In January last year, Bill Leak started painting a portrait of renowned art critic Robert Hughes, “a man who’d had a serious accident but who was recovering well. He looked confident, suntanned, even serene”. After several months of painting, Leak felt the portrait was not working. He left it alone for a few months and “during that time, everything changed for Robert Hughes,” says Leak.
The television documentary series Beyond the fatal shore, which Hughes was making when he had the accident, and which he completed whilst still on crutches and in great pain, was poorly received. “Meanwhile, my painting was looking less and less like him every day,” says Leak.
It was while Leak was on a family trip to Adelaide that he understood what the painting needed: black. Awoken at 3am by the revelation, he bundled his kids back into the car and hurtled home. “As a cartoonist and illustrator, I have always used black to hold my drawings together, but had never done it with my paintings.”
“The painting, in the end, is about sadness, alienation and pain,” says Leak, “and so was not an enjoyable painting to work on. Each time I approached the canvas it was with a certain reluctance and sense of trepidation.”
But Leak is pleased to have painted it, for Hughes is a friend, a passionate Australian patriot and republican, and a man whom he admires. “A man of whom the country should be proud.”
An artist, cartoonist and social and political commentator, Leak has been hung in the Archibald Prize on nine previous occasions. This portrait of Hughes is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.