In early 1970, family friend Brett Whiteley and another artist, Tony Woods, turned up late one night on our doorstep with a bottle of Ouzo. They were immediately welcomed in and a great discussion ensued around the dining room table.
As the social occasion became more convivial and expansive it was decided that all, as one body, should make a mass attack on the Archibald Prize competition.
(Five rough drawings – two distinctively by Brett of my late husband – one joke one by my husband on the “grand idea” with Tony coming in on the others. These were done around our dining room table on the night in question. There were others, much better, but they have disappeared – Dorothy Pidgeon in a letter to Paul Dwyer of Leonard Joel Auctions, 2 July 1982)
The work was begun at Whale Bench where Brett and Tony were staying at the time. The picture is large (13′ 4″ x 6′ 6″ | 4.06 x 1.98m) and is accompanied by a panel containing three photographs of the painting each with appropriate comments by the artists involved.
The painting was submitted for inclusion in the 1970 Archibald Prize competition but was rejected on the grounds of non-compliance with the rules of the award despite the fact there was no clear grounds listed. Never before had a work featuring multiple subjects undertaken by multiple artists been accepted. The portrait challenged the Trustees once again to reconsider what a portrait was and represented. After almost 50 years of Archibald history, the tide was turning. 1970 was a particulary lean year for the Archibald; of the 117 entries submitted only 15 were selected as finalists. It brought back memories of 1964, of indecision and internal debate amongst the Trustees.
Subsequently, it was seen and favourably looked upon by Dr. Harald Szeemann, who was brought to Australia by Mr. John Kaldor to organize an exhibition of Contemporary Australian Art. It was shown in his exhibitions at the Bonython Gallery, Sydney, and Victoria’s National Gallery, Melbourne, in 1971.
Coincidentally, Brett was the first to win the Archibald Prize with another portrait included, in 1978 with his work, Art, life and the other thing, even if it was only a small homage to William Dobell’s 1943 winning portrait of Mr Joshua Smith. Keith Looby’s win in 1984 was the first to win with multiple subjects with a portrait of Max Gillies surrounded by his audience, amongst which was Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Ten years later in 1994, Francis Giacco’s Homage to John Reichard showcased five portraits, the main subject being placed tangential to the side similarly to Brett’s first win in 1976 win Self-portrait in the studio. Other winners with multiple subjects were Marcus Wills in 2006 with The Paul Juraszek monolith (after Marcus Gheeraerts), Del Kathryn Barton in 2008 with You are what is most beautiful about me, a self-portrait with Kell and Arella, and Vincent Namatjira in 2020 with Stand strong for who you are.
But perhaps it is best for my mother, Dorothy, to describe this story in her own words with a letter she wrote to Mr. James Mollison, Director of the National Art Gallery of Australia, 21 November 1974 . . .
Dear Mr. Mollison,
May I draw your attention to a unique painting which my husband and I have in our possession?
It is unique in more ways than one. Firstly, it is what the artists (Bill Pidgeon, Brett Whiteley and Tony Woods) have called a triple portrait; Secondly, it is a tribute by two younger artists to an older revered master; Thirdly, it could never be repeated by these artists again in the same manner as my husband has been unable to paint at all for the last two years.
A history of glaucoma in both eyes since 1956 culminated in a sixth eye operation early in 1973. Since then he has been unable to paint. The previous twenty years he eked out a living by official portrait painting, and during that period won three Archibald prizes – all with commissioned portraits. Rumour has it that on at least three other occasions he missed by a whisker. Needless to say, the ones he thought might win just never did. It took him ten years to win his first Archibald. His history is in Who’s Who in Australia.
The story of the Triple Portrait is too long to write fully now, but I shall tell you how it came about.
In the mid 1950’s a friend of my husband asked him if he would look at the work of a son of a friend of his. The son turned out to be a young 14½ year old schoolboy, Brett Whiteley. I remember my husband saying when he came home that it was the most natural talent he had seen – and he hoped he wouldn’t burn it out!
From then on they were firm friends. Until Brett won his scholarship to Italy some few years hence Bill aided and encouraged him – even against his mother’s wish that he not become an artist.
From Italy Brett went on to success in London – the Tate Gallery buying his work when he had just turned 22 years.
After a considerable number of years Brett and family returned to Australia. At the most unexpected times day or night he would appear on our doorstep – front or back – always we would love to see him and make him welcome. One night early in 1970 my husband had gone to bed early at 10.30 p.m. frustrated and despondent about his eyes. I was just about to put the light out later when Brett and Tony both very bright arrived at the front door with a bottle of Ouzo. In they came. Bill got up and we all sat around the dining room table, the three of them madly talking weighty matters on Art. We went right through to morning.
Bill had cheered and I asked Brett if he would sit for Bill for an un-commissioned portrait for the Archibald. From then it was on – Brett would do one of Bill, Tony not to be left out declared he must be in it too.
Months later in October, it finally got off the ground when the three of them had a week at a friend of Brett’s place at Whale Beach – there are many more stories – many I’m sure I don’t know. However, until 31st December (closing date for Archibald) and the final panel was being assembled on our sunroom floor- there were ons and offs and ups and downs.
Neither Brett nor Tony would heed me when I kept assuring them, stemming from five years’ experience at the Gallery, that it could not possibly be accepted as it would not comply with the conditions of the competition. Nonsense! They would carry all before them! However, my prediction turned out to be fact.
In the middle of January Bill and I brought it home quietly atop our station wagon – and here it stayed out in a backroom annoying Bill.
In April, 1971 John Kaldor brought Dr. Harald Zeemann from Germany I think, to assemble in a week an exhibition of Contemporary Australian Art. Frantic ‘phone calls from Brett – could the painting be seen. Dr. Zeemann and entourage arrived, viewed and were impressed. It was included in the exhibition shown at the Bonython and took up the whole of one end wall. The painting looked terrific! Mrs. Bronwyn Thomas wanted to know if it was for sale. I assured her it was not at that time.
The painting consists of three interlocking panels and a fourth, the story one with photographs and each artist’s comments under glass.
The three painted panels consist of a full length portrait of Brett – head to toes – by Bill – a larger than life-size head of Bill by Brett – and a self-portrait by Tony with touches from the other two. It would be approximately 13’4″ x 6’6″.
From the Bonython it went to Melboune, and there are still stories to go before it arrived one morning in May, 1973, at my husband’s half-owned terrace in Paddington, N.S.W. Soon it will have to be moved. Perhaps you will agree it is a unique painting. I should very much like it to be part of the National Collection and properly cared for. Needless to say, I should want a good price for it, but not in the Jackson Pollock – de Kooning bracket.
If you would be interested in seeing the painting when in Sydney, you could ‘phone me at 427-1626 and I could arrange for you to see it at Paddington.
Although my husband is known for his portrait painting chiefly and his cartoons of 20 plus years ago, and at that same period, illustrations and covers for the Women’s Weekly, he in his personal work has painted landscapes, nudes, flower pieces, still life and abstracts – religious paintings. He has also sculpted.
The New England and areas about Picton were his chief landscape loves, but there are one or two of the harbour – and or two very rare ones in Romania, Paris and London painted following his only visit abroad when he was invited to Romania in 1956. He called briefly on friends in Paris and London on his way back – a scarce 10 weeks in all.
As a War Correspondent for the Women’s Weekly in Darwin, New Guinea and Borneo he at that time made some telling and lovely paintings. These he would sell because of his financial circumstances, but would prefer that they be kept in groups if possible.
He has never had an exhibition and like Godfrey Miller and to a lesser extent Dobell clings to his paintings – even though they are under the bed or behind wardrobes gathering dust.
In their own area I believe Bill’s landscapes are as representative of Australia as the Nolan’s and Drysdales, etc. There is a little gem of St. John’s, Canberra, and two or three at Springfield, Goulburn, with horses in paddocks.
Most of his paintings seem to have come about over a period of years. By nature and because of his vision problems he has never been prolific. His portrait of Dobell came about over a period of nine years and several efforts. That is quite a story too.
There is one of Dobell here that, Warren Stewart (now in his 50’s) who was the sitter for Dobell’s “Student,” says is much better than the one the N.S.W. Gallery bought a number of years ago. It is still “not finished”.
Please accept my congratulations on your efforts to ensure our national collection will be at top international level.
(Mrs . W. E. Pidgeon)
Some years later following Bill’s death and having recently failed to sell the painting at auction to raise funds, Dorothy again wrote to James Mollison.
9th September 1982
Dear Mr. Mollison,
I refer to my letter way back on 21st November, 1974, concerning The Linked Portrait by Pidgeon, Whiteley and Woods – apparently a failed work.
The subject of this letter is not that painting but my late husband’s work in general about which I wrote in the latter part of the abovementioned letter.
In your reply, dated 29 November 1974, you said, “I am well aware of the work of W.E. Pidgeon,” – but are you? The work I refer to has never been exhibited publicly. Would you care to come and look for yourself? Some even I had not been aware of until after his death. For instance, did you know that he was responsible for the design, layout and illustrations for the limited edition of “The Eureka Stockade” by Carboni Raffaello printed by Ernest Shea at Mosman during the years 1937-1942? I have copy No. 37 as well as galley proofs and test prints.
Perhaps you remember that after he could no longer see to paint, Bill wrote an art critique for the Sunday Telegraph every week for five years (without one week’s leave) until he was knocked down by a car in March, 1979. Many an artist has expressed regret that he is no longer here to understand their work. The general public understood his crits.
I enclose three letters (copies) from three very different artists written to my husband during that time. Amongst others he was beloved by Brett Whiteley, Tim Storrier, Peter Wright, Martin Sharp and Lloyd Rees. After his ‘Tribute to Sydney’ exhibition Lloyd said, “It is the best critique I have ever had.” Recently, Lloyd told me he would take to his grave with joy in his heart that Bill had written “Lloyd Rees has done for Sydney what Turner did for Venice!”
It was reported by Humphrey McQueen (SMH 21.8.82) that Daniel Thomas pleads for a landscape by Conrad Martens and a portrait by James Bock “Then our collection will be representative.” Will it? – twenty two Albert Tucker’s, but not one Pidgeon – assuredly an unique 20th century Australian artist! It is not too late! Will you come and see the 1969 portrait of Lloyd Rees (admired by Barry Pearce) and the 1949 portrait of Menzies – a painting Her Majesty would appreciate?
Updated: 4 July 2021 #Archie100 #FindingTheArchibald