In preparing to write this piece I considered many examples, tried to decipher a pattern in the development of my self-confidence, and realised how diverse and varied these challenges had presented over time. What had, in fact given me the confidence to take on challenges with confidence – how did I know I could do it.
Digging deep, I realised that it was the Archibald Prize for Portraiture in Australian Art, in 1957. I know this is obscure, but please bear with me!
The Archibald Prize was first awarded in 1921 after the receipt of a bequest from J.F. Archibald, the editor of the Bulletin, who died in 1919. It is now administered by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and awarded for ‘the best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letter, Science or Politics, painted by an artist resident in Australia during the twelve months preceding the … date for sending in the pictures’.
The Archibald Prize, from its outset, aroused controversy, while chronicling the changing face of Australian society. Numerous legal battles and much debate have focused on the evolving definitions of portraiture. The most startling challenge occurred in 1943 when the award was made to William Dobell for his portrait of Mr Joshua Smith. Many critics considered it not to be a portrait but a caricature. However, the award was withheld.
So, when William Dobell’s portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore was a finalist for the Archibald in 1957, the breach with convention stimulated debate and controversy.
In 1957 I was a fifteen-year old student at Camberwell High School. Our assignment was to research the Archibald Prize, document its history, the controversy and present the outcome to the class.
So, who knows everything – my father? After dinner I asked him for help with this project.
Always one to put the shoe on the other foot he explained that the Archibald Prize had been won on eight separate occasions by Sir William Dargie (a record that has been held since 1952) a renowned Australian artist known especially for his portrait painting.
Sir William Dargie was an official Australian war artist during World War II and painted multiple portraits of Queen Elizabeth II. His portrait of Sir Robert Menzies was the front cover of April1960 Time Magazine. He painted in a conservative style and is now largely forgotten despite his substantial artistic artistic achievements.
So where do I come in? William Dargie lived in Canterbury (the next suburb) and so my father insisted that I get the information from the horse’s mouth so to speak. I protested, to no avail. I found the telephone number in the white pages and telephoned to request an interview. Talk about sweaty hands, fear of stuttering and terrified!
My request was granted. I spent an amazing afternoon with Mr Dargie sitting in his studio surrounded by portraits, pencil sketches and books. I had carefully prepared my questions, sharpened my pencil and had notebook at the ready. That day I realised, if you are sincere and willing to listen, take a chance even, the results can be amazing. Most people will share their knowledge, or tell their story, to an interested person – even a fifteen-year old girl for a school project.
My classmates thought he must be a family-friend, how else could it happen. Needless to say, my teacher was amazed at my daring. She could not believe such a famous artist as Sir William Dargie would take the opportunity to share his knowledge and wisdom on a Saturday afternoon. I won’t tell you the marks I received for that assignment - but I will say that my father was proud!
So, although I didn’t set the challenge myself – I carried it through – and it has given me the strength face whatever else the world will throw my way.