The Artists

Sir William Dargie

The Archibald Prize
A Brief History

John Feltham Archibald, or as he was later known, Jules Francois Archibald, was born in 1856 at Kildare in Victoria.

He was educated at Warrnambool, apprenticed to the local newspaper, the Examiner and later, to the Standard.

He moved to Melbourne, where he worked for the Herald. He later worked for the Daily Telegraph, and with John Haynes, founded The Bulletin in Sydney in 1880. He employed many of Australia's leading young artists as illustrators for The Bulletin, including George Lambert, Norman Lindsay and B. E. Minns.

When Archibald died in 1919, he left an estate valued at 89,061 pounds. Shares comprising one-tenth of the value of the estate were left to provide a prize each year for the best portrait painted by an Australian artist, 'preferably of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics.'

Anna Waldmann, notes in her article 'The Archibald Prize', Summer 1982 edition, Art and Australia, that 'One of the governing factors in deciding the direction of the bequest was said to have been the portrait of Henry Lawson, commissioned by J.F.Archibald from Longstaff in 1900 for fifty guineas'.

Waldmann also noted in her article, that the Archibald Prize 'aroused from the beginning, legal challenges, rivalries and animosities that had never been envisaged by the donor, whose intentions, be they to perpetuate the memory of great Australians, to improve the quality of portrait painting or to help artists, have never been quite fulfilled.'

Under the terms of the bequest, the prize is judged by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The rules stipulate that 'the painting must be painted during the twelve months, preceding the date fixed by the Trustees, who may then exhibit the winning picture in the Gallery for two months after the award and who do not have to award the prize if "no competing picture shall in the opinion of the Trustees be painted worthy of being awarded a prize". - Note, no Prize was awarded for 1964.

Competitors were further informed in 1922, that 'Portraits should be as far as practicable painted from life and may be of any size. No direct copies from photographs will be considered eligible. Miniatures are admissible.'

The Archibald Prize commenced with an award for 1921, which was won by W.B.McInnes for his portrait of Desbrowe Annear, the well-known Melbourne architect. When McInnes again won the prize for 1922, with his 'Portrait of a Lady', the critics suggested that he was now the 'winner in perpetuity' and the prize should be renamed the 'McInnes Endowment'.

This suggestion was further supported when McInnes again won the prize for 1924, 1926. 1930 and 1936.

It is interesting to note that in the first eleven years of the Archibald Prize, the two Victorian born artists, W.B.McInnes and John Longstaff won every year, except for 1927, which was won by the Russian born, George Lambert. Then for 1932, another Victorian born artist, Ernest Buckmaster, won the prize.

There was little joy in New South Wales among their 'state of origin' artists, and the interstate rivalry would have been fuelled by the success of the Victorian artists.

At least the Art Gallery of New South Wales should have felt themselves privileged and fortunate that Victorian born, Archibald had not left his Prize bequest to the National Gallery of Victoria.

The success of the Victorian artists continued in the 1930's, Longstaff again won, this time for 1935, McInnes again won, with the prize for 1936, and the Victorian-based artists, Charles Wheeler of New Zealand won for 1933, and Max Meldrum of Scotland won for 1939 and 1940.

By the 1940's, the younger 'modern' artists, especially those in Sydney, were becoming more vocal in their frustration with the same old, predominantly male, 'conservative' choices made by the trustees, and the critics, especially those in New South Wales were fuelling these frustrations with harsh criticisms of the prize-winning paintings.

Enter another Victorian, William Dargie, who between 1941 and 1956, was to dominate the Archibald with eight prize-winning works.

It is not surprising that the young artists in New South Wales and the press in New South Wales gave Dargie such harsh treatment. It was not just that he won, but the fact that he was seen as another 'conservative' Victorian, out to steal the coveted New South Wales - Archibald Prize- was, for many, just too much to bear.

In the history of the Archibald Prize, five Victorian born artists between them have won the prize twenty-six times. These five outstanding portrait painters are William Dargie, who still holds the record with eight wins, William McInnes who achieved seven, John Longstaff who won five and Clifton Pugh (a student of Dargie) and Eric Smith who won three each.

Controversy nearly always surrounds the prize-winning work, and critics are seldom kind to the winning artist, or in agreement as to whom should have won.

The New South Wales critics were particularly harsh on Dargie, although equally harsh on Meldrum and Dobell.

Dobell came in for tremendous criticism when his work 'Portrait of the artist (Joshua Smith) was awarded the Prize for 1943. It certainly was a departure from the type of work that Dargie produced, however many considered it merely a caricature - and should not be eligible for the prize.

What Dargie calls 'an absurdist trial' followed, because 'Dobell exaggerated the body of his subject, the naturally elongated Joshua Smith.'
Dargie however supported Dobell, and commented 'How dare they call that picture of Smith caricatured? I saw him in Sydney one day. He was caricatured in himself.' It is interesting to note that in the following year, the Archibald Prize was awarded to Joshua Smith.

Sixty years later this work of 'Joshua Smith' by Dobell, because of the controversy and the trial, is one of the best known of the Archibald Prize works, and still generates media attention.

There are many books and articles that have covered various aspects of the Archibald Prize, and still more which have devoted lengthy discussions to particular works. Two that I would recommend are 'The Archibald Prize' / Anna Waldmann Art and Australia vol.20, no.2, Summer 1982, pp.213-236; and 'Let's Face It: The history of the Archibald Prize' / Peter Ross Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1999.

In his interviews, Sir William Dargie, when asked about the Archibald Prize, has often commented that it was sad that Archibald in his bequest did not make the prize acquisitive. This would have ensured the life of the prize-winning works within a major gallery collection, rather than having the works scattered as they are today, and it could have provided the solid base for a National portrait collection.

In 1990, Dargie in an interview with Lawrence Money for the article 'Meeting an angry artist' published in The Age, admitted that 'on four of the eight occasions that he won the Archibald, he did not deserve it. (Mind you, he adds that there were other years when he thought he should have won and didn't.).'

Following, are notes on Sir William Dargie's eight Archibald prize-winning works, including a brief biography of each of his eight male subjects.

Andrew Mackenzie

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

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