The Artists

Sir William Dargie


Sir William Dargie has been described as the best-known unknown painter in Australia, and for many the most that they know of Dargie is that he painted the portrait of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II in 1954, and that he won the Archibald Prize a record eight times.

For an artist, whom we consider a 'true, living National Treasure', we know very little about Dargie or his artworks.

Given his world-renown stature, it is surprising and somewhat of an oversight that no public gallery in Australia has held a major retrospective showing the wide range of works that Dargie has produced during a career spanning close to seventy years.

It could be that Dargie is considered only as a portrait painter, and Dargie himself is aware of this problem. In 1995, he noted that,
'In Australia you get pigeon holed. They remember the eight Archibald prizes, but, in fact, I painted very few portraits and considering that I have been painting for well over 60 years, there are not so many.'

Dargie's wish is that one day his many small paintings can be exhibited together, and he notes that,
'There's an awful lot of small paintings they call family conversation works that I wish I could clump up.' But the difficulty lies in locating these works.

Dargie admits,
'I've never kept any records because my attitude towards art is like making paper boats you float down the stream. It's nice to make them, put them down and you see them twirl away and they disappear around the corner of the creek. You don't know whether they sink or they go on or somebody picks them up further on.'

Finding Dargie's many 'paper boats' will not be an easy task, and it is hoped that the public will come forward with new information on Dargie and his works, that can be shared through this Internet site.

What do we know of Dargie?

He has been described as, 'a gentleman, with unfailing courtesy and with the handsome dignity of another age.'
He has also been described as, 'Australia's most eminent portrait painter.'

However, Dargie will tell you that, 'still-life painting is the art form he considers he does best.' He will also tell you that he wants to be considered as more than just a portrait painter of some note.

Dargie is a wonderful example to others, and is known for his great strength, conviction, and determination. He has a strong belief in himself and his own ability. It takes a person of remarkable fortitude to weather the storm of abuse that Dargie was confronted with from the Sydney critics over his prize-winning Archibald works. This abuse and scathing remarks continued in the media over sixteen years. Most people would have crumbled under the onslaught, but not Dargie, he rose above the storm - and later, summed it up succinctly as 'jealousy'.

Dargie also had the strong support that can only be found in family and close friends. Dargie showed from an early age that he is a survivor and a crusader. He is not adverse to speak out when he sees an injustice being done, nor is he adverse to stand up and answer his critics. Over the years he has held strong views, and although his beliefs and philosophies may have mellowed, he still clings to his wish for the future, that, 'I would like to see the capacity to draw well, reinstated in art schools. I think it has been too much neglected.'

Today, Dargie considers there is a place in the world for all art and all self-expression,
'I feel by using recognisable symbols I can communicate what I want to. With the normal drawing of the figure you don't have to translate the message into a language. On the other hand, there are many abstract concepts that are either unpaintable or sometimes meaningless. I'm not opposed to anything any artist does. If its good, I like it, if not, I feel sorry for the artist who is struggling to say something but hasn't quite mastered the means of communication.'

Dargie is a proud man. He is proud of his achievements as an artist, and he is also proud of what he has achieved financially in his life, which has provided him with the luxury to fulfil his passion.

Dargie believes that,
'art alone does not make a living, and that is why he relied on business to source his passion.'

Dargie is an astute businessman, who is quick to assess character, and the true from the false. He is also a leader, who in his earlier years took the helm of among other bodies, the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, and the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.

Many consider Dargie a very private man, a man who keeps to himself, while others will tell you of his generosity and his great warmth and compassion. He has given encouragement to many young artists, and helped many in the art world with their careers.

So often he has offered his time, his advice and his help, and he is known throughout Australia for the many occasions he has judged art shows and been a guest speaker.

Dargie is also a family man, who has had the benefit and advantage of a loving wife who has greatly supported his career and a loving family never far away. He has lived in his present home for close to fifty years, and still finds time each day to work in his studio, and walk around his garden, past his beloved pear tree.

Dargie and his wife, Kathleen have always been avid readers, and Dargie in particular has had a life-long interest in poetry, folklore and anthropology. He is also very knowledgeable of the classics.

One aspect of Dargie's character that in his youth probably got him into trouble on more than one occasion, is his sense of humour. His statement that his painting of General MacArthur on the toilet seat, was, 'A moment of Youthful Folly', is but one example.

He can also tell a 'ripping yarn', and has many tales of humerous incidents from his past. When asked in 1985 on his thoughts regarding painting a portrait, Dargie recalled,
"I can remember a very funny thing. I was doing a portrait of an actress. I'd just got it roughed in - we were good friends - she was about forty or something - I said, 'This won't do - I've got you looking like an eighteen year-old girl.' She was off that dais like a flash to have a look. 'Oh Bill', she said, 'don't touch that, leave it like that.' I said, 'Come on, what are you going to say to your friends?', and she said, 'I'll say, that's how the artist saw me!'

On a personal note, Dargie and I have known each other for many years. I remember our first conversation, when I rang Dargie to ask him to be guest of honour to open an art exhibition. Dargie had no idea who I was, so to introduce myself, I said, 'Remember in 1940 when Meldrum won the Archibald Prize with his portrait of Dr John Forbes Mackenzie'. Dargie replied, 'Yes'. Well I continued, 'That portrait was of 'Uncle' as I knew him' and Dargie chuckled, 'So, you are one of those Mackenzies!'

I was later to find out that Dargie knew my brother, John who had been friends with his son, Roger in their later school years. Dargie's answer to my request, was a warm 'I would be delighted to do that for you, now what is the date?', and to add to the occasion, at the opening of the exhibition, Dargie wore his Mackenzie Clan tartan tie. I later thought, what a kind gesture - but that is Sir William Dargie!

Wherever I have travelled, and all I have spoken to, when I have mentioned that I am trying to piece together the story of Dargie, I have heard of many similar stories of the kind and thoughtful deeds of this great man.

To Sir William Dargie, his family and many friends, and all those who know of Dargie and his artworks, please note that the 'Biographical Sketch' that follows, is but the beginning of the Dargie story, and I am sure that there are many chapters still untold.

Andrew Mackenzie

Left: Arthur Streeton - Above Us The Great Grave Sky, 1890
Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

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