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Reflections on portraiture

At a meeting by teleconference of the National Portrait Gallery Foundation last week, I found myself reporting that our forthcoming exhibition So Fine is going to be “a humdinger,” whereupon Tim Fairfax chuckled and said that he hadn’t heard that expression for years.

I keep going back to Cartier: The Exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia next door, and, within the exhibition, to Princess Marie Louise’s diamond, pearl and sapphire Indian tiara (1923), surely one of the most superb head ornaments ever conceived. Remodelled for the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937, Louie bequeathed the tiara to the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester from whom it passed to the present Duke and Duchess, who with extraordinary generosity agreed to lend it. For sheer gob-smacking splendour, though, it’s hard to surpass the Maharajah of Patiala’s immense, almost waist-length 1928 five-strand coronation necklace with its vast stones.

Last month we marked the twentieth anniversary of the formal establishment of the National Portrait Gallery, the tenth of the opening of our signature building, and the fifth of our having become a statutory authority under Commonwealth legislation. This convergence in 2018—when Parliament House turns thirty and the National Library of Australia turns fifty—provides a suitable cause for celebration, mindful of everything that has been achieved for and by the Gallery in those relatively brief periods.

I spent much of my summer holiday at D’Omah, a very charming hotel in the village of Tembi in the Regency of Bantul on the outskirts of Yogyakarta in Central Java. D’Omah has rare charm. Lotus and waterlilies sprout in extraordinary profusion in artful ponds amid palms and deep scarlet ginger flowers. Around these relatively informal gardens are arranged open pavilions of mostly traditional Javanese design, affording many indoor-outdoor areas to sit in rapt contemplation. A little street passes through the middle of the property; cockerels crow loudly from even before the first very loud, tape-recorded call to prayer at 4:00 a.m. Long slender chickens and their progeny wander in and out pecking at grubs and other tasty morsels. Shapely geckos lounge in your rafters, uttering from time to time their quizzical burps of friendliness. The wider surroundings are mostly lush rice paddies.