National Portrait Gallery

(Canberra, August 2017)

Having breasted the paint-stripping wind blowing down the mountain and off Lake Burley Griffin, we wondered if this monument would rise to emblematise a great reference of images, or just amount to a pantheon of nonentities crowding Our Island Story?

Actually, the galleries are small, but occasionally choice, and sometimes a laugh riot.  Little hordes of schoolchildren swept through on the hour (Canberra’s array of free stuff means almost every week there’s opportunity for a teaching free day or two) and little lessons were delivered by earnest folks who knew not what they were saying. Fortunately, P was there to loudly declaim in an effort to wash free, perhaps one or more brains of the relentless shower of decadent shite crammed therein by the bien pensants.

So, let us begin, if you are sitting comfortably.

We’ll start with conventional portraiture. It is conventional in the sense that it depicts an objective image of the sitter, and depends for artistic success on technical skill and for depth of feeling, on talent.  Some of our favourites below:


The brilliant Vladimir Ashkenazy (“The architecture of music”) by Ralph Heimans (2011)


Helena Rubenstein in a red brocade Balenciaga gown (1957) by Max Factor…er, by Graham Sutherland


Margaret Court (let’s not dicker, vicar – still the greatest female tennis player ever) by William Dargie (1962)


Most stylish Governor-General (and crypto-Republican) ever: Her Excellency, Quentin Bryce by Michael Zavros (2016)


Sorry Lesley…portrait of Sir Donald Bradman (1990) by Bill Leak


Our best General: Sir John Monash (1919) by James Quinn


Notice how everyone else is ignoring silly old Michael? Justice Michael Kirby by Ralph Heimans (1998)


Noble, dignified, grave, sad…bust of Trucaninny by Benjamin Law (1836)


Wag (referring to Reid’s sizeable girth): “What will you call it, George?” Reid: “If it’s a boy, I’ll name it after the King. If it’s a girl, I’ll name it after the Queen. If it’s just piss and wind, I’ll name it after you.” (Bust by Charles Webster Gilbert, 1916)

The Mad Doctor by Arnold Shore (1935)

The Mad Doctor (Evatt) by Arnold Shore (1935)

In the less conventional but nonetheless talented and true category, we offer:


Nick Cave by Howard Arkley (1999)


Socialite and patron Kate Hattam by Clifton Pugh (1956)


Barry Humphries (as a tyro) by Clifton Pugh (1958)


Come back, Campo…we need you now…David Campese by Paul Newton (2000)

And we have to cater for all tastes, even the tasteless, so…


“Peace, the Man and Hope (Anthony Mundine)” (2005), by Brook Andrew

The Varnished Culture loudly insisted to a flummoxed group of schoolchildren that their teacher was wrong and that this collage/mirage/barrage was in fact, an atrocity.


Professor Manning Clark at Wapengo NSW by Arthur Boyd (1972)

There’s a half-decent portrait by Boyd in the National Portrait Gallery. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. Clark should have checked-out Boyd’s appalling Judges series before agreeing to sit: on the other hand, this throwaway shocker sums up Clark’s historical fiction as much as Boyd’s oeuvre: cheap, quick yet prolix, tendentious, contemptible, and revealing a preparedness to jettison the hard work artistic or literary reportage entails in favour of pandering to the soft-left cabal of talentless, life-hating pygmies. (Sorry).


William Bligh (attributed to John Webber) (1776)

Rubbish flourished in days of yore, too. We don’t know if Webber is to blame for this rendering of the famous Sea Captain and Governor as a dwarf, but there you go. Still, they say our current Prime Minister has genealogical ties to Bligh, so maybe the small-minded querulous born-to-rule-but-do-nothing mentality is correctly encapsulated here.


Betty Cuthbert by Andrew Daly (2002)

The Golden Girl really deserved better than this poor cartoon (and alien cat). Apparently the ‘work’ was commissioned with funds from the Basil Bressler Bequest: The Varnished Culture hopes that the Trustees demanded the money back.

WendyOn the plus side, whilst photography is NOT one of the muses, for so much more than technical reasons, this photo of artist Wendy Sharpe by Greg Weight (2000) is beautiful, up there in a way with the famous post-Oscar photo of Faye Dunaway.


While on photos, this is a striking (pardon the pun) one of Jack Mundey by Terry Milligan (1985), showing the cunning old Commo doing what he did best…making trouble. Mundey was the first to see that conservatism could be turned inward against itself, like a dagger, by burglarising the environment with green bans in order to frustrate, delay, defeat and destroy human progress.


We conclude the photographic tour with this nice one by Peter Brew-Bevan (2013) of Prime Minister Gillard, the dangling light-bulb suggesting she may, in this unique moment, have developed an original thought.


This one of writer Helen Garner (by Jenny Sages, 2003) greets the eye more as a preliminary sketch than a finished work, yet it does capture the impression that as far as Helen is concerned, “it’s all about me.”

So, anyway, we saved the worst for last:BBrown

This thing is entitled “Dr Brown and Green Old Time Waltz” (1983) and it was perpetrated by Harold ‘The Kangaroo’ Thornton. It is an oil supposed to synthesise the events of the Franklin Dam protests and campaign.  As a cartoon or agitprop, fine, but what is it doing in the National Portrait Gallery? As P loudly declaimed to astonished students and teacher, assembled before the work in a manner akin to genuflection, this work is an abomination, and ‘The Kangaroo’ should be extradited from Holland to face questioning.


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