16 November 2013

Archibald Prize Portraits in Australia: 1921-1945.

Let's Face It: The history of the Archibald Prize was a book written by Peter Ross and published by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1999. I have already referred to the prize-winning Port­rait of the Artist Joshua Smith by William Dobell in an old post and to the conservative responses to the other of Dobell’s winning portraits. So the time was right to review both JF Archibald and the first 24 years of the most important art prize in Australia.

I love this book!

John Feltham Archibald (1856-1919) was born near Geelong to a large, hardworking and not very wealthy Irish immigrant family. Archibald's secondary education was uneventful until he left school and was app­ren­ticed to Fairfax and Laurie, of the Warrnambool Examiner. At 19 he moved to Melbourne where he worked in the printing room of an evening tabloid, then he became a clerk with the Victorian Educ­at­ion Dept. Life in the big city suited this country boy very well.

Archibald left Victoria in 1878 and headed north. His greatest achievement occur­red when Archibald set up a partnership in Sydney with John Haynes, a newspaper colleague, and started The Bulletin in 1880. The Bulletin was Australia’s first quality weekly magazine of political, business and literary news; Haynes handled the advertis­ing and print production while Archibald concentrated on the liter­ary content. Australia’s most famous literary names, like Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson, became regularly visitors in the Bull­etin office. Even more importantly for this post, Archibald employed many of Australia's leading young artists as illustrators for The Bulletin, including George Lambert, Norman Lindsay and BE Minns.

W B McInnes, winner in 1921
portrait of Desbrowe Annear, 
Art Gallery NSW

Peter Ross is very honest about the Bulletin. The bizarre mix of pol­itical activism and bitterly anti-Semitic, anti-Chinese xeno­ph­obia, so often found in this magazine, was popular in late 19th century Australia. In 2013 we would find those views, so openly expressed back then, to be repugnant.

I have no idea why Archibald was committed involuntarily to Callan Park Psychiatric Asylum in a Sydney in 1902, aged 46. It was not a happy time, especially since he was locked up over quite a few years, but Archibald made a good recovery and was allowed to live out his life in the community. Two things happened in these later years. Firstly Archibald sold his share of The Bulletin, which may have been a sad event. Secondly he was made a Trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW in 1915, which was definitely a wonderful event.

Archibald died in 1919, leaving a large estate. I want to mention just three clauses in the will. Part of the estate was used to establish a large fountain in Hyde Park, created by French sculptor François Sicard to remember Australians and French cooperation in WW1. Part of his estate funded the Australian Journalists' Associat­ion Benevolent Fund for the relief of distressed Australian journal­ists. And another of his estate endowed an annual art prize, to be judged by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Thankfully the Archibald Bequest was replicated in Ross’ book. This prize each year for the best portrait painted by an Aus­tralian artist, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics. I have underlined the vague words that created the most uncertainty in the years after Archibald’s death.

So the Trustees had to be more specific than Archibald. Their Conditions of Entry are also specified in the book. They stipulated that:
1. the portrait must be painted from life;
2. the portrait may be of any size, including miniatures;
3. the painting must be painted during the twelve months before the competition, and the artist had to be resident in Australasia for 12 months before the competition; and
4. the Trustees need not award the prize if no picture, in the opinion of the Trustees, was seen as worthy. 

John Longstaff,  winner in 1928
portrait of Dr Alexander Leeper. 
Art Gallery NSW

Yet from the beginning the Archibald Prize aroused legal challenges, rivalries and animosities that had never been envisaged by the donor. His intentions, to perpetuate the memory of great Austral­ians, to improve the quality of portrait painting or to help artists, were never quite fulfilled.

The prize was first awarded was 1921, won by WB McInnes for his portrait of Desbrowe Annear, my favourite Melbourne architect. Then McInnes again won the prize in 1922 with a portrait of Prof Harrison Moore. And in 1923, with his Portrait of a Lady (his wife). Then in 1924 with a Portrait of Miss Collins. By then, the Sydney critics were annoyed. Not because the quality of the paintings was not up to their standards but because one man, a Melbournian at that, was hogging the award. He also won in 1926, 1930 and 1936.

The 1920s was a decade of great innov­ation in Europe with Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism and Bauhaus abstracts vying for attent­ion. But in Australia, the tradition of C19th acad­emic portraiture was thriving, as if preserved by its geographic isol­at­ion from the rest of the art world. Our portraits were "of merit, patriotic, of excellent craftsmanship and meticulously real". So we have to ask: did the Archibald Prize attract conservative artists who were not involved in the modernist movement? Or did more modernist artists adopt academic and tonal realism, specifically to win the prize?

 It is interesting to note that in the first 11 years of the Archibald Prize, two Victorian artists WB McInnes and John Long­staff won every year bar one. While the Art Gallery of New South Wales felt fortunate that Victorian Archibald had not left his Prize bequest to the National Gallery of Victoria, the Sydney Morning Herald was not well pleased.

In a small group of modernists resisting the traditionalism that had dominated the early Archibalds, Grace Crowley had entered the competition, only to be turned down by the trustees. The Bulletin understood that women artists were not in the running. Especially not modern women. Women might be painted, but not paint. The first woman artist to win, in 1938, was Nora Heysen, daughter of the famous Hans Heysen. The Sydney Morning Herald questioned the trust­ees’ sanity, calling her paintings and others a “chamber of horrors”. 

Controversy nearly always surrounds the prize-winning work, and critics are seldom kind to the winning artist, or in agreement as to whom should have won. In any case by the 1940s, the younger and more modern artists were becoming more frustrated with the same conservative, predominantly male choices made by the trustees; the critics, especially those in New South Wales were fuelling these frustrations with harsh criticisms of the prize-winning paint­ings. William Dobell came in for tremendous criticism when his work Portrait of the artist Joshua Smith was awarded the Prize in 1943. But that is the story for a different post. 

John Longstaff,  winner in 1935
portrait of Banjo Paterson. 
Art Gallery NSW


Andrew said...

I can't immediately connect them but surely author of A City Lost and Found, Robyn Annear, is related to Desbrowe Annear.

Student of History said...

Good grief. They were very conservative. When Maurice Moscovitch was the winning model in 1924, the critics railed against him because he was an actor and a Russian. Which was worse?

Hels said...

Talking of coincidences. I have read the story of Whelan the Wrecker and either I forgot who wrote it or it didn't occur to me to ask if Robyn Annear was related to Harold Desbrowe-Annear (1865–1933). "That Weird American" blog looks at both Annears in detail and asks the same question as you.


Hels said...


the gossip in the book about who won, or did not win the Archibald was hilarious. But it was occasionally very nasty, sexist and xenophobic.

columnist said...

I have recently finished watching the BBC's 3 part Art of Australia programme with Edmund Capon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Whilst I was familiar with the work of modern artists, (such as Nolan), I was much less clued up about the C19th Impressionists, (Streeton etc), which I like very well indeed.

Hels said...


I have the exact opposite situation :) I often lecture for a semester at a time about the Heidelberg School, Edwardian artists or Australia's official WW1 artists. However I have tried very hard in this blog to write at least SOME posts on more modern stuff eg the Angry Penguins.

Thank goodness for excellent BBC programming, I say.

Mandy Southgate said...

It's interesting but when I think of portraits, I think of less modern, more conservative paintings anyway. Even when I've been to the National Portrait Gallery in London, I don't see much in the way of modernity (I'm sure it's just me). I did like Francis Bacon's work but does that count as portraits?

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I think that the value of such prizes lies not primarily in honoring the winner, but rather in focusing attention on the pieces and involving the larger community in the discussion.

While you are right about the conservative nature of many prizes, I also admire the prizes which give new and less-established artists a venue for their work.

Hels said...


That seems right.. if people are paying good money to have their portrait hung in their home or business, they would normally want a serious, memorable version of themselves.

"Let's Face It: The History of the Archibald Prize" lines up every single portrait since 1921, in chronological order. You can see the changes, after WW2 ended.

Mandy Southgate said...

It does sound like a fabulous book.

Hels said...


there are only two VERY valuable ($) art prizes in this country to talk about: The Wynne Prize is for Australian landscape painting, established in 1897. And the Archibald Prize for portraits. Both come from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.

You are spot on re involving the larger community in the discussion. The short listed portraits are displayed in the main cities, ordinary gallery-goers vote for the Peoples' Favourite and the newspapers enter the debate as well.

Andrew said...

I can't remember reading Dina's post at the time, but yes, she certainly connected the two Annear's by name but without any evidence. Pity that her comments are turned off.

Andrew said...

Hels, from the horses mouth herself: No connection, I'm afraid between my branch of the Annears and that of HDA. Both families came out from Cornwall to the Vic gold rushes of the early 1850s. HDA's father struck it rich at Bendigo; my gggfather did not. A cousin of mine did exhaustive genealogical digging and was unable to find the missing (but almost certain) link between our family (from Budock, near the port of Falmouth) and other branches of the Annears, hailing from the copper mining areas of Cornwall. If the link exists, it was broken sometime pre 1800.

Hels said...


hmm both from Cornwall, both left in the early 1850s, both with culturally talented descendants!
Sounds inevitable to me.

The Weekend Australian said...

In Australia in 1937 the art world was in the stranglehold of a handful of well-connected artists. These painters were themselves directors and trustees of the galleries and the royal art societies, so the art prizes never left the cliques of the Lindsay brothers and the Ashton brothers. Even realists, who broadly obeyed the rules of perspective and composition, such as Russell Drysdale and Dobell, were sniffed at in more conservative circles.

When Dobell entered the Archibald Prize in 1943, the prize was £430 when the average weekly wage was £5. Ninety-seven artists had submitted works. When Dobell’s portrait of his artist friend Joshua Smith won the prize, the fallout was spectacular.

There were two unsuccessful entrants who mounted the court case, claiming the work was a caricature, not a portrait. The newspapers fanned the flames and deadly currents threatened to engulf Dobell.

Hels said...

Good grief, that is even worse than I thought. From the beginning the Archibald Prize clearly DID arouse legal challenges, rivalries and animosities.. but Dobell had to face nasty court cases as well :(

It will be interesting to read Bevan's book.

The Weekend Australian said...

Dobell had won the Archibald Prize — not previously associated with the idea of controversy — with a portrait of his friend and fellow portrait painter, Joshua Smith. The picture was a striking image of an unusual-looking man and two of the unsuccessful entrants in the exhibition protested against the award on the grounds that it was a caricature and not a true portrait. In the ensuing court case, the plaintiffs and the defendants were represented by two of the most prominent barristers of the day — Garfield Barwick and Frank Kitto respectively. Almost everyone in the country who could be considered an authority on art was called to testify on one side or the other.

The case, however, was extremely distressing to Dobell and even more so to Smith, who had to endure discussions about whether the artist had exaggerated or merely faithfully reproduced his odd physiognomy. In the end, the judge held that the work was a true portrait and that it was therefore eligible for the award.

Christopher Allen
Weekend Australian
8th July 2017