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Nicholas Harding was keen to paint Margaret Whitlam’s portrait ‘for obvious reasons,’ he says. ‘I have held both the Whitlams in high regard for decades. I came of age in the Whitlam era and see it as a golden era for Australian socio-political life. To paint the great woman behind – or rather beside – the great man was irresistible.
Harding had his first meeting with Whitlam around 18 months ago. He painted four portraits of her, which he threw away before arriving at this one. ‘Painting a portrait is as much about the sittings, about becoming acquainted with them and drawing them as it is about the painting,’ says Harding. ‘All that should filter through. Those previous attempts were unsuccessful because they represented my prejudice and what I brought to the portrait. The process is about eliminating that, paring it back and allowing the person to percolate through.’
At the first few sittings, Whitlam wore a green top, which wasn’t really working for Harding. But he didn’t say anything as he likes people to wear what they choose. ‘At the third sitting she wore a peacock blue top with cerulean colour in it and it was perfect. The idea of pushing her to the edge of the frame and looking up from a low angle was to get a sense of her height.’
A week before the Archibald deadline, Harding sent the portrait to the framers. Then he, Whitlam and Irwin had lunch together. Harding showed them a snapshot of the portrait and Whitlam was happy with it but looking at it with his subject there in person, Harding wasn’t. ‘I knew it wasn’t quite right.’ So the framers set up a space for him and he spent three days there working on it.
Born in London in 1956, Harding came to Australia in 1965. He completed a Bachelor of Arts in 1975, travelled through Europe then returned to Australia to a career as an animator, illustrator and painter. He has had regular solo exhibitions at Rex Irwin Gallery in Sydney since 1992 and a solo exhibition in London in 1997. He has been hung in the Archibald Prize on nine previous occasions. His portrait of Margaret Olley was highly commended in 1998 and he pulled off a double in 2001 when he won the Archibald Prize and the Dobell Drawing Prize. He is represented in this year’s Wynne and Sulman Prizes.