Portrait of an engineering trailblazer

5 July 2018
As a respected engineer and transformative staff member at the University of Sydney for more than 50 years, of course Professor Rolf Prince would have a portrait done. One of his students, Don Heussler, helped make it happen.
Don Heussler with the portrait of Rolf Prince

Don Heussler, once a student of Rolf Prince, with his portrait.


When my student cohort joined the Department of Chemical Engineering in 1961, the mainstay of Professor Tom Hunter’s department was the senior lecturer, Professor Rudolf (Rolf) Prince (PhD '57).

We were 17-year-old kids and he was 32 and already a world authority on distillation. Little did I know that 38 years later it would be my job, on his retirement in 1998, to arrange a portrait to permanently record Rolf’s presence and achievements at our University.

I was proud to be given this task. I was also given the objective of seeing this artwork win the Archibald Prize for portraiture. (As 1980s management guru Stephen Covey said, “Begin, with the end in mind”!)

I am a scientist, and this was not my field, but I conducted appropriate research and selected the noted realist painter Robert Hannaford. He had never had a painting lesson in his life, and though he had often been an Archibald finalist, he had never won this coveted prize. In my research, I noted a trend to larger portraits winning the Archibald, so we commissioned a portrait 1.2 metres square, which was much larger than Hannaford’s usual work.

The incoming professor (Brian Haynes) was delighted to dispatch Rolf to Adelaide for more than a week, knowing he would be required to sit for several hours each day in the same clothes to maintain their folds and creases.

Not known to us at the time, that same year Hannaford was commissioned by the Parliament of Australia to paint the official portrait of former Prime Minister Paul Keating, to hang in the new Parliament House. Keating is a noted connoisseur of the arts and chose Hannaford personally for this work.

Rolf Prince with his portrait

Professor Rolf Prince with his portrait at the Archibald. As Head of Department, Prince made changes that increased the number of women who studied engineering. Photo: News Ltd/Newspix


The Hannaford method of painting is unusual and possibly unique. He positions the ‘sitter’ and the canvas next to one another in the light he wishes to use. He then retreats four metres to a clearly marked line, the expected viewing position, mixes his oils on the palette, loads the brush, and then runs the four metres to the canvas and applies one brushstroke.

This process is repeated for seven days. Rolf calculated (as any engineer would) that Hannaford runs about 50 kilometres to produce each portrait.

Two months after the sitting began, the finished painting arrived at the University. Professor Haynes and I unwrapped it together. Taking two steps back to a suitable viewing position, there was silence for about four seconds, then an almost simultaneous “Wow”!

In 1998, 404 paintings were submitted for the Archibald Prize, including those of Keating and Prince. Uniquely, both of Hannaford’s paintings were hung among the 28 works selected by the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW.

The 1998 Archibald winner was not Robert Hannaford. That honour went to Lewis Miller for his portrait of fellow artist Allan Mitelman. However, in the public vote, 25,000 Sydneysiders selected the Rolf Prince portrait for the People’s Choice award.

A large crowd was present for the announcement, and Rolf was in his element! Hannaford collected a cash award. When the paintings went on display in Melbourne, the Prince painting was again a crowd favourite in the public vote.

So victory was Rolf’s by any democratic or statistical measure. He dined out on the painting story for years and incorporated the work into his Christmas cards. The painting was also the cover for his memorial service in the Great Hall in August 2017.

Don Heussler

Don Heussler.

Robert Hannaford subsequently achieved another accolade in 1999, as our University celebrated its 150-year anniversary. The Standing Committee of Convocation, now called the University of Sydney Alumni Council, produced a handsome book entitled From Vision to Sesquicentenary: the University Through its Art Collection.

The University has hundreds of oil-on-canvas paintings of academics, but only two were chosen for this book. One is the famous painting of controversial philosophy professor John Anderson, by Sir William Dobell, who won the Archibald Prize three times.

The second portrait in the book is Professor Rolf Prince by Robert Hannaford.

Select company indeed.

To honour a visionary

Ahead of his time, Rolf Prince championed women in engineering and pioneered putting students into industry so university skills could tackle industry challenges. Help us honour his great legacy by contributing to the Rolf Prince Scholarship in Chemical Engineering.

Written by Don Heussler.
Photography by Louise Cooper.

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