William Dargie (1912 – 2003)

Considered a national treasure, Australia’s most renowned portrait painter, Sir William Dargie made a tremendous contribution to the Australian art world with a strong belief in self-expression and personal ability that was felt in his works and the principles he stood for. As a man who loathed being described as a “great painter”, he stayed away from the limelight and gained a name for himself as “Australia’s best-known unknown painter.”

Born in Melbourne in 1912, Dargie was taught the fundamentals of art through his studies at the Melbourne Technical School under Napier Waller to which his skills were strengthened and developed through his European travels. At a young age he met the influential Australian artists, Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts who also had a profound impact on Dargie and his interest in the arts.

Starting his career as a teacher in the late 1920s, where he met author and lifelong friend, Hal Porter, painting did not become a regular practice for Dargie until 1931 when he resorted to the art after his regular tennis game was cancelled.

Sir William Dargie joined the army in the Second World War where he served as an intelligence officer before becoming an official Australian War Artist. Regarded as a famed chronicler of the events involving Australians in World War II, he served in North Africa, Crete, the Middle East, India, Burma and Papua New Guinea. Today an estimated 600 of these works are held in the collection of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

While serving in the Australian army, Dargie was digging a trench in Tobruk when first informed that he had won the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture in 1942. He went on to set a record of 8 Archibald wins with his prize-winning portraits including that of Albert Namatjira, Dame Pattie Menzies, Gough Whitlam and Sir Henry Bolte. This record haul of Archibalds left Sir William aggravated at being pigeonholed as a portrait painter as only a small amount of his work was portraiture.

In December 1954 Dargie was commissioned to paint Australia’s official painting of Queen Elizabeth II, who sat for him at Buckingham Palace. Commonly commissioned to paint other fellow members of the Royal Family he also painted the portraits of Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh and the Duke of Gloucester.

For his services to the arts, Dargie received an Order of the British Empire in 1959, and was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1969. He held several prominent positions in gallery boards, serving on the Commonwealth Art Advisary Board for twenty years and serving as the head of the Victorian Art School and The National Gallery School, Melbourne. He was also a member of the Royal Society of Artists, London, The Royal Art Society of New South Wales, The Victorian Artist’s Society and The Australian Academy of Arts.

As an active campaigner for the cause of Australian art, Sir William Dargie was renowned for sticking to his principles. This was exemplified most predominantly by his resignation from the position of Chairman of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board in 1973 in opposition to the Whitlam Government’s policies on art. He famously remarked at the time that “if the Government could afford to pay $1.4 million for the controversial painting “Blue Poles,” it could afford $750,000 for an arts centre in Alice Springs.”

Despite the fact that with a career spanning over seventy years he is, perhaps Australia’s most distinguished portrait artist, the Australian public knew very little about Dargie as he kept out of the spotlight. Having become known as Australia’s most well-known unknown artist no public gallery in Australia has held a major retrospective displaying his works, however his works can be found scattered around the National Gallery of Australia, all state galleries and many regional galleries across Australia.

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