Getting some culcha! The Archibald Prize for Portrait Painting

Trips to Sydney, colloquially referred to as The Big Smoke, are few and far between for me these days. When I do undertake the four-hour drive it is often a fleeting, overnight trip and I am more than ready to make my escape back to the bush.

This changed in early June when I had an opportunity to spend four days just playing tourist. What a luxury and novelty. One of the things on my bucket list was a visit to the Archibald Prize for Portrait Painting at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney.

I’m no artist, but I do enjoy opening my eyes and mind to new and creative things.

The Archibald Prize does that in spades!

Portrait of Lindy Lee by Tony Costa
The winning portrait of Lindy Lee by Tony Costa

This year the Archibald Prize features 51 portrait paintings. The competition started 98 years ago in 1921. Established by JF Archibald (1856-1919), a journalist and founder of the Bulletin magazine, he commissioned a Melbourne portrait artist to paint a portrait of the famous Australian poet, Henry Lawson. Apparently Archibald was so pleased with this portrait that he left money in his will for an annual portrait prize. His main aim was to foster portraiture, as well as support artists and perpetuate the memory of great Australians. Source

It is Australia’s second richest painting prize at $100 000.00 for the winner. There are also:

  • the Packing Room Prize, chosen by the dedicated workers who receive the paintings at the Gallery and unpack them ($1 500.00), and
  • the People’s Choice Award ($3 500.00) voted by visitors to the exhibition.

In the past I have only ever seen the Archibald Prize on the television news. The Archibald’s are a big ‘thing’ in the Australian art world and the media usually give it good coverage, even more so if the winning portrait is controversial. Sometimes a handful of works do tour around regional NSW visiting the larger cities and it is a fluke to coincide a visit to one of these cities when the paintings are on display.

The Art Gallery of NSW facade
An imposing welcome…

The exhibition is held as the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney, located on the eastern edge of the Domain – a large green space connected to the Royal Botanic Gardens, and on the way to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. The Gallery itself is a bit incongruous as its sweeping pillars and imposing façade contrast with the regal Moreton Bay fig trees that surround it. I guess it is a good example of our colonial forefathers wishing to mimic the mother country, England.

It is slightly intimidating to pass under the portico and into the cool, tiled interior. I did feel a bit of a fraud – me being a cultural wasteland invading those hallowed creative spaces, but my money was as good as the next person’s.

Unbeknown to me, the Wynne Prize for Landscape Painting or Figurative Sculpture and the Sulman Prize for Subject Genre or Mural Painting were also on exhibition and my entrance ticket gave me access to those artworks too.

Sometimes the stars do align and by good luck I timed my visit with a free guided tour of the Archibald Prize. Yes, I could have wandered aimlessly on my own, but I don’t have an artistic bone in my body and I am a sucker for a guided tour. It appeared that many other people were feeling the same as we waited not-so-patiently for the tour to begin.

Tjuparntarri - women's business by David Darcy
Tjuparntarri – women’s business by David Darcy

With headsets firmly in place, we were dazzled by the knowledge and passion of the guide. She really made my experience of the exhibition morph from a cursory glance to a much deeper and more enjoyable understanding. During her hour-long presentation she explained the techniques used to create each painting, the personalities of the artists and the portrait sitters, and the many stories behind each of the paintings. This guide really brought the portraits to life and revealed the paintings within the paintings such as the mesmerising eyes in David Darcy’s portrait of Daisy Tjuparntarri Ward and the inclusions of classical artworks painted over in Ahn Do’s Art and war.

Tour of the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of NSWI would have missed so much if I had missed the tour.

The scale of some of the paintings was dazzling and my photographs certainly don’t do them justice. I always marvel at how artists can keep their sense of artistic perspective when they need to be up close to paint and yet the canvas is gigantic.

I was interested to learn that many of the portrait subjects were artists themselves. You could almost feel the mutual love-in happening. Maybe by their very nature, artists are quirky, unpredictable and interesting to paint?

Ahn Do's Art and War painting
Ahn Do’s Art and War

After an hour or so, my poor, little brain started to melt down from so much high quality, creative input. I stumbled for the exit only to be overwhelmed all over again by the Young Archie exhibition. Yes, portraits painted by children ranging in age from five years to eighteen years old. How do children get to be so clever? I guess adult artistic talent must start somewhere.

No doubt the Young Archie display would appeal to a younger audience, however the ‘grown-up’ Archibald Prize also targets children with the inclusion of children’s labels next to each of the paintings encouraging kids to seek out certain things in each artwork. Almost like an artistic treasure hunt.

If you feel the need for a dose of Australian artistic brilliance and can squeeze in a trip the Art Gallery of NSW before the Archibald closes, my tips are:

·         Go Early: Doors open at 10am and I recommend you get there before the school excursions arrive. It is great to see children interested in art, but…

·         Pace Yourself: All that standing and all that superb art can be exhausting. Seating is limited and popular with other visitors. There is a café onsite, so you might brace yourself or break up your visit up with a good coffee.

·         Join A Tour: Guided tours are free and are held daily at 1130am and 130pm. It really enhanced my experience and there is time to return to the paintings at the conclusion of the tour if you would like a second look. (Or get there early, have a look on your own and then join the tour to see what you missed at first inspection).

Admiring the Packing Room Prize - portrait of David Wenham
Admiring the Packing Room Prize – portrait of David Wenham

I am so pleased I included the Archibald Prize in my touristy play-date. It got me off the streets of Sydney and in front of some quality culture.

When was the last time you enjoyed the Y’arts?

June 2019


The Basics

What: The Archibald Prize for Portrait Painting is open to the public at the Art Gallery of NSW until 8 September 2019. Tickets for adults are $20.00.

Where: Art Gallery Rd, Sydney.

Tour of the Archibald Prize 2019When: Open daily from 10am-5pm and 10am-10pm on Wednesdays.

Why: To enjoy the artistic skill of some supremely talented painters and to get some culcha.

How: The Gallery is an easy 15-minute walk from the Sydney CBD or bus 441 departs from the York Street side of Queen Victoria Building and drops off near the Gallery. Taxis are also a good option.

Who: Anyone and everyone. The building is mobility-friendly.

Related Posts: For something nice to do after the Exhibition, read my post about the walk you can do around the edge of Sydney Harbour and through the Botanic Gardens.

The Archibald Prize catalogueRelated Blogs: For more stories about the Archibald Prize, check out this blog by a person who actually knows what they are talking about!

Read About It: For an artistic read, check out the biography of beloved Australian painter, Margaret Olley, Far from a Still Life. The story follows Olley’s colourful painting life and also describes the frenetic art scene she was part of, including her own portrait winning the Archibald Prize in both 1948 and 2011. Available from Book Depository.


#archibaldprize, #artgalleryofnsw, #youngarchies #culcha #worldclassart #culturevulture

The Archibald Prize

8 thoughts on “Getting some culcha! The Archibald Prize for Portrait Painting

  1. For a contrasting creative challenge, explore Chinese contemporary art at The White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale. Even if the artworks on the day are not to taste, the dumplings served in the cafe are delightful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You had me at DUMPLINGS! I must check out your recommendation next time I am Sydney-bound. Thanks for the tip. x


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