The Archibald Prize is quintessentially Sydney – bold, controversial, and tinged with celebrity. The annual portraiture prize was established by a benefactor, JF Archibald, and the first prize was held in 1921.
Archibald was a flamboyant businessman who gave Sydneysiders the Archibald Fountain, as well as the Archibald Prize. He made his money as a publisher, founding The Bulletin and Lone Hand magazines which employed many journalists, critics, cartoonists and illustrators.
Archibald died in 1919, leaving part of his estate to the Trustees of what was then known as the New South Wales National Gallery to establish the portraiture prize. Specifically, Archibald stipulated the prize should be “for the best portrait preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in arts, letters, science or politics”.
We have a fabulous entry on the prize written by the former director of the Art Gallery of NSW, the late Edmund Capon. He gives two reasons why he thinks the Archies have stood the test of time – it all lies in Archibald’s ingenuity in setting up the prize.
Firstly, Capon points out that Archibald stipulated that the prize was to be judged “not by curators, art historians, critics or other such professionals but by the members of the Board of Trustees, that is, essentially lay men or women”. And secondly, it was to be an annual prize, and Archibald directed that the portrait had to be painted in the 12 months leading up to the award. “The subjects, therefore, were always going to be people and personalities of our place and our time. The Archibald Prize has thus become not only a great slice of Australian art history but also a fascinating glimpse into Australian social history.”
Archibald’s bequest fostered both a genre of painting and the community’s engagement with it, ensuring continued interest. Anyone could enter; and everyone could be a critic. Art was for the people. This has been enhanced even further with the addition of the People’s Choice Award (from 1988) and The Packing Room Prize (from 1992).
As you look over the portraits you can see the evolution of the genre, from conservative realism to abstract modernism. https://www.
The prize has had its fair share of controversy too.
The prize was challenged in 1943 when William Dobell’s winning painting was described disparagingly by fellow artists as caricature. Over 150,000 Sydneysiders flocked to the art gallery (during the calamity and restrictions of WWII) to form their own opinion of this so-called portrait caricature of Joshua Smith. Some disgruntled artists even took the matter to court, but ultimately the court decreed that the decision of the prize judges – the art gallery trustees – could not be legally overturned by the court.
It was the first of several controversies, some of which are covered in Edmund Capon’s article.
The Archibald Prize is now 100 years old and hundreds of artists have just submitted their entries for the 2021 prize. Who will win this year? We have an agonising month to wait and see. But in this auspicious year, the art gallery is marking the 100th anniversary by running a retrospective exhibition of the Archibald Prize alongside the 2021 finalists. Arranged thematically, Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize reflects not just how artistic styles and approaches to portraiture have changed over time but, importantly, the changing face of our nation. Following its showing at the Art Gallery of NSW, it will tour nationally from November.
Head to the Art Gallery of NSW website for further details: https://www.
Read Edmund Capon’s entry on the Archibald Prize on the Dictionary here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/the_archibald_prize
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the 20201 Dr AM Hertzberg AO Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa, for ten years of unstinting support of the Dictionary! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio