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Sir Roger Hall on why we need to treasure NZ's portrait art

Sir Roger Hall. Photo/Jane Ussher/Listener

As well as his 40-plus year interest in playwriting and theatre, new knight Sir Roger Hall is an avid fan of portraiture and on an art tour in Australia found that a portrait gallery can be so much more than a snapshot of a country’s social history.

Hands up if you’ve ever been to the New Zealand Portrait Gallery. It’s on the Wellington waterfront, in Shed 11. Hands up if you’ve even heard of it. Many people haven’t, even those interested in the arts.

Most countries value their portrait galleries as a way of preserving and displaying images of those who have played a part in history, but we don’t seem to treasure ours in quite the same way.

Last year, the NZ Portrait Gallery organised a Friends’ art tour to Sydney and Canberra with an emphasis on portraiture. We were among the 20 people on the tour.

2018 Archibald winner Self-portrait, after George Lambert, by Yvette Coppersmith.

On the road

First stop was the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney’s Domain to see the finalists and winner of the annual Archibald Prize. We toured the gallery before opening hours, which gave guide Les Moseley time to talk about all 57 finalists. He told us about each artist’s background and detailed the circumstances in which each work had been painted.

The portraits are intended to be “preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia”, although the definition has been widened over the years. The  importance of the Archibald has now gone beyond its status as a snapshot of social history. For example, continuing a recent trend, no politicians featured in this year’s competition.

Of the 2018 finalists, 21 submitted self-portraits – mainly the result of their having trouble finding celebrities with enough spare time for the usually multiple sittings, rather than vanity. But one finalist, 1999 winner Euan Macleod, managed his subject with only one sitting. The Kiwi artist said it took him “one hour and 46 years to paint”.

Archibald people’s choice winner 2018 Guy, by Anne Middleton.

The Archibald, started in 1921, attracts thousands of visitors to the Sydney gallery. It’s a source of wonder and delight that the human face can be painted in so many ways and with such a variety of backgrounds. A recent innovation is the Young Archie competition, which invites budding artists to submit a portrait in four categories: 5-8-year-olds, 9-12-year-olds, 13-15-year-olds and 16-18-year-olds. The Young Archie, started in 2013, features portraits by all the finalists in each age group. It’s not to be missed.

The New Zealand Portrait Gallery’s equivalent of the Archibald is the biennial Adam Portraiture Award, and winning artworks are automatically acquired for its collection. Last year, 21-year-old Aucklander Logan Moffat won the $20,000 first prize.

In the afternoon, the NSW gallery’s head of international art, New Zealander Justin Paton, took us on a private tour of other portraits. These included New Zealander Michael Parekowhai’s The English Channel, a huge stainless-steel statue of James Cook in a brooding pose (a version can also be seen inside his state-house sculpture, The Lighthouse, at the end of Auckland’s Queens Wharf), and five European gems: a great Picasso, two Francis Bacons, a Lucian Freud and a modest Pierre Bonnard.

Our day at the Sydney gallery, one of the largest in Australia, was alone worth the whole trip. Those in charge of art at Te Papa should visit and hang their heads in shame at the way we’ve short-changed our national collection for so many years.

Logan Moffat’s 2018 Adam Portraiture Award winner.

Next stop

We bussed to see the privately owned Elliott Eyes Sydney Collection in Erskineville, an inner Sydney suburb. Owners Gordon Elliott and Michael Eyes believe in collecting artists in depth and commission a lot of work (even the front-door security screen was commissioned – and splendid it is, too).

Dominating the front garden is a huge sculpture by New Zealander Terry Stringer. Then, inside the Victorian terrace house are more than 300 contemporary sculptures, paintings and ceramics, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, but also by German, Belgian, American, South African and English artists.

The owners have a highly individual collection with an obvious focus on the human form (mostly male), and many of the pieces are surprisingly humorous. Groups of up to 12 people can arrange to visit, and many of the works can also be seen online.

In the afternoon, we toured the studios of Euan Macleod, Joanna Braithwaite (another Archibald finalist) and Neil Frazer (the 1992 Frances Hodgkins fellow) before going to Admiralty House at Kirribilli, the Sydney home of the Governor-General, to view the art on its walls.

2019 Archibald finalist Four Rodneys, by Euan Macleod.

Capital call

Arriving in Canberra, we visited the purpose-built National Portrait Gallery. The thing about portrait galleries is that they display (mostly) paintings to be admired of people to be admired. Each one is accompanied by a biography of the sitter. Who knew entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein started her business career in Australia, before moving to New York where she built a worldwide cosmetics empire? Or that Imelda Roche, who, with husband Bill, established Nutrimetics in Australia, sold products door-to-door before acquiring Nutrimetics International with the intention of allowing “the full-time homemaker to build financial independence from their home”?

The many works included a portrait of a pre-Edna Everage Barry Humphries, looking lean, languid and louche, and a life-size white porcelain bust of 1996 Australian of the Year Dr John Yu, an acclaimed paediatrician and administrator in many fields, including the arts. The artist, Ah Xian, depicts Yu with eyes closed and tiny colourful Chinese children climbing over his head and shoulders.

2019 Archibald finalist Nakkiah in her dressing room, by Laura Jones.

Parliamentary privilege

The next day, we toured the art in the Australian Parliament, which was okay, but not quite worth the cost. (Free art tours of the New Zealand Parliament are offered once a month.) But a general tour of the Federal Parliament is a must, as visitors have access to both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Moving footage from 1988 shows local Aborigines presenting Prime Minister Bob Hawke with a statement of national Aboriginal political objectives, the Barunga Statement. And if it’s portraits of prime ministers you want, there are lots.

Last stop was the National Library where treasures curator Nat Williams guided us through a selection of the 25,000-odd items bought in 1959 from New Zealand-born, British art collector and dealer Rex Nan Kivell (1898-1977). Kivell – described by John Thompson in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as “illegitimate, homosexual, self-educated and Antipodean” – was a passionate collector who worked hard to gain wealth and respectability – with some fudging of his origins – and ended up with a knighthood.

Williams was puzzled that there are not more arts and cultural exchanges between our two countries. Hear, hear.

This article was first published in the June 15, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.