Australian Portraits 1880-1960

Gallery of works

Australian portraits: 1880–1960 takes a fresh look at paintings from the National Gallery of Australia's collection from the 1880s to the early 1960s. It is the first major travelling exhibition of Australian portraits mounted by the National Gallery of Australia, and is part of the Gallery’s extensive program of sharing the national collection with all states in Australia. It provides a compelling and diverse representation of Australians—from the theatrical Victorians and Edwardians, through to flappers, bushrangers and fashion icons. The exhibition features 54 portraits and self-portraits by 34 leading Australian painters, including Tom Roberts, George W Lambert, Grace Cossington Smith, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale and John Brack.

image: George W Lambert
Chesham Street 1910 
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased in 1993

George W Lambert Chesham Street 1910 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased in 1993

An introduction to Australia's first portraits
Ron Radford

The Australian portrait paintings included in this publication and exhibition were made between the late-colonial 1880s and the late-modernist 1960s and are among the finest from a time when portraiture was less favoured as a subject in art than Australian national life and landscape. Once a dominant aspect of painting in the early nineteenth century, portraiture had been taken over by photography. The earlier works featured nevertheless reflect a period when serious, creative portrait painting was renewed, notably within the broader practice of leading Australian artists such as Tom Roberts and George W Lambert.

From its inception in 1921 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the annual Archibald Prize for contemporary portraits, preferably of 'distinguished' Australians, was intended to raise the quality and status of portrait painting, and has been one of Australia's most popular and sometimes controversial art events; from the 1980s the more valuable Doug Moran National Portrait Prize, which favours intimate or critical portraits as much as the culture of celebrity, has also maintained public interest in contemporary portraiture. More significantly, in 1997 Australia established a provisional National Portrait Gallery in Old Parliament House, Canberra, and at the end of 2008 moved to a purpose-built building positioned between the National Library, the High Court and the National Gallery of Australia. Present-day Australians can be excused for thinking that portraits have always been as interesting to artists and audiences as they are now—and as they were before the 1880s and indeed especially before the 1850s.

It is worth mapping here the little-appreciated profusion and excellence of Australia's first portraits. Australia was colonised by the British in the 1780s, when portraiture had already been the dominant subject of British art for three centuries; indeed, no nationality had been as obsessed with portraiture as the British. Our very earliest colonial artists from Britain produced specialised scientific records of unique flora and fauna and peoples, which included often warmly sympathetic portrait drawings of individual Aborigines; the first settler artists included military, official and convict amateurs who shared these scientific interests. Our now much-lauded national landscape tradition was a long way off. By the late 1820s portrait paintings had become the most prolific product of early colonial art; there were more professional portrait painters than painters of other subjects. Portrait photography took over in the 1850s and, although there were outstanding earlier landscape artists—John Glover (working in Tasmania) and Conrad Martens (in New South Wales)—landscape painting, too, took off in a prolific way only after the 1850s gold rushes, especially in Victoria.

Australia's first professional artist was John Lewin, trained as a specialist painter of birds, who arrived in Sydney from Britain in 1800. However, like all successful colonists, he had to be versatile. He expanded his painting repertoire to include the exotic new plants, and some landscapes, as well as birds and animals. In 1808 he advertised that he was willing to take portrait commissions for miniatures. None of the settler miniatures have been traced but earlier, on an 1802 trip from Sydney to Tahiti, he had painted a series of miniature watercolour portraits of Tahiti's island chiefs (AGSA and ML). He also painted portraits of Aborigines, known to us today only through prints. The first Australian artist to paint in oils, Lewin is probably the painter of an oil portrait, Boy with sulphur-crested cockatoo 1826 (AGSA).

Our first artist professionally trained as a portrait painter was Richard Read senior, who arrived in Sydney as a convict in 1813. He painted small watercolour portraits and miniatures of settlers. The second professional portrait painter was his son, Richard Read junior, who arrived in Sydney as a free settler in 1819 and, like his father, painted small portraits in watercolour.

And the first artist to produce a good number of larger portraits in the more permanent medium of oil paint was Augustus Earle, who arrived in Hobart in 1825 and a few months later moved to Sydney. His commissions included Australia's first full-length grand portraits: one of the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane (Government House, Sydney); and a pair of large portraits for the colony's then richest man, John Piper—one of Piper, the other a group portrait of his wife and children (ML). Earle painted more than a dozen smaller oil portraits of colonists during less than four years in Australia, and a notable small full-length portrait of Bungaree, a celebrity Aborigine. Charles Rodius, an architectural draftsman, arrived in Sydney as a convict in 1829 and he too did portraits of both settlers and Indigenous people, in watercolours or crayons, and also published prints.

image: Margaret Preston 
Flapper 1925 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased with the assistance of the Cooma-Monaro Snowy River Fund 1988
© Margaret Rose Preston Estate. Licensed by Viscopy

Margaret Preston Flapper 1925, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased with the assistance of the Cooma-Monaro Snowy River Fund 1988 © Margaret Rose Preston Estate. Licensed by Viscopy

Professional portraiture flourishes only in a selfconfident and stable society; in the colonies, when the cities of Sydney and Hobart were well established and prospering. In addition to Read junior and Rodius, from the 1830s to the 1850s Sydney's portrait painters included Joseph Backler, Thomas Griffiths, William Nicholas, Maurice Felton, Richard Noble and Marshall Claxton. In Tasmania in the same period the more numerous and finer portrait painters included Thomas Bock (who had arrived as a convict as early as 1824), Benjamin Duterrau, Henry Mundy, Mary Morton Allport, W B Gould, Thomas Wainewright, Frederick Strange, Knut Bull, W P Dowling and Robert Dowling. Portraiture took hold early in Adelaide, which had been settled in 1836 without convicts, under a systematic colonisation scheme. There, during the first years of settlement, Martha Berkeley painted small portraits and miniatures and her sister Theresa Walker made wax medallion portraits of colonists and Aborigines. (Theresa Walker was Australian's first female sculptor, and in the 1830s in Hobart another sculptor, Benjamin Law, produced a pair of wonderfully dignified portrait heads of famous Aborigines.) Melbourne attracted a small group of portrait painters, mainly after the gold rushes of 1851; they included Georgiana McCrae, Thomas Napier, William Strutt, Ludwig Becker and Conway Hart. And Robert Dowling, Australia's first locally trained portrait artist, moved from Tasmania to Geelong in 1854.

image: Albert Tucker 
Self­portrait 1941 
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 
Purchased 1982 
© Barbara Tucker courtesy Barbara Tucker

Albert Tucker Self‑portrait 1941 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1982 © Barbara Tucker courtesy Barbara Tucker

Portraiture remained a part of our colonial artists' practice throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, especially in Adelaide, where portrait and figure painting continued to dominate the art scene with such artists as Alexander Schramm, John Crossland, Charles Hill and Andrew MacCormac. However, with the growing popularity of photographic portraits large and small, the painted portrait lost the dominance it had previously enjoyed.

Early colonial portraiture followed a late-Georgian style, for which the ultimate model was provided by the extremely stylish British Regency work of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830).

The portraits in this publication and exhibition range from the beginnings of the modern portrait in the 1880s—in generally more informal and sober impressionist or realist portrait conventions—through to a huge variety of interesting modern portraits up to the 1960s—including a few painted from life in adventurous cubist and expressionist approaches.

One of the later portraits, Sidney Nolan's black-and white 1946 painting of the long-deceased Ned Kelly, is based on a police photograph of the celebrity criminal, and thus makes a virtue of the medium that had caused portrait painting to retreat in Kelly's lifetime. It also prefigures the dominance of photo-based paintings alongside major works of photographic art in presentday portraiture.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880-1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010

Education resources

Secondary education kit (pdf, 1.48 mb)
Children's discovery trail (pdf 1.93 mb)


Around Australia

29 January – 27 March 2011 | UQ Art Museum, University of Queensland, Brisbane QLD

9 April – 10 July 2011 | Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin NT

23 July – 4 September 2011 | Warrnambool Art Gallery, Warrnambool VIC

17 September – 13 November 2011 | Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston TAS

3 December 2011 – 29 January 2012 | Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre, Gymea NSW

11 February – 12 May 2012 | Gladstone Regional Art Gallery, Gladstone QLD

17 August - 21 October 2012 | Canberra Museum and Gallery, Canberra ACT


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Banner: Napier Waller Christian Waller with Baldur, Undine and Siren at Fairy Hills 1932 (detail) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1984