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Archie 100

A Century of the Archibald Prize

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The cult of celebrity

The cult of celebrity

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The cult of celebrity

Starlets, comedians, luminaries of the stage and screen … the list goes on. Celebrity has always cast its spell on the Archibald Prize, with people jostling to see their favourite icons on the wall and experience a brush with fame. When ‘the talkies’ (sound film) first hit world cinemas in 1927, the competition was still in its infancy. Nevertheless, legends of the theatre and silent-movie era often appeared in the prize’s early years.

As the reputation of the Archies swelled, the popularity of subjects slowly became a consideration for artists in their bid to secure the prize. Some personalities have appeared on numerous occasions, and of all the portraits awarded the People’s Choice and Packing Room prizes, celebrities dominate, proving their power to allure.

Of course, celebrity can be short-lived. Many household names have been forgotten over the course of 100 years. While fame is fleeting, a portrait endures.

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Ada Whiting (1858–1953), 'Miss Jessica Harcourt' 1925, miniature: watercolour and white gouache on ivory, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, gift of Mrs Violet Whiting, 1989. Image courtesy NGV. Photo: Christian Markel
Ada Whiting, Archibald Prize 1925

Miss Jessica Harcourt

Ada Whiting was 66 years old and had enjoyed critical success as a miniaturist when she painted Jessica Harcourt (1905–88). At just 18, Harcourt had been plucked from obscurity and dubbed by the Australian press ‘Australia’s loveliest girl’. Harcourt’s sister, the starlet Rene Harcourt, also sat for Whiting for the 1925 Archibald. Sadly, the portrait is now lost.

Viewed as the embodiment of grace and beauty, Harcourt embraced her celebrity and went on to become a fashion ‘mannequin’, writer and creator of beauty products. As an actor she is best known for her leading role in Australia’s most lauded – and expensive – silent film, For the term of his natural life (1927). Opera singer Dame Nellie Melba was a lifelong friend and patron to Whiting. It is perhaps through Melba’s artistic associations that Whiting came to paint Harcourt.

Whiting’s love for miniature painting came from her father, British miniaturist George Cherry, who had learned the delicate art before coming to Australia in 1848. Whiting painted on ivory cameos with watercolour, using a magnifying glass to discern fine details and work swiftly. Her works were exhibited at London’s Royal Academy, the Royal Scottish Academy and the Salon in Paris, and Harcourt’s portrait featured at Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy in 1934.

On display at the Art Gallery of NSW only. Not part of the Archie 100 tour.

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Arthur Murch (1902–1989), 'Portrait of George Wallace' c1950, exhibited as 'George Wallace', oil on canvas, Rockhampton Museum of Art, purchased through the Art Acquisition Fund, with assistance from the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, 1977 © the artist's estate. Photo: AGNSW, Diana Panuccio
Arthur Murch, Archibald Prize 1950

Portrait of George Wallace

In this engaging portrait, Arthur Murch has captured the larger-than-life persona of his subject, George Stevenson Wallace (1895–1960). From his early beginnings in vaudeville, Wallace went on to become Australia’s first genuine box-office star of ‘the talkies’ (sound film). A versatile entertainer, Wallace performed on stage, in film and pantomime, composed songs, taught himself to play the piano, saxophone and guitar, and had his own radio show.

The artist and sitter met through a neighbour while Wallace was living with family on Sydney’s northern beaches, where Murch began preparatory sketches. Apparently, Wallace had argued with his relatives and subsequently moved to a flat in Darlinghurst. Murch was obliged to travel from his home in Avalon to Darlinghurst each day, with Wallace too anxious to leave his own home because of ill health. Ria Murch noted Wallace’s larrikin presence in the portrait, but her husband’s interest in classical nuances and the rich and shimmering tones are a clever metaphor. She said, ‘Put a red biretta on him and Murch’s Wallace could pass for a Renaissance cardinal’.

Murch was committed to portraying the unique character of the people he encountered, from academics and religious figures to artists he met throughout his career. He won the 1949 Archibald with a portrait of fellow artist Bonar Dunlop.

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Paul Newton (born 1961), 'Roy and HG (John Doyle and Greig Pickhaver)' 2001, oil on canvas, private collection © the artist. Photo: AGNSW, Diana Panuccio
Paul Newton, Archibald Prize 2001

Roy and HG (John Doyle and Greig Pickhaver)

Paul Newton prefers to choose timely subjects for his Archibald Prize portraits. His first Archibald work, portraying broadcaster John Laws, won the 1996 Packing Room Prize. Actor and model Kate Fischer, who was then engaged to billionaire businessman James Packer, was his 1997 sitter and he portrayed David Campese, the recently retired rugby union legend, for the 2000 Sporting Portrait Prize held in conjunction with the Archibald.

By 2001, the comedy duo Roy Slaven and HG Nelson – played by John Doyle (born 1953) and Greig Pickhaver (born 1948) – had reached cult status with their entertaining sports commentaries and hilarious banter televised on The dream, during Sydney’s 2000 Olympic Games. Newton enjoyed working with ‘Roy and HG’, noting that their natural chemistry and rapport was as seamless in real life as it was on television. The unofficial Olympic mascot of The dream – Fatso the wombat – even makes a cheeky cameo appearance on Doyle’s t-shirt.

The portrait won the People’s Choice award and the Packing Room Prize, the first time a work had claimed both prizes. When told of the People’s Choice win, Pickhaver commented:

Who can fault the taste of the Sydney public? An artist at the top of his form making a couple of very ordinary blokes look good – it must have been a struggle.

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Del Kathryn Barton (born 1972), 'Mother (a portrait of Cate)' 2011, watercolour, gouache, acrylic and pen on polyester canvas, collection of Cate Blanchett, England © the artist. Photo: AGNSW, Christopher Snee
Del Kathryn Barton, Archibald Prize 2011

Mother (a portrait of Cate)

Motherhood is a prominent theme in Del Kathryn Barton’s highly individual work, and she is acutely aware of the oftentimes competing and demanding dual roles of being an artist and mother. Cate Blanchett (born 1969) is one of the most internationally renowned and successful Australian women working in the arts today. Recognised for her multi-award-winning film, television and stage work, at the time this portrait was painted Blanchett was co-artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company, a role she held from 2008 to 2012.

Blanchett preferred to be depicted with her children, and Barton wanted to create a personalised and symbolic motif particular to Blanchett, recalling:

After grilling Cate, I included a hydrangea (one of her favourite ‘nanna’ flowers), a few starlings (after an epiphany she had in the presence of a murmuration of starlings), an extraordinary Alexander McQueen gown and, of course, Dash, Roman and Iggy. The waratahs I included to symbolise a sense of place and origin and because I have always thought that they looked like crazy little UFOs hovering in the bush, pertaining to Cate’s ethereal and otherworldly beauty.

In 2013, Barton became one of two women to have won the Archibald twice, joining Judy Cassab, who won in 1960 and 1967. Barton won in 2013 with a portrait of actor Hugo Weaving, and in 2008 with a self-portrait including her children.

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Nicholas Harding (born 1956), 'John Bell as King Lear' 2001, oil on canvas on board, collection of Mr and Mrs Ronald Ooi, Singapore © the artist. Photo: AGNSW, Diana Panuccio
Nicholas Harding, winner Archibald Prize 2001

John Bell as King Lear

Nicholas Harding portrays Australia’s foremost Shakespearean actor and director, John Bell (born 1940), whose inimitable stage presence is captured in this vital portrait of the actor in action.

Harding is an enthusiastic follower of the Bell Shakespeare Company and has seen every production since the company’s foundation in 1990. It was, however, Barrie Kosky’s 1998 production of King Lear, starring Bell, that profoundly impacted the artist. Harding noted, ‘I sat in the front row … It was very dramatic and exciting, and John’s performance was riveting’. Harding used stage lighting to highlight Bell’s figure and create sharp contrasts in his appearance, stating:

To have him in character … allowed me to capture a more intense expression on his face. The wonderful red coat he wore as Lear has also worked well for the portrait.

This was the second time Harding selected Bell as his subject, with the first in 2000.

Over 26 years, Harding has twice portrayed artist Margaret Olley (1998, 1999); Margaret Whitlam (2003, 2009), social campaigner and wife of former prime minister Gough Whitlam; and Aboriginal artist Rusty Peters (2002, 2004). His 2005 depiction of artist Robert Dickerson was awarded the 2005 People’s Choice.

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Wes Walters (1928–2014), 'Molly' 1983, oil on canvas, collection of Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, Melbourne © the artist's estate. Photo: AGNSW, Diana Panuccio
Wes Walters, Archibald Prize 1983

Molly

Before becoming a highly sought-after portrait painter, Wes Walters was a successful commercial artist. One of his most recognisable designs was an early Chiko Roll poster, once found in fast-food shops across Australia. For his 1983 Archibald portrait – painted in his signature realist manner – Walters selected one of the most influential personalities in the music industry. Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum (born 1943), a record producer and music journalist, co-created and presented ABC’s iconic Countdown. One of the first music television programs to incorporate music videos, the hugely popular show also afforded Meldrum an international reputation.

In Walter’s portrait, Meldrum is caught mid-sentence – perhaps about to extoll the latest ‘Top 10’ hit – wearing his trademark Stetson hat and boots and framed against a mural of a desert landscape in his Egyptian-themed home. In a Countdown episode filmed later in 1983 in his living room, Meldrum presents a segment seated in the same pose before the same mural.

Meldrum believed that Walters should have received an award for forcing him to sit still and remain silent during the painting process. Meldrum remarked, ‘While I shut up, he did a lot of talking and he was really one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met’. English music legend Elton John purchased the portrait and gifted it to his friend Meldrum, in whose living room it has hung ever since.

Walters won the Archibald with his 1979 portrayal of broadcaster Phillip Adams, one of several Australian celebrities captured by the Archibald artist over an 18-year period.

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John Brack (1920–99), 'Barry Humphries in the character of Mrs Everage' 1969, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased with funds provided by the Contemporary Art Purchase Grant from the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, 1975 © the artist's estate. Photo: AGNSW, Jenni Carter
John Brack, Archibald Prize 1969

Barry Humphries in the character of Mrs Everage

John Brack’s stark paintings of everyday urban life are iconic reflections on 1950s Australian middle-class existence. As the subject of this Archibald portrait, acclaimed comedian and performer Barry Humphries (born 1934), recalled:

He was different, and no one knew what to say about his work. Many critics of the time saw it as caricature, but he made a deep impression on me because his shrewd pictorial observations had an affinity with my own theatrical portrayals of Melbourne life.

Brack and Humphries became friends in the late 1950s. Through their own artforms, both artists presented satirical insights into Menzies Government–era conservatism and suburban aspirations. Humphries approached Brack about the portrait in 1968, when his fictitious character, Mrs Edna Everage, had evolved from the shy ‘average’ housewife to the flamboyant and garrulous media personality recognised today, but before she took the title ‘Dame’. Edna’s choice of attire – a uranium-green dress with contrasting hot-pink Thai silk coat – was favoured by fashion-conscious housewives of the time. The Australian commented that the subject ‘shrieks with cerise and green’.

Brack’s portrayal of Humphries’ most famous persona is painted in his distinctive deadpan manner, with precise arrangements of smooth flat colour. It was the first of seven portraits of Humphries – in all his guises – seen in the Archibald.

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Louise Hearman (born 1963), 'Barry' 2016, oil on masonite, Art Gallery of Ballarat, gift of Andrew and Jill Oliver through the Art Gallery of Ballarat Foundation, 2017 © the artist. Photo: AGNSW, Nick Kreisler
Louise Hearman, winner Archibald Prize 2016

Barry

Louise Hearman is known for her dark, evocative and enigmatic paintings. Her portrait of performer Barry Humphries (born 1934), who has been the subject of seven Archibald finalists, was the artist’s first foray in the prize. When she learned of her win, she declared:

… the best thing about the Archibald Prize, really, is that it gets all artists in the public eye. Today is the one day each year artists eclipse sportsmen in the news!

Meeting through mutual acquaintances, Hearman found Humphries a complex person to paint, declaring ‘he’s all things at once’. With the work developing in its own way over a period of three years, she sought to capture her sitter’s ‘truly fugitive face’. Hearman evokes an unexpected and vulnerable side to the man behind his outrageous and irreverent creations. With an air of melancholy and quietude, the portrait similarly portrays the impermanence and unrelenting nature of celebrity yet captures the resilient spirit of its then 82-year-old sitter.

In 2016 – for the first time – the Archibald Prize, Wynne Prize for landscape painting and Sulman Prize for genre painting were all awarded to women.

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John Longstaff (1861–1941), 'Mr Maurice Moscovitch' 1925, exhibited as 'Maurice Moscovitch', oil on canvas, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1928. Image courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
John Longstaff, winner Archibald Prize 1925

Mr Maurice Moscovitch

Russian-born actor Maurice Moscovitch (1871–1940) emigrated to America around 1897, where he performed for many years in the New York Yiddish theatre and on Broadway. He toured Australia in 1924 and 1925 – when he sat for this portrait by John Longstaff – and performed in Shakespeare’s The merchant of Venice and Leo Ditrichstein’s The great lover in theatres across the country. Moscovitch later appeared in several films, including Susannah of the Mounties (1939) alongside Shirley Temple, and Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 masterpiece The great dictator.

Longstaff was a well-known and in-demand portrait artist by 1925. He had studied in Paris and exhibited work at the Salon and London’s Royal Academy in the early 1890s. Described as ‘tall, handsome and charming’, Longstaff moved easily within the upper echelons of Melbourne society, where his talent as a portraitist secured many commissions. His skills were also recognised and celebrated in the Archibald Prize, which he won five times in all.

Although this portrait reflects Longstaff’s more academically inclined portrait style, one critic noted: ‘the winning painting is a particularly virile and expressive presentation of Mr Moscovitch and is being “greatly admired” by visitors to the Art Gallery’.

Part of the Archie 100 tour. Not on display at the Art Gallery of NSW.

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