We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of New South Wales stands.

War – what is it good for?

It is said that some of the richest contributions to science, literature and art have been the result of war. 

Portrait on the left is a seated, uniformed military officer. Portrait on the right is a naked person, lying in a twisted position.

Left: George W Lambert General Chauvel from the Archibald Prize 1922, image courtesy Dr Richard Chauvel. Right: Ben Quilty Captain S after Afghanistan from the Archibald Prize 2012 © the artist

It seems unfathomable that anything but the ‘destruction to innocent lives’ could come from warfare, as the lyrics to the anti–Vietnam War protest anthem made famous by Motown singer Edwin Star assert, declaring:

What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing

However, artists in Australia have proven otherwise, in particular through the art of portraiture.

Portraits of men and women who have played a part in theatres of war – from the so-called ‘Great War’ of 1914–18 through to Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan in the 21st century – have been in the Archibald Prize since the inaugural competition in 1921. Some of these feature in the exhibition Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize which includes a section ‘War and its aftermath'.

The first known portraits of military subjects in the Archibald were painted by the miniature artist Bernice Edwell. Although we do not know where these paintings are now, or have images of them, contemporary reviews of the prize indicate that two of her subjects were ‘much-medalled military persons’. We do know that Edwell had portraits of World War I officers General Sir Cyril Brudenell White (1876–1940) and Major General Walter Coxen (1870–1949) in other exhibitions and it is likely these are the same portraits shown in the 1921 Archibald.

Many notable military figures were portrayed for the Archibald Prize during the 1920s and 30s. Renowned general Henry George (Harry) Chauvel (1865–1945), who commanded the 1st Light Horse Brigade at Gallipoli, was painted three times, including a 1922 Archibald portrait by one of Australia’s first official war artists, George Lambert.

Two distinct commissioning schemes for artists were established during WWI. One was originally administered by the Australian High Commission in London, with official war correspondent Charles Bean and John Treloar – head of the newly created Australian War Records Section (AWRS) in London – as advisers.

Lambert – who later won the 1927 Archibald Prize – was appointed as part of the Official War Art (OWA) scheme in 1917. Other future Archibald artists – George Bell, A Henry Fullwood, Fred Leist, John Longstaff (who won the 1925 Archibald Prize), Harold Septimus Power, James Quinn and Arthur Streeton – also received honorary commissions as officers in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). In addition, artists already serving with the AIF were attached to the AWRS, including Will Longstaff (John Longstaff’s cousin) and Louis McCubbin, who would also go on to produce Archibald portraits. In all, there were 18 official war artists in WWI.

Bean petitioned for the construction of an official war memorial in Australia with the support of artists such as London-based Charles Lloyd Jones, whose letter was published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 24 December 1918.

Art appeals directly to the emotions. It is only natural that the titanic struggle that has engaged the world for four and a half years should find expression in the work of artists. This war, which in its earliest stages threatened to kill what little life there was in art, has stimulated and broadened the work of all who use the brush. “Art seeks the typical, not the incidental.” A record of this war by the great artists of the time, will tell the story to coming generations more effectively than can be done by any other means. It will be an imperishable record for the future, of all that has been seen and felt during these years, for the artist, alone of all men, can tell this story as it should be told.
Charles Lloyd Jones, The Sydney Morning Herald

The Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra was finally opened on Remembrance Day, 11 November, in 1941, and, among many other things, is home to the collection of art produced as part of the OWA scheme.

Portraits from that scheme served several functions. They not only commemorated individual military leaders and combat veterans, but also helped assert a distinct national identity and mythologise the ANZAC tradition. However, depictions of the war experience at home and women’s wartime efforts, and of the work of women artists, were largely neglected.

It wasn’t until World War II, when the OWA scheme resumed, that women artists were also commissioned. In 1943, Nora Heysen was the first to be appointed an official war artist, following her achievement as the first woman to win the Archibald Prize.

Heysen was instructed to depict the women’s war effort in the navy, air force and army, and three of her studio portraits of leading military women were included in the 1943 Archibald: Colonel Sybil H Irving, Group Officer Clare Stevenson and First Officer Sheila McClemans, all now in the AWM collection.

Four portraits of women in military uniform. The one on the left is a black-and-white photograph. The others are oil paintings.

From the Australian War Memorial, Canberra: A photo by Ronald Keith Monro of VFX94085 Captain Nora Heysen, official war artist, Military History Section, Land Headquarters, 17 January 1944, and Heysen portraits from the Archibald Prize 1943 of (left to right) Col Sybil H Irving, Group Officer Clare Stevenson and First Officer S McClemans

Treloar had encouraged entries to the 1943 Archibald competition hoping to increase awareness of the OWA program. He wrote to artist Douglas Watson, ‘It is hoped that one of the war artists will be successful not only for the sake of the winner him (or her) self but it would be a disappointment to the Section if a member does not win. I should think that the service portraits will add a new and distinctive note to the [AWM] collection.’ Ultimately the 1943 prize was awarded to William Dobell for his controversial and now-famous portrait of fellow camoufleur Joshua Smith, who was stationed with him at the RAAF base at Rathmines, designing and implementing military camouflage. (Dobell's other 1943 entry, of another Rathmines worker, is included in Archie 100.)

The OWA scheme also granted official war artist commissions to Sybil Craig and Stella Bowan. None of their works were exhibited in the Archibald Prize; however, Craig was depicted by Violet McInnes for the 1941 Archibald Prize (a work included in Archie 100). The portrait was painted prior to Craig’s appointment in March 1945 to record work by women munitions workers at the Commonwealth Explosives Factory in the Melbourne suburb of Maribyrnong.

One of the most celebrated artists commissioned by the OWA scheme was eight-time Archibald winner William Dargie, with two of his war portraits taking out the prize. He was commissioned to paint a portrait of Corporal Jim Gordon shortly after the soldier was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery while serving in Lebanon, having charged and killed four machine gunners with a bayonet. The portrait won Dargie the 1942 Archibald Prize. The artist’s portrayal of Edmund Herring – World War II commander of the 6th Division Artillery in the Western Desert campaign and the Battle of Greece and later commander of the land forces in the Kokoda Track campaign – won the 1945 Archibald. Other Archibald portraits by Dargie now in the AWM collection depict Arthur Allen (1942), Edward Harty (1943), Alan Moore (1945) and Francis Bladin (1956).

A black-and-white photo of a uniformed person standing with paintbrush and palette in front of a portrait on an easel, next to which sits the uniformed portrait subject. Next to this is a colour oil painting of the completed portrait.

From the Australian War Memorial, Canberra: Corporal Jim Gordon VC poses for William Dargie, official war artist, in Syria; Dargie’s portrait of Gordon from the Archibald Prize 1942


In more recent years, Archibald Prize finalists have also been appointed official war artists. These include Archie 100 artists Wendy Sharpe, who was attached to the Australian Army History Unit at Dili in East Timor, and Ben Quilty, who toured with Australian troops in Afghanistan in 2011. His portrait Captain S after Afghanistan was painted from a live sitting following his return to Australia and was a finalist in the 2012 Archibald Prize. It is included in Archie 100 in the section ‘What lies beneath’, through its evocation of the psychological and corporeal wounds suffered by those who face unimaginable horrors during military service.

You can explore the Archibald works now in the Australian War Memorial collection – with thanks to the Memorial for their help updating the prizes archive as part of the Archie 100 project.

You can also discover more connections to the Archibald Prize on the Australian War Memorial website