Guest of Honour – Radio 2FC, 19 January 1969: W.E. Pidgeon discusses portrait painting

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“GUEST OF HONOUR”

Mr. William Edwin Pidgeon

Broadcast: Radio 2FC, 7:15pm, 19 January 1969

Mr. William Edwin Pidgeon is a Sydney artist, and winner of the 1968 Archibald Prize. He was born in Paddington (Sydney) and was educated at Sydney Technical High School. He is a former cartoonist and illustrator with various newspaper organisations, including Smith Newspapers, Consolidated Press and “Women’s Weekly”, and was a war artist.

His portrait of his friend and fellow artist, Mr. Lloyd Rees, was chosen last week by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales as the best of 136 entries in the 1968 Archibald Prize. He had already won the prize twice previously – in 1958 and 1961.

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What’s it like to be an artist to win a prize like the Archibald? There’s the prize-money, of course – and artists are always notoriously short of money. And there’s the prestige value, which is probably more important in the long term because you can’t get around knocking on doors and asking people if they’d like to have their portrait painted. You do much better when they come to you. And you only get known by the results, like winning the Archibald Prize. But apart from all that, what it all means – it means that two or three judges in the competition like this particular picture better than all the other entries submitted. It doesn’t always mean the artist himself is satisfied. I know that I prefer some of my pictures which didn’t win the Archibald Prize to those which did. There was a picture I painted once of the Chancellor of the New England University, Dr. P.A. Wright. This was as good as anything I’ve done, I think. But I don’t know. It didn’t get anywhere. It’s very hard to know when you are so close to a painting. You’re only conscious of the mistakes you’ve made; you aren’t conscious of what you may have gained in the process. Three or four years later you might say, “Well, maybe it wasn’t quite so bad after all.”

Painting portraits these days has become rather despised, a bit outmoded so far as the young painters are concerned, and the critics relatively fuddy-duddy stuff. But it’s all fairly delicate business, and a lot harder than the young people think it is. The real problem is to try and make a picture at the same time as you’ve painted a likeness. It’s all very well making a good likeness of a person, but if it’s an indifferent picture, nobody wants it. And it’s all very well making a good picture, but if it’s even not remotely like the person, well one can hardly call it a portrait.

The trouble is, you’ve got only a very limited number of elements to work with: a human face, a pair of arms and hands, a body, eyes…..That’s all you start with; what you do with the pose and composition and the colours you use – that’s a part of the abstraction that underlies all art. So there are these two conflicting sides of portrait painting: the demand for some kind of objective likeness and the demands that the laws of design make on the artist. These laws of design must be adhered to. All art is based on design; though a great deal of modern art has become nothing else but – just an exercise for the purist in paint and lines and relationships of one colour to another. I like doing abstract paintings myself, because it’s a relief – from trying to get the nose exactly where it should be or where people think it should be; but a lot of abstract art becomes so pure and dry and arid, it loses all its humanity. And that’s a third thing I think you must try and get into a picture: humanity.

I always find it interesting to be confronted with a person. Mostly, you don’t know them before you start to paint them. You have to try and work out the most effective and suitable approach. You start with a face you are not overfamiliar with, and you have to find the characteristics of that face, you have to find the underlying design of its structures, and you have to find out about the personality of the sitter. And while you’re doing this, you might have two or three sittings and then find that you’ve gone all wrong, and that the picture isn’t just working, and that one should have started another way. You go back to the beginning. I might add that you don’t find out much about a person by just looking at his face, you find out about him in other ways too. I don’t start work on the hands, for instance, till fairly late. At the beginning, people are always stiff, self conscious and never know what to do with their hands, but after a while they just seem to slip into some pose that truly reveals the sort of person they are. I did a portrait of a man not too long ago, who held his hands clenched at his sides – it showed an internal tension, a determination to command or conquer or at least be a bit secretive. There’s another picture – still on my wall at home, I think. It’s painted of a young girl who lived up the street. Her hands are very lightly clasped in her lap; and she was a lovely serene pose, for she was a serene girl, and no-one could consciously adopt this sort of loose quality. It has to come from within.

Portrait of Diana Judah

There’s a delicate relationship between the portrait painter and his subject. You must develop some kind of rapport with him, otherwise the painting doesn’t really work. If the sitter doesn’t help, you can only make a very stodgy job out of it indeed, but not at all a really viable picture. So, besides the three elements I’ve mentioned – the problem of getting an objective likeness, the demands of design and the need for a quality of humanity in your picture – there’s a fourth element – a subjective element, namely, the artist. I have to get involved in the portrait, I have to please myself a bit, too; I’m entitled to my own ideas about the sitter and I’m entitled to put them in in my own view – on my own terms of paint, so long as it doesn’t conflict too greatly with the other three elements I’ve just mentioned.

Now if there’s a fifth element in the situation, it’s the pressure of the interested outsider: the sitter’s wife, the Council or Aldermen or Board of Directors who commission these sorts of things – they have to be considered – not necessarily in any great respect, but they have their own prejudices and their own ways of seeing the man I paint. Naturally, this tends to make them react in different ways. Of course, the subject himself isn’t much good at assessing what he looks like. For a start, he’s never really seen himself, except in a mirror. And that’s not very good, because in the first place, you only see yourself in reverse, so that if your nose goes one way on your face, it goes the other way in the reflection. And there’s the other point, that people don’t really see their true expressions in a mirror. You don’t really catch yourself unawares; you look at yourself with abhorrence or approval to your tie or your beard or the way you comb your hair – which is an altogether different thing.

As a matter of fact, even outsiders can’t make a thoroughly objective judgement about a portrait of somebody they know. I remember painting someone with a half-smile playing across his mouth; to me it was nothing more than a half smile. And it was acceptable for the sitter and his wife. Someone else came up to see me and said, “You’ve certainly got his character”. And I thought he was referring to his approval of the sitter, and he said, “You’ve got that nasty leering look, that sarcastic vision, it’s all there, wasn’t it?” Well, was it?

To me, the greatest portrait painter of them all is Holbein – or at least one of the greatest; he does an objective picture of the person which is also invariably a beautiful piece of art as well. Other painters have got more and more subjective about their sitters, till in the end the picture tells you more and more about the artist and less about the man he’s painting. And when you get to the semi-abstract portraits, I think you find very few indeed that fulfil the basic function of telling you something at least about the sitter. Only a great artist like Picasso can get away with it; nobody I know can compete with him in things like his semi-abstract portrait of people like his friend Sabartés, the poet.

It’s an odd fact, by the way, that there are many people who collect abstract art and pop art and all the latest jazz and hang it on their walls, and who like this sort of thing very much indeed. But if they ask you to paint a portrait of their little one, it has to be right on the ball. No jazzy eyes or two mouths or exaggerated features! Maybe I tend to go too much the other way; I spent too many years on newspapers doing too many caricatures of people, so that I suppose that I tend to over-compensate for that in my portraits.

To tell you the truth, I sometimes get a little tired of doing portraits. At least, I always like starting a new one; finishing them is much harder – another matter altogether. There are times when I like to give up portraits for a while and try other kinds of painting. I told you before that I enjoy doing abstracts, but the thing I really prefer most of all is landscapes. And, of course, this means Australian landscapes. You hear people say that the Australian countryside is colourless. They must be blind. It has a subtle, opalescent quality about it – almost pearl-like. It’s fashionable to go out into the Centre and paint the landscape there these days, which is all fiery red and dramatic. I’ve never been there myself, and if I ever do go, I think it’ll probably just be to look, not to paint. My favourite countryside is the Western Slopes of New South Wales, and the mountains. I really don’t like the sea. But those long mountain slopes, I really love that part of the country. And I’ve done quite a lot of straight-out landscapes and free interpretations of landscape, which I do at home from notes and sketches that I’ve done on various trips to the country, or maybe just from recollection. I really love Australia. About ten years ago, I was over in Europe for a while; and most of the country there struck me as being a bit weak and flabby – that’s apart from the Alps, naturally. It wasn’t really landscape at all; it was more like a park, which is all very well in its own way, but it hasn’t really got anything very much for me. Not like the Australian landscape, which is hard and has some guts to it. Of course, it’s all very pleasant sitting out in the soft European countryside on the soft grass, or the fragrant pine-needles. But in more ways than one, the Australian needs the broken sticks and the bull-ants, too.