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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.

The Gallery’s Acknowledgement of Country, and information on culturally sensitive and restricted content and the use of historic language in the collection can be found here.

Xavier Herbert

early 1980s (printed 2018)
Jacqueline Mitelman

inkjet print on paper (sheet: 58.7 cm x 48.2 cm, image: 43.1 cm x 32.8 cm)
Image not available

Xavier Herbert (1901 –1984), author, was born Alfred Jackson to a single mother in Geraldton, WA. Leaving school early, he worked in miscellaneous jobs in WA and Victoria before moving to Sydney in 1926. There he published his first stories under the name of Herbert Astor. From 1927 to 1930 he lived in Darwin. He drew on his experiences there while writing his first book, Capricornia, in London in 1930-1932. Herbert stated that the working title of the novel, which at first, dealt mainly with inter-racial sexual relations, was Black Velvet. Broadened in scope, retitled Capricornia, it characterised Australia as a place ‘Despoiled by White Bullies, Thieves, and Hypocrites’; it won the Commonwealth Prize for the best Australian novel published or accepted for publication in the year 1937. Herbert settled in Cairns in 1946. Having written little in the 1940s and 1950s, the largely-overlooked Soldiers’ Women in 1961 and his autobiography Disturbing Element in 1963, he made his name with Poor Fellow My Country (1975), which won the Miles Franklin Award and still holds the record for the longest Australian novel. He gained two honorary D. Litts in 1976. Described by Russell McDougall in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as ‘outrageously pugnacious, deeply fascinated by his own masculinity, obsessed by his own sexuality . . . passionate in his devotion to Australia and fiercely republican’, Herbert moved to the Northern Territory shortly before he died. Patrick Dodson officiated at his funeral alongside local elders.

Jacqueline Mitelman flew to Cairns to photograph Xavier Herbert. She writes ‘At that time – in the early eighties – Herbert was an intense, energetic, and still feisty, 82-year old. He offered opinions on everything, and made me lunch – steak and potatoes. I liked him immensely. His long-time partner and muse had recently died, and he confessed that he couldn't imagine living without a muse, the love of a woman. In the ignorance of my then youth, I couldn't imagine this desire would ever be fulfilled. About a year after I had taken his photograph, I was proved wrong. I read in an interview that he’d found a new devoted partner. The photographs were taken in and around his tropical home, all using available light and Tri-X film. ’

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased 2018

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. Works of art from the collection are reproduced as per the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The use of images of works from the collection may be restricted under the Act. Requests for a reproduction of a work of art can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

Artist and subject

Jacqueline Mitelman (age 28 in 1980)

Xavier Herbert (age 79 in 1980)

Related information

The Companion

Permanent collection catalogue

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On one level The Companion talks about the most famous and frontline Australians, but on another it tells us about ourselves: who we read, who we watch, who we listen to, who we cheer for, who we aspire to be, and who we'll never forget. The Companion is available to buy online and in the Portrait Gallery Store.

Jacqueline Mitelman

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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 past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

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