Australia’s richest art prize was founded by a self-made miner turned journalist, who liked to pretend he was French.
John Feltham Archibald was born in Kildare, on the outskirts of Geelong, on January 14 1856.
His father Joseph was a police constable, and was a serious, sober-minded man, with a love of Classical literature. By contrast his mother, Charlotte, was impulsive and free-spirited, and lavished attention on her children.
Sadly, Charlotte died in 1860, when Archibald was only 4.
Unable to manage his job and look after his family, Joseph passed care of his children to an aunt, who lived in Warrnambool, in regional Victoria. The children moved there later in 1860, when Joseph was transferred to a police station on the goldfields.
Archibald was a confident child who inherited his father’s love of writing and literature.
He left school at 14, and started an apprenticeship at the local newspaper, the ‘Warrnambool Examiner’.
By the time he was 16 he had decided he wanted to be a journalist, and began submitting articles to newspapers across the region.
In 1874, when he was 18, Archibald decided to try his luck in Melbourne.
He set his sights on working for ‘The Argus’, then the city’s foremost daily newspaper. But despite his self-assurance, Archibald was surprised at how competitive journalism in the big city was; rebuffed by ‘The Argus’, and other leading newspapers, he eventually landed an entry-level gig at ‘The Telegraph’, covering the local courts.
But the job was dull and poorly paid.
Disillusioned, at age 20, Archibald decided to reinvent himself.
When he first moved to Melbourne, Archibald had lived in a rooming house in Emerald Hill, run by a French couple.
They became friends, and the couple’s stories of life in France would kindle in Archibald a life long fascination with that country.
Now, as he faced something of an existential crisis, he changed his name; instead of John Feltham, from this point onward he would call himself Jules Francois. He also altered his personal history, telling people his mother had been a French Jew, who had immigrated to Australia, which was entirely made up.
With his new identity and back story, Archibald then made a dramatic career shift.
He took a job as a clerk for a small mining company, and set sail in a steam ship for Cooktown. At the very northern tip of Queensland, this tiny settlement was about as about as far removed from modern society as it was possible to go.
It proved to be quite an adventure.
Living in a hut in a mining camp, Archibald not only completed administration tasks and did the bookkeeping, he assisted with every aspect of the mine’s operations.
He prospected, he fed rocks into a crushing machine, he surveyed new claims. He drank and caroused with the all-male mining crew, who were mostly immigrants, and delighted in their tales of their home countries.
He also survived a snake bite and a life-threatening bout of tropical fever.
While Archibald enjoyed his retreat from the modern world, after a year he became restless, and decided to try his luck at journalism again.
In 1878 he arrived in Sydney, and found a modest job working for the ‘Evening News’.
There he met journalist John Haynes. The two became friends and, in 1880, they joined with William MacLeod to found their own weekly news magazine, ‘The Bulletin’.
Australian public life at this time was crowded with printed news publications. The major cities had a dozen daily newspapers each, and there were many more magazines and periodicals.
It was a competitive market, difficult to launch into. ‘The Bulletin’ struggled to make an impact, and nearly went under several times.
In 1886, after a two-year stint in England, Archibald bought out his partners and re-launched the magazine.
Writing many of the main articles himself, and working seven days a week, Archibald obsessively improved the magazine’s content. The Bulletin began to attract attention, and he was able to lure other leading writers of the day to it; Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson were among its early contributors.
He also expanded the magazine’s scope, adding poetry, short stories, humour, and cartoons.
The revamped Bulletin became a raging success, and made Archibald a wealthy man.
But Archibald’s workaholic nature damaged his health.
After 16 years as ‘The Bulletin’s’ editor, in 1902 he had a breakdown, and was forced to admit himself to a private sanitorium.
He never really recovered.
Although he continued to write sporadically, Archibald was unable to continue as editor. He resigned his position and, subsequently, became bitter at what he saw as a decline in the magazine’s standards.
Archibald sold his share of the magazine in 1914.
He died in Sydney in 1919, at the relatively young age of 63. In his will he bequeathed funds for a statue to sit in Hyde Park (which the proviso it have a French designer), and for the establishment of an art prize, to bear his name.
The Archibald Prize was first given in 1921.
Its brief was straightforward:
‘The best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics, painted by an artist resident in Australia during the twelve months preceding the date fixed by the trustees for sending in the pictures.’
- Archibald Prize eligibility statement
Archibald was not especially a fan of portraiture, and the medium itself was viewed as less distinguished than other types of visual art.
But Archibald was interested in developing the cultural life of Australia. And he felt that having a prominent national prize for portrait painting would lead to the creation of a sort of National Gallery of celebrated individuals, something that people could look up, and aspire, to.
The Prize was to be administered by the trustees of the Art Gallery NSW.
The first Archibald Prize winner was William McInnes, for his portrait of architect Harold Desbrowe-Annear.
McInnes was a Melbourne based painter, who created traditional portraits in a neo-classical style. His paintings were serious, and a little dour, and very successful.
McInnes won the first four Archibalds, five of the first six, and seven overall, pocketing around 400 pound each time.
McInnes’ Archibald success created a sort of template, that dominated the early years of the prize.
The paintings that were submitted were traditional and sombre. Even artists who normally worked in a different style would adopt this more conservative approach, thinking that it was required to have any chance of winning.
Likewise, the Archibald’s stipulation of a portrait of a ‘distinguished’ person was interpreted narrowly. The subjects in the early years were generally famous people, of unequivocal high standing.
William Dobell’s prize winning entry in 1943 finally broke this pattern.
His portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith distorts his bodily proportions, giving him an enormous neck and giant arms, topped by a tiny head. The colour palette – reddish brown – is warm and inviting, and the painting lively.
But the win was enormously controversial.
Two unsuccessful entrants from that year, Joseph Wolinski and Mary Edwards, took legal action against Dobell and the Art Gallery, stating that as the picture feature deliberated distortion, it was not a real portrait.
Dobell defended his painting in public:
‘I was trying to create something, instead of copying something. To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject.’
- William Dobell
The case was thrown out.
Just a decade later, in 1953, artistic taste had shifted so much that the winner that year was criticised for being too conservative.
William Dargie’s portrait of Essington Lewis, the director of a Broken Hill based mining company, won the Archibald but was not well received publicly. It was viewed as staid and undistinguished.
Art students went so far as to stage a demonstration at the gallery, where they heckled the painting and chanted slogans praising Picasso.
They were removed by security, but not before they had managed to secure a plaque beneath the artwork, giving the artist’s name as ‘William Doggie’.
Further controversy arrived in 1976, when a Brett Whiteley self-portrait was awarded the prize.
The issue this time was that Whitely’s face is only a tiny part of the picture; the artist can be seen reflected in a hand-held mirror, to one side of an enormous blue canvas that otherwise shows his studio in Lavender Bay.
Is this a portrait?
The gallery trustees were criticised for giving the award to an interesting work from an artist with an enormous international reputation, rather than following the initial brief that the prize should go to the best straight up portrait picture.
Whatever the rationale behind the award, Whitely’s success opened up the prize still further, and set a precedent for a wider interpretation of what constitutes portraiture.
Since 2015, the Archibald Prize has been worth $100 000, making it Australia’s richest art award.
J.F. Archibald’s original bequest has long been exhausted, so the prize money is now supplied by private sponsors.
The 2018 winner was ‘Self Portrait after George Lambert’, by Melbourne artist and art teacher Yvette Coopersmith.
Coopersmith settled on a self-portrait after the subject she originally wanted, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, turned down her request.