This year Australia’s oldest and most prestigious portrait prize is 100 years old. The annual prize is awarded, in the terms of the will of the late JF Archibald, to the best portrait ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science, or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia during the 12 months.’
To celebrate, the Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales reveals interesting stories behind more than 100 artworks selected from every decade since the annual prize began.
Drawing on the collections of libraries, museums, galleries, and private collections both in Australia and internationally, Archie 100 is on display until 26 September at the Art Gallery of NSW. The exhibition will then tour Australia, travelling first to Geelong Gallery from 6 November 2021.
The University Art Collection holds 30 paintings which were included as part of the Archibald exhibition between 1923 and 1998. Two by women artists have been selected for the Archie 100 exhibition: Jenny Sands' 1993 portrait of Sydney Law School Professor Alice Tay and Grace Crowley's 1933 Portrait in Grey.
Grace Crowley (1890-1979) had a long and productive career as one of Australia's most significant modernists. After studying at Julian Ashton's Sydney Art School between 1915 and 1918, she moved to Europe in 1926 to study with her close friend Anne Dangar, over the next four years. Together they enrolled at André Lhote’s Academy in Paris. He encouraged students to simplify form into geometric shapes, underpinned by the proportions of the golden mean. After reluctantly returning to Australia, she established the Crowley-Fizelle School in George Street in Sydney with painter Rah Fizelle, a focal point for Sydney moderns. Her cubist paintings were antithetical to the prevailing conservatism of the Australian art world in the 1930s. She later became a major abstract painter.
The subject of her 1933 Archibald entry, Portrait in Grey, is a mystery. The young woman is simply identified as 'Miss M Roberts' and was possibly one of her students. At the time, it was criticised in The Sydney Morning Herald for being too 'modern'. The paper wrote: "As wall paintings in a room furnished with modern fabrics they would fall comfortably into place; but they miss the marks at which portraiture chiefly aims."
As Senior Curator Ann Stephen observes, “the art of modernists like Crowley was often dismissed as being ‘decorative and feminine and equated with furnishings. We are very lucky that the enlightened director of Sydney Teachers College, Alexander Mackie recognized it as an important painting and purchased it for the school the following year.”
The artist Jenny Sands was born to Russian Jewish parents in Shanghai and arrived in Australia in 1948. She also studied at Julian Ashton’s, then briefly at East Sydney Technical College and later at the Franklin School of Art, New York. In Europe, she was fascinated by the Renaissance technique of using egg tempera. She has been an Archibald finalist twenty times, including in 1993 with her portrait of Professor Alice Tay.
Professor Alice Tay (1934-2004), was an Australian academic lawyer, an eminent jurisprudence and comparative law scholar. She was born in Singapore and emigrated to Australia in 1961. Tay was a prominent figure at the University of Sydney where she worked as the Challis Professor of Jurisprudence and in 1986 made a Member of the Order of Australia for her ‘contribution to teaching and research in law’. Committed to the promotion of human rights, she was also the president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission from 1998 to 2003. The portrait has been on display at the New Law School building since it opened in 2009 and was previously at the former Sydney Law School building.
Beyond these two significant portraits, the Chau Chak Wing Museum holds 30 paintings that entered the competition for Archibald Prize between 1923 and 1998. Most of the subjects had a strong connection with the University of Sydney, including the following:
In 1968, Vaike Liibus painted the portrait of Guy Warren (b.1921) who five years later became the first director of the Tin Sheds University Art Workshop in 1973. Warren himself won the Archibald Prize in 1985 and at the grand age of 100 was the subject of this year's Archibald Prize winner, Peter Wegner.
Arthur Murch's fascinating portrait of Professor Harold Davies is set against Central Australian landscape. In 1933 and 1934 the artist accompanied Davies on two expeditions to Central Australia to study how Indigenous Australians living in the hot, arid conditions could have become especially adapted to water deprivation. Davies was a professor of physiology at the University of Sydney from 1930-1946. Murch in fact returned several times and painted many Indigenous portraits on these trips.
William Arundel Orchard was a composer, musician, conductor, and teacher. He graduated from the University of Durham, England and emigrated to Australia in 1896. Orchard was the founding conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and director of New South Wales Conservatorium of Music from 1923-1934. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Music in London in 1931.
The engineer, Dr John Bradfield who oversaw both the design and construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was the subject of Leist's 1930 portrait. In his honour, the NSW Government plans to name Sydney’s new ‘hi-tech’ city at Bringelly after him. Dr Bradfield studied at the University of Sydney and always maintained a close connection with it. He was a member of its senate from 1913-1943 and Deputy Chancellor from 1942 until his death in 1943.
Written by Marketing Communications Intern Lucija Stolic