Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize
Updated: Jun 24
On entering ‘Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize’ I thought I might feel a bit like I’d wandered into the Australia Club … surrounded by middle aged white men!
I was pleasantly surprised to find some women gazing out from their canvases, as well as gentleman and ladies of Indigenous heritage and quite a few other non-European artists and subjects amongst the line-up.
Of course, the exhibition doesn’t cover every Archibald Prize winner for 100 years, and if those were the canvases selected, the exhibition may have told another story entirely. Rather, ‘Archie 100’ has been curated to include women as artists and subjects, as well as those of non-European heritage. The criteria has been that all these portraits made it to the walls of the Art Gallery of New South Wales as contenders for the Archibald Prize, but it was not necessary for them to be the winners.
Following are some portraits that resonated with me for reasons historical, social and aesthetic.
How it all began
‘ The person behind the prize is 'The Bulletin' magazine founder JF Archibald (1856–1919). Born John Feltham Archibald in Geelong, Victoria, he refashioned himself as Jules François with an imaginary French ancestry.
''Archibald’s abiding interest in portraiture led him to commission a portrait of poet Henry Lawson by John Longstaff. Delighted with the result, Archibald endowed an annual portrait competition to be judged by the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales – and so the Archibald Prize was born.
'Portrait of JF Archibald'' (1921) by Florence Rodway.
‘In 1909, the artist DH Souter, writing about Tasmanian artist Florence Rodway in 'Art and Architecture', proclaimed gender played no role in the making of a great artist. This came a year after Victoria granted women – but not Aboriginal women – the right to vote in 1908, and the same year the Society of Women Painters was established, with the 27-year-old Rodway a founding member.
Wielding of the Brush (Self Portraiture section)
Little known artist Henry Hanke, won the Archibald Prize with his self-portrait in 1934.
'Portrait of Henry Hanke' (1934), self portrait
'Within the prize’s history, there have been numerous controversies – as well as inspiring stories – that have captured viewers’ hearts and imaginations. Henry Hanke’s surprising win in 1934 was one. Hanke was 33 years of age and the first Sydney-born winner. A little-known artist, he struggled to survive and support his family during the Great Depression, with his only source of income a series of odd jobs and the government welfare program known as ‘sustenance relief’.
'Hanke ground his own pigments, re-used a donated frame and, unable to afford a model, looked in the mirror. The portrait took just eight hours to complete.
War and its Aftermath
Winifred McCubbin entered a portrait of Vera Scantlebury in 1943.
'Portrait of Vera Scantlebury Brown' (1943) by Winifred McCubbin.
'This striking yet gentle portrait by Winifred McCubbin depicts Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown (1889–1946), who served as an assistant surgeon and officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps at London’s Endell Street Military Hospital during World War I. It was the only military hospital run by women within the British Army.
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.
Artist Louise Hearman won the Archibald Prize in 2016 with ‘Barry’
'Barry' (2016) by Louise Hearman
Local Heroes and National Icons
William Dargie, won the Archibald Prize in 1956 with his portrait of Albert Namatjira.
'Portrait of Albert Namatjira' (1956) by WIlliam Dargie
‘This bravura portrait of Western Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira (1902–59) by William Dargie is probably the most recognisable and universally respected of all Archibald winners. By the 1950s, reproductions of Namatjira’s watercolours of his Country adorned the walls of Australian middle-class homes.
'Born at Ntaria (Hermannsburg) on Western Arrernte Country – and briefly tutored by artist Rex Battarbee – Namatjira laid the foundations for the Hermannsburg painting movement. Dargie admired his defiance of bureaucracy and exploitation, and Aboriginal artists today – including his great-grandson Vincent Namatjira – are stirred by his legacy. In 1957, Namatjira was the first Aboriginal person granted Australian citizenship. Despite his artistic success, Namatjira died broken-spirited, aged 57 years, his anguish and resilience perceptible in this portrait.
In Polite Conversation
The Archibald has never been an event to shy away from controversial figures or topics.
In 1953 artist Max Martin submitted the following portrait of Arch Bishop Mannix.
'Portrait of Archbishop Mannix' (1953) by Max Martin
"This enigmatic portrait depicts Daniel Mannix (1864–1963), the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne from 1917 to 1963 and one of Australia’s most famous ecclesiastics, who controversially mixed the volatile ingredients of religion and politics.
A gifted orator, the Irish-born clergyman arrived in Melbourne in 1913 and became one of the most influential public figures in 20th-century Australia. Mannix was staunchly anti-conscription, pro-Irish-republicanism and supported trade unionism, bringing him into direct conflict with Australia’s Protestant majority.
What Lies Beneath
'The potential of portraiture to illuminate the inner workings of their subjects, and themselves, has led artists to experiment with the limits of expression as they explore what lies beneath.
There is not a lot that I need to add to explain this theme. All you need to do is look at Ben Quilty’s 2012 Archibald entry ‘Captain S after Afghanistan’
‘Captain S after Afghanistan’ (2016) by Ben Quilty
'Archie 100' covers far more themes than I have covered in this little taste of what is on offer at AGNSW. All portraits are fascinating, frequently for their artistry but also for reasons other than or beyond the skill of the artists.
Archie 100, A Century of the Archibald Prize 2021 until 26 September