This was virtually the only conversation I ever had with her although in the silences that sometimes nourish relationships between certain individuals, I would play a small role in her life: The important conversation we consequently did have proved vital to her and satisfying to me. She asked me to write the local council on the matter of a building permit for her to build a Gazebo in a garden she had been toiling on for the past four years or so. The problem was, the council had declined her application.
Desperate and devastated, she turned to me..
As this Story is currently a competition entry, the complete text can not be published here, at this time.
Please watch this space to read the conclusion of Gazebo.
After a rebooting of your ego, the tiny wiff of immortality and the attention, one says ‘yes’! But like the native of old looking behind the photograph to see what magic is behind the glass, one is soon to see what IS there. When your friend the artist has finished with you, you are more than likely looking at an image of yourself you had hoped did not exist.
Portraiture is far from flattering and light years from vanity. It deals in truth – and that is the both the promise and the problem.
How much reality do we need? The portrait can either hide you from yourself or force you to look. It is in essence narassistic, but self-flattery is not what one aspires to. It hangs on a prayer that ‘who’ you are and ‘how’ you are perceived won’t kill you.
The Gertrude Stein / Picasso story holds true – “I do not look like that!” she protests. “You will” he replies.
Sitting takes no prisoners. The painter is looking at you. You have nowhere to hide. Over lunch, coffee, wine and dinner – he is staring. This is not voyeurism, it is too clinical for that. It is predatory, but the idea of perversion has no purchase here. Like a hairdresser cutting your hair, all he sees is what he is cutting - hair.
The necessary fearlessness and insightful intelligence of the painter is where you place your trust. He may see a road map, an old movie, terror, bewilderment, resignation, youth, death, waste or pure fucking joy. He sees blistering success or festering pain. He is under no obligation to explain what he sees. There is a strange submission loosely based on trust and hugely based on hope. You are his, he can have his way, he, after all is doing the work, taking the risks, all you have to do is sit there.
Behind the easel, behind the mirror, stands the inquisitor with a brush. From here the robes, seals, symbols of circumstance are mercilessly dissembled.
Archibald, the man, the highly civilized, cultured creature with a passion for portraiture knew all this. The almost bullish rationale behind one of his famous RULES, that the portrait must be from LIFE, not from a photograph, struggles to maintain the integrity he demanded when he instigated the Prize for Portraiture. He knew that a photograph can lie, can permit cheating, be a hiding place, present a fake character in that momentary flash. A camera can grab anything with the greatest of ease.
Archibald knew that a ‘sitting’, for hours or days or weeks gives access and penetration only time spent looking can provide. The staring involved, the steady, relentless staring, goes behind the mirror, where there is nowhere to hide.
Photography and its importance in the art of portraiture has been through the fiery furnace of Archibald’s almost fascistic rules, and survived. The camera image is as important a tool as the brush or the paint. For memory, structure, composition, line, light, for any number of reasons the photograph cannot be totally demonized under the stated list of terms.
This is the scary part, the danger of portraiture when executed in the manner insisted on by the great man, all those years ago. He believed ‘the sitting’ would get at truth. The stare is unduckable. One can dream of love and flowers and a holiday on a Greek island , pretend to be happy, hope to be seen in a good light. But once you have made the commitment to ‘sit’ your fate is sealed. The photograph is merely an aid, a crutch even. This fidelity to Archibald’s wishes is crucial to understanding where he was coming from, how deadly serious he was about his prize.
Pople admitted to me that, ‘no one likes their portrait’. Great – that gave me something to look forward to.
I am about to have my second run-in with Archibald.
As an 18 year old porridge- plump- pink-faced unextraordinary looking adolescent, fresh from eight years in a country boarding school; William E. Pidgeon, a prominent painter and cartoonist for Consolidated Press, asked me if I would pose for him for the Archibald Prize.
Pidgeon and his wife Dorothy were friends of my parents as was William Dobell and Tommy Hughes, men who, with my father, were newspaper men at the time. These guys came often to our house at Longueville to drink whiskey, smoke cigarettes and chew the fat. Pidgeon was always staring at me with his great goggle eyes. He even asked why my junior brother Brett had not been taking a greater interest in his sister. Brett was drawing everything that moved, including dogs, birds and cats, but the lure of innocence and untouched sexuality was not something he ever saw in me. Brett, quite naturally, never saw me as a subject. ‘Look at her’ he would insist to my indiffere sibbling. ‘Look at her colour?’.
I see now that Bill Pidgeon had fallen in love with the girl-woman that I was then, the child on the cusp of head spinning sensuality. Brett himself too, was famously smitten by this fleeting moment in the life of a female.
The outcome of that gentle staring was my parents consenting to let WEPPY, as he was called, paint me for the Archibald which, circa 1956 was a very big deal as it is now.
For many weeks I would walk or be driven to Bill’s house in Northwood, across the harbor from Longueville where we lived. Lloyd Rees also lived in Northwood. Lloyd was Brett’s hero, the first in a lifetime of painter heroes he copied, worshipped and learnt from. His bedroom window on the first floor, looked across the bay to where Lloyd lived. He would sit at this window at the desk my father had arranged, and draw what was across the bay, where Lloyd was. He would say ‘Lloyd lives over there’.
The Northwood Sketch club at Santry’s house became a mecca for artists from Lintas and other interested people coming to draw the model provided. The significance of what those two small harbour-side suburbs meant to the Sydney art scene in the fifties is legend. These were serious people, art, painting, drawing were what they did. Brett was 16 when he began attending these groups.
Bill Pidgeon’s Northwood studio was reached by crossing a tiny drawbridge which he would lower or raise according to the privacy he craved and as a way of getting away from Dorothy whose talent was talking. I found a lifelong love of these chaotic places with their smells and secrets and pictures stacked against walls, music playing, dead blossoms in old paint jars, or fresh ones in beautiful vases, empty whisky bottles, letters half written, bills waiting to be paid, sketch pads, pieces of paper and canvas, cigarette buts like unopened flower buds.
And from this madness would come the most beautiful paintings, the pictures of infinite softness which Bill Pidgeon specialized in, the romance of the brush, the paint, the poetry of someone’s deepest thoughts and longings.
Much staring had gone into this portrait of me, beginning way before the Saturday afternoon sittings where I would assume the same position on a chair, staring out the window looking at trees. The result was of a slightly plump young girl with big boobs. A comely picture, beautifully rendered, utterly devoid of malice, fear, vanity, ambition. Pidgeon, immensely pleased with his work, entered it in the biggest art prize Australia had at the time.
Time passed, the Northwood sittings receded. Suddenly we had the call that the portrait was one of the top contenders for the prize. Bill was told that it would have won but for one important impediment - the important impediment from Archibald’s strict menu of rules, Archi ‘laws’ which have caused no end of controversy and heart ache over generations.
The rule that broke Bill Pidgeon’s heart was that I was not a “Person of Letters”. At eighteen, I was a child and letters to my parents from boarding school were all the letters I had ever written.
Bill must have known this but he was so thrilled with his picture the rules had made him reckless, and he didn’t care. The portrait he had entered simply didn’t qualify. Along with the rule that works were to be from ‘life’, NOT a photograph, was the caveat that the subject had to be of importance in Australian culture, they had to have contributed to Australia in conspicuous ways - Judges, Politians, Authors, Composers, Actors, Painters, Film Makers, Architects and so on. I am uncertain if sportspeople qualified.
This ruling has never changed, Archibald was as single- minded about the notable person clause as he was about the ‘from life’ issue - the old chestnut that truth and essence could only be seen through POSING. Generations of artists have honoured these words. The Archibald Prize can and will only exist if these laws remain sacrosanct.
The wonderful conclusion to the story of the Northwood portrait was that the Art Gallery of NSW favoured the painting enough to purchase it. It stills hangs in the gallery collection, below stairs. Thrilled with this turn of events Bill asked me to sit again, this time for the Women’s Weekly Art Prize, which he won. I was then 19 and about to be married. I had become Pidgeon’s lucky star, after all.
The silvery threads of Northwood with Lloyd Rees, William E Pidgeon, Brett Whiteley, the Santry Sketch Club; the small intimate space of bush-clad Woodford Bay rippling between us; Longueville - Brett’s and my childhood home, the presence of William Dobell at our table, Dobell winning the Archibald Prize and my father’s first printing of the portrait of Margaret Olley and “Storm Approaching, Wangi” which won the Wynne Prize. All these things are woven into the tapestry which became a crucible of the art culture growing on Sydney Harbour in the 1950s.
A tradition now in the hands of Peter Kingston.
I am now 78 years old. I am a Person of Letters with published works to my credit. From age 18 to 78 sixty years have passed. I have again posed for the mighty Archibald.
My three day sitting for Rodney Pople was conducted shortly after the death of my oldest son, a time when my face is one of naked grief on public display.
This time, my great friend and famous painter - Rodney Pople has done the staring.
Frannie (Whiteley) Hopkirk.
Millthorpe July 12. 2015