which staged premieres and influential interpretations of many Australian plays in the 1970s and 1980s. Nimrod also initiated a distinctively Australian Shakespeare style. In 1990 Bell founded the Bell Shakespeare Company, which has set the standard for Australian performances of the playwright’s works ever since. Bell acted for the company in the roles of Shylock, Macbeth, Henry V, Titus Andronicus, Malvolio, Coriolanus, Richard III, Leontes, Prospero and King Lear – several of them over different productions, many years apart. He retired from his eponymous company in 2015. In 2017, to general rejoicing, he resumed the stage in the title role of The Father for the Sydney Theatre Company.

Nicholas Harding, an habitué of the theatre, was at the first productions of the Bell Shakespeare Company, and conceived of a painting of Bell as he watched him in The Merchant of Venice in a stifling tent in 1991. Over the course of a decade, his imagination inflamed by various performances, he made several portraits of him. This ‘study’, to which Harding returned repeatedly, evolved alongside the much bigger John Bell as King Lear, which won Harding the Archibald Prize in 2001. He also won the People’s Choice Award – his was the first painting to claim both honours. Recently, Harding drew the septuagenarian Bell in pyjamas, rehearsing The Father.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of the artist 2010
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Accession number: 2010.77