Two Irish Artists and the Archibald Prize

‘The Irish Immigrant’, by Irish artist, Sinead Davies. A portrait of Claire Dunne, it was a finalist for the 2020 Archibald Prize. Image by kind permission of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Editor’s Note

In Australia, it is known simply as The Archibald, the most prestigious portrait prize in the country and a media focus every year. First awarded in 1921 and funded by a bequest from J F Archibald, editor of The Bulletin magazine, the current prize is $100 000. It is awarded for ‘the best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics, painted by an artist resident in Australia during the twelve months preceding the date fixed by the trustees for sending in the pictures.’


Sinead Davies has painted fellow Irish-born Australian Claire Dunne, OAM, whom Davies describes as ‘a gifted thespian and author, with success in film, TV and radio, including several written works on Carl Jung’.

Davies was introduced to Dunne after Dunne’s brother emailed her, saying he thought his sister deserved to be painted for the Archibald. ‘And I agreed.’

The portrait was painted over a year, with two major sitting periods. ‘I fought to portray Claire’s intelligence and intensity’, Davies says. ‘Exploring colour harmonies and settling with the combination of purple, gold and green, I also took inspiration from Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro’s Edo-period women and paid homage to Utagawa Hiroshige’s Green bird sitting on a camellia after discovering Claire had experienced and admired Japan.’

Davies was born in Wexford, Ireland, and moved to Australia in 1983. She studied at the Byam Shaw School of Art, London, and has a Master of Arts from the University of New South Wales. This is her third time as an Archibald Prize finalist. Sinead Davies, edited by Jane Albert Archibald Editor.

From the Artist: Sinead Davies

Copyright Sinead Davies

Claire came to me for our first sitting, neither of us had met or knew of each other. To make her welcome, I cooked lunch in the colours and layout of the: Bratach na hEireann ‘The Tricolour’ of Ireland’s National Flag, Green, White and Orange, which made her smile. This was an introduction over lunch which lasted several hours. It was a pleasure getting to know Claire, an enjoyable collaboration that established a  positive working relationship.

The second sitting took place at Claire’s home. Claire wore an emerald green outfit and emerald earrings. Though the colours were beautiful, they would change during the rather robust creative process. Claire’s hair was high on her head in her signature style. This was the visit that required me to collect as much visual information on Claire as possible. Hence, I focused on forensic photography, made short videos, did pencil studies and made colour notes. It was a working session that once back in the studio, would allow me to commence the working process. While there, Claire spoke of her meaningful and emotive visits to Ireland and recited sensitively the WB Yeats’ poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. We concluded the working session with tea accompanied by a fig roll. 

Claire’s portrait was an exploration that focused on the head, as the most significant and powerful element of humanity. In portraiture, showcasing the head without the figure, significantly reduces the viewing distance, between the viewer and portrait subject. It results in a more intimate relationship. 

The work was carried out with curiosity and a great deal of trepidation. 

It is a tasking opportunity to scrutinise another human being and in portraiture there is an obligation to do so. With each of my studio working sessions, the canvas proliferates with surface changes such as: mark-making, scraping, overpainting and colour explorations.  The brutality of this process results in many different ghosts of my subject. All which ultimately get destroyed and lost to a historic process.  This is a sacrifice offered in search of the holy grail. What does survive are the emotive links that compose under drawings, these are continually rebuilt and carried forward to stabilise the architecture of the painting. Eventually, my subject emerges, slowly and only in parts, bits and pieces that are inextricably linked by tight sets of measurements, horizontals and verticals and, once emerged, they are constantly tweaked by the three-dimensionality of colour, which is in reality light, which gives birth to all forms, shifting constantly until a harmony is arrived at.

My subjects are not exposed to these robust and irreverent explorations. 

It is a given that the Artist undertakes the physical and emotional responsibilities required to drive the portrait to completion. The element of trust is integral to the working relationship between the artist and subject, which I perceive as a positive force, one that drives the portrait forward.

From the Portrait Subject: Claire Dunne OAM

Connection between my brother and Sinead was initiated before I became aware of it. I was immediately struck by the storyline of Paul following his instincts, Archibald double-finalist Sinead Davies being Irish, and me being presented with an idea that I would never have thought of for myself; something new opening that I agreed to and trusted, especially after the first marathon meeting with Sinead.

The second, in a Sydney deluge that eventually dripped into my dining room, was all work, ‘no talking’ she said. In the midst of cups of tea and Boland’s fig roll biscuits, I did sing the spontaneous music that emerged on my visit to Yeats Inishfree country and stood for the more than 100 ‘forensic’ photographs about my head.

For the concluding pencil sketches, I sat opposite Sinead in silent ‘direct gaze’, passive participant and active observer in one, whilst making a prayer that her hand be guided well as it measured space, perspective and human atmosphere, delivered in rapid strokes onto large sketching pad. Progressive development sketches, generously shared, gave an idea of what was shaping up, but not of the final work.

Sinead is an artist who, in seeking, and following, the lead of the creative process, also takes on its risks. Though I was originally dressed in emerald green, the artist’s journey led her to paint purple, in an interactive process between painter and subject that unconsciously linked with the prominent role that colour played in my inner life of that year, with a subsequent  emergence of poetry in Japanese Zen style. It was, she said, a painting ‘I struggled with more than any other’, an artistic mark of integrity in itself that often brings something ‘more’ with it; in this case, including a pre-figuring of aspects of me that have yet to emerge in public. My emerald green earrings remain thankfully intact.

The resulting classic portrait generates enthusiastic response from family and friends far afield, the most telling comment coming from Australian art critic Sasha Grishin: ‘it grows on you as you spend time with it, but strictly needs to be seen in the flesh.’

It can be seen at the Archibald Exhibition 2020 in the Art Gallery of NSW. To add the third leaf to the present shamrock, John Archibald who founded Australia’s most popular portrait competition in 1921, was born in Kildare (now Geelong West), to his Irish mother, Charlotte Jane Madden, and father Joseph Feltham Archibald.    

I am currently toiling with a poetic memoir of consciousness that feels as if it might never finish. My life and work have taken me from Irish roots, through multiculture into a universal unity of all life. An ‘idiosyncratic’ career grew from Dublin SP betting firm and secretary to a psychiatrist, to Qantas air hostess, TV weather girl, film actress and radio documentary maker, to Foundation Director of ethnic radio stations that became SBS, founder/broadcaster SBS first Irish language programme 2EA; and author of People Under the Skin: an Irish immigrant’s experience of Aboriginal Australia; Mary MacKillop: No Plaster Saint and Carl Jung: Wounded Healer of the Soul which has been published in USA and UK, and translated into Asian, Middle Eastern, European and South American languages.

The Archibald Portrait Prize 2020 is held at The Art Gallery of New South Wales from 26 September to 10 January 2021.

The exhibition will travel to the following venues:

Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre   22 Jan -7 March 2021

Cairns Art Gallery, Cairns                                                      19 March-2 May 2021

Griffith Regional Art Gallery                                                  14 May-27 June 2021

Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery                                            9 July-22 Aug 2021

Shoalhaven Regional Gallery                                              3 Sept-17 Oct 2021 

Penrith Regional Gallery                                               29 Oct-5 Dec 2021