Every year, the Archibald Prize finalist paintings are shipped around the nation on a tour of major regional centres. For those of us who live outside of ‘the big smoke’ in places like Port Macquarie, this provides an excellent opportunity to get an art and culture fix.

The 2017 Archibald Prize finalists and winning portrait are on display at The Glasshouse in Port Macquarie for a very limited time. Read on to find out more about the history of one of the nation’s best-known art competitions and learn how to come up with an entry of your own.

Winner: Archibald Prize 2017 Mitch Cairns, Agatha Gothe-Snape, oil on linen, 140.5 x 125 cm
Winner: Archibald Prize 2017, Mitch Cairns, ‘Agatha Gothe-Snape’, oil on linen, 140.5 x 125 cm, © the artist, Photo: Mim Stirling, AGNSW


Origins of the Archibald Prize

Interestingly, a writer/journalist is the namesake of the Archibald Prize.

According to the Art Gallery of NSW, JF Archibald was born in Victoria and christened with the name John Feltham. JF started his career in journalism when he was 15, working for a country newspaper in Warrnambool, Victoria. JF led something of a bohemian lifestyle. He even changed his name to the more European sounding Jules François after he relocated to Sydney.

In 1880, JF Archibald founded Bulletin magazine. This was a progressive publication for its time, addressing issues of nationhood, culture and identity.

Archibald became a trustee for the Art Gallery of NSW in his later years because he was such an avid supporter of the arts. He was also an enthusiastic supporter and promoter of the work of younger artists and writers. In 1900, he commissioned Melbourne portrait artist John Longstaff to paint a portrait of poet Henry Lawson for 50 guineas. The story goes that he was so pleased with this portrait that he left money in his will for an annual portrait prize. The inaugural Archibald Prize competition was first held in 1921. The original winner was granted a generous sum of £400.

The aim of the competition

In establishing an art competition which still bears his name, Archibald’s primary aims were to:

  • Foster portraiture
  • Support artists
  • Perpetuate the memory of great Australians.

The Archibald Prize is awarded each year to the best portrait, ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia’. Entry is open to artists from anywhere in the country, including regional Australia.


Winner: People's Choice 2017 Anh Do, JC, oil on linen with unicorn hologram, dead insects found in garden and other mixed media, 240 x 200 cm
Winner: People’s Choice 2017, Anh Do, ‘JC’, oil on linen with unicorn hologram, dead insects found in garden and other mixed media, 240 x 200 cm, © the artist, Photo: Mim Stirling, AGNSW


The prizes on offer

The finalists and winner of the competition are selected by the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW. The value of the prize has risen over the years and at present, the money awarded to the winner totals $100,000. This makes it the second best-paying art prize in the country (after the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize).

In 1988, two additional prizes we added to the Archibald Prize. This includes the People’s Choice Award, which nets the winner $3,500 and is decided by public vote. An additional award is decided by the workers responsible for receiving every portrait installing them in the Art Gallery of NSW. The artwork awarded the Packing Room prize may not even make the finals of the competition, however its winner receives $1,500.

Beware the Packing Room prize!

There has never been a portrait to win this accolade and be named as the overall winner. According to Wikipedia, “there has twice been a matching Packing Room Prize and People’s Choice Award winner – although neither won the main prize – to Paul Newton’s portrait of Roy Slaven and HG Nelson in 2001, and to Jan Williamson’s portrait of singer/songwriter Jenny Morris in 2002”.

The rules of the Archibald Prize state that the portrait must be a painting. The painting must be painted from life, and the subject must be known to the artist, and aware of the artist’s intention. In addition, there must be at least one live sitting with the artist. In other words, you must have the permission of the person you are painting, and you have to meet with them at least once. This likely helps keep entry numbers under control!

Winner: Packing Room Prize 2017, Peter Smeeth, ‘Lisa Wilkinson AM’, oil on linen, 100 x 150 cm, © the artist Photo: Mim Stirling, AGNSW

Notable entrants and winners

While few Australian artists have the luxury of being known as a household name, many of the subjects who have been depicted in Archibald Prize entries are. High ranking military officers, socialites, sporting figures and screen actors have all featured in the competition over the years.

Some of the most recognisable faces to appear as part of the annual exhibition include:

  • Poet Banjo Paterson (winner, 1935)
  • Painter Margaret Olley (winner, 1948 and 2011)
  • Politician Robert Menzies (winner, 1954)
  • Politician Gough Whitlam (winner, 1972)
  • Artist Brett Whiteley (winner, for self-portraits in 1976 and 1978)
  • Prime Minister Paul Keating (winner, 1992)
  • Singer Kate Ceberano (Packing Room prize, 1994)
  • Actor Jon English (Packing Room prize, 1995)
  • Actor David Wenham (winner, 2000)
  • Actors Roy and HG (Packing Room prize, 2001)
  • Actor David Gulpilil (winner, 2004)
  • News presenter Jana Wendt (Packing Room prize, 2004)
  • Musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (winner, 2009)
  • Singer/songwriter Tim Minchin (winner, 2010)
  • Actor Hugo Weaving (winner, 2013)
  • Actor Barry Humphries (winner, 2016)
  • News presenter Lisa Wilkinson (Packing Room prize, 2017)

Portraits which have been given the People’s Choice Award include those of Malcolm Turnbull, Deborah Mailman, Heath Ledger, Asher Keddie, Guy Pearce and Garry McDonald.

Art controversies

The Archibald Prize has not been without its fair share of criticism and drama. It hit the headlines for the first time in 1938 when a female artist was named as the winner. This was very controversial. Nora Heysen was the first woman to achieve such a prominent accolade, despite other artists claiming women could not be expected to paint as well as men!

Portraits themselves have come under fire. In 1943, William Dobell’s painting was accused of being a caricature rather than a portrait. Another artist, William Dargie, also became a controversial figure in the prize’s history. This was because he managed to take out the prize a total of eight times between 1945 and 1953! After the seventh win, local art students were upset enough to stage a protest.

In 1975, an entry was disqualified on the grounds it had been painted from a photograph instead of from life, resulting in court cases and a change to the official conditions of entry.

More recently, a 1997 painting of a giant banana caused a sensation. Despite being of popular children’s character B1, from Bananas in Pyjamas (or was it B2?), the portrait was deemed ineligible because it did not depict a real person (tell that to a three-year-old!). In 2004, artist Craig Ruddy’s depiction of actor David Gulpilil was challenged because it was a charcoal sketch, not a painting. The claim went to the NSW Supreme Court before being dismissed.

Jonathan Dalton, Lottie and James, oil on linen, 154 x 167 cm
Archibald Prize 2017 finalist, Jonathan Dalton, ‘Lottie and James’, oil on linen, 154 x 167 cm, © the artist, Photo: Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW


Archibald Prize in Port Macquarie

Each year, entries for the Archibald Prize must be submitted for consideration in April. The finalists and Packing Room Prize winners are announced in May, around a week before the overall winner is given the good news. The collection of top portraits is displayed in the Art Gallery of NSW for about 12 weeks. The collection then goes on a regional tour of Australia over a period of 12 months.

For art lovers in Port Macquarie, patience is a virtue! The Archibald Prize Regional Tour made several stops before reaching our town but enthusiasts are now able to see the 2017 collection, featuring the winning portrait of artist Agatha Gothe-Snape by painter Mitch Cairns. The 2017 Archibald Prize Regional Tour Exhibition is on show from 25 August – 7 October 2018 at The Glasshouse Port Macquarie.

Tickets start from $5 for members, with free entry for under-18s on Sundays.

This exhibition is the last stop on the regional tour and is your very last chance to view the collection of 2017 Archibald Prize finalists.

How to win the Archibald Prize

The judging panel only selects around 40 portraits to hang as Archibald Prize finalists, however, this does not stop over 800 artists from submitting an entry each year.

The wonderful thing about art is that it is subjective. If you are handy with a paintbrush, you can apply your own techniques, style and method to capture someone notable on canvas and enter this prestigious competition. Some thoughtful advice to would-be artists from those who have already walked the path is not to let self-doubt or excuses hold you back. As stated by portrait artist Chuck Close, “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work”!

Kick-start your creative process by giving yourself

a) permission to just get started

b) permission to do a terrible job

c) permission to refer to yourself as an artist.

You never know what you may end up with!

Finding an esteemed subject could be a challenge but if you extend invitations and share examples of your previous work, you may find there is someone who is excited to sit for you and to have their likeness captured for all to see.

So, how do you win the Archibald Prize? Although the final decision depends on the judges and their taste, an analysis conducted by the ABC suggests you will have better chances of success if you are adventurous with your use of colour (more moody-toned paintings used to win but this has changed in recent years). The ABC also found that in terms of style, realistic depictions of well-known Australian figures have typically trumped impressionist, surrealist and post-modern painting techniques.

A warning to watercolourists!

If you’re a watercolour fan, the odds are against you. Only one watercolour painting has ever won an Archibald. The best-performing medium is oil. 75 of the winning portraits were created with oil paints during the competition’s history. Trying to decide who to paint? Funnily enough, your best bet is to find someone else who is handy with a brush. Portraits of artists have won 30 Archibald Prizes over time. Authors are the next top-performing category, followed by actors, politicians, doctors and academics.

If you’re a New South Wales dweller, you may be in with a better chance than your neighbours to the north or south. Artists based in this state have slightly pipped Victorians to the post, notching up more wins throughout the competition’s almost 100-year history.

Take a look at the ABC’s other criteria to improve your odds of being an Archibald Prize winner and get your brush ready! There is still plenty of time to submit an entry for 2019.

Andrew Lloyd Greensmith, The inner stillness of Eileen Kramer, oil on linen, 86 x 51 cm
Archibald Prize 2017 finalist, Andrew Lloyd Greensmith, ‘The inner stillness of Eileen Kramer‘, oil on linen, 86 x 51 cm, © the artist, Photo: Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

Archibald spinoffs

To encourage the younger generation, the Young Archies invite budding artists between the ages of 5 and 18 to submit a portrait for the judges to consider.

There are four age categories: 5-8 year-olds, 9-12 year-olds, 13-15 year-olds and 16-18 year-olds. The Gallery’s community engagement manager and a guest judge decide the winner of this competition, which began in 2013. The criteria used to select the winners are merit and originality. Entrants create a portrait of someone who is important to them, rather than painting someone famous. Schools sometimes host their own round of the Young Archies before submitting the winners to the state contest.

On the lighter side of art, the Bald Archys “provides artists of all styles and standards with a genuine opportunity, ranging from the hilarious to the bizarrely vulgar, to create portrait paintings of humour, dark satire, light comedy or caricature.” Winning subjects have included Pauline Hanson, Gina Reinhardt, Bart Commings and Crown Princess Mary.

See the Archibald Prize in Port Macquarie

For your last chance to view the 2017 Archibald Prize finalists and the winner, head to The Glasshouse at 32-40 Clarence Street in Port Macquarie for the Archibald Prize Regional Tour. The gallery is open all weekend and on weekdays excluding Mondays.

Visit the website to find out more.

After you have taken a look at the stunning collection of portraits, why not spend some time relaxing and enjoying lunch or dinner at The Westport Club?

As well as being enthusiastic supporters of the arts in our community, we are home to some of the best Port Macquarie Restaurants – each of them characterised by a commitment to quality, freshness and innovation, and staffed by passionate lovers and creators of fine food and drink. Come, relax and enjoy the stunning water views on offer, or choose from our selection of 100 whiskeys from around the globe.


The Archibald Prize Regional Tour

An Art Gallery of New South Wales touring exhibition
Presenting partner: ANZ
Images supplied courtesy of Art Gallery of NSW

ANZ logo Art Gallery of NSW logo