Celebrating the Portia Geach Memorial Award on its 50th Anniversary

In 2015, the Portia Geach Memorial Award celebrates its 50th anniversary. The award presents a whopping $30,000 in prize money to a female artist for “the best portrait painted from life of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, or the Sciences”. Established by Kate Geach after her sister Portia’s death, the annual exhibition and prize celebrates the memory of Portia’s incredible spirit and vigour for life, social politics and art.

Portia Geach was an artist, social activist and fierce supporter of women’s rights. Being born into an affluent family allowed her the liberty to promote her values and beliefs while living a bohemian lifestyle for her time. Geach studied at the National Gallery school from 1890-1896, soon after which she was awarded Australia’s first travelling scholarship to study at the Royal Academy in London, where she studied art under the tutelage of John Singer Sargent.

Although Geach was a prolific artist with an exhibiting history in Paris, London and New York, her work was never acquired by state institutions in either New South Wales or Victoria. This equates to her relatively unknown profile within mainstream Australian art history. While her works are held in many private collections, her art is not on display in our large state galleries or museums. The astonishing lack of accolades for her work and career highlights is likely due to the reception of female artists at the time. In 1962 Kate Geach commented that during Portia’s lifetime it was difficult for women to have their work accepted by hanging and judging committees, as there were mostly conservative men on the panels.

It is for this same reason that the Portia Geach Memorial Award remains as relevant in its 50th year as it did in its inaugural year. While feminism has carved equal opportunity for Australian women in most workplaces, equality for female artists in the art world lags significantly behind. It is difficult to measure with confidence the factors contributing to this; are fewer women entering art prizes? Are women artists less competitive than men? Enrolment ratios in art schools certainly favour women, however in the professional world these figures are drastically different. Sadly, this is not a new issue for women in the arts.

Since the Australian Impressionists were busy forming a post-colonial national aesthetic in Heidelberg, art history wrote clear boundaries between male and female artists. At this time male and female artists did not share the same freedom; women were bound by the responsibilities of marriage, children and a respectable class status, less they be deemed a social outcast and face the obstacles of living independently. Consequently, they were not seen as the men were and their contributions were not written into early art history. Luckily for us though, as new research surfaces our appreciation for the role women have played in shaping Australian art has changed as scholars subsequently amend art history, weaving lost figures such as Clarice Beckett and Jane Sutherland back into its central narrative.

When we look closely at the statistics of male and female winners in non-gender-bias art prizes in the Sydney calendar that neighbour the Portia Geach Memorial Award, it is clear to see how important a female-only art prize is to contribute to our cultural canon.

In the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Archibald Prize only 11 women in total have won the prize during its 90-year history, including Fiona Lowry with her portrait of Penelope Seidler in 2014. At the time in which the Portia Geach Memorial Award was first established, only two women (Nora Heysen and Judy Cassab) had won the Archibald, in 1938 and 1960 respectively. In the Doug Moran Prize for Portraiture that has a short 27-year history, only eight women have taken first place. In these instances, fewer than half of the prizes have been awarded to women. Clearly, the importance of an all-female art prize remains a significant issue in our collective Australian vernacular of contemporary painting and portraiture. Interestingly, the Mosman Art Prize stands triumphantly apart from its contemporaries and acts as an inspiration for the future of art prizes with 33 female artists taking first place during its 68-year history.

Away from the figures and on a more personal note, the Portia Geach Memorial Award forms a space for female artists to explore social issues and themes that encompass their everyday lives as artists and women. For contemporary female artists entering into the Portia Geach Memorial Award, the prize creates a forum to articulate conversations surrounding the pressure to maintain a balance between work, family, relationships and identity. This is seen consistently each year as artists submit portraits that reflect political, social and personal themes.

This is epitomised in Jude Rae’s 2008 award-winning self-portrait, ‘Self Portrait 2008 (the year my husband left)’. Rae’s piece considers identity in correlation with relationships, and creativity through her personal experience. Rae describes the amicable parting with her husband as being like a vine that has grown around a post. Once the post is gone the vine is able to stand, but there is a hole in the centre. Rae travelled to Europe to deal with her shift in identity and mourn the loss of her closest relationship. Searching for changes in herself and in her work, she positions herself as Velázquez in his famed ‘Las Meninas’ (1656-7) as a way of reconstructing her own ideas of herself and her status in the world.

Fostering a supportive environment where artists can explore intimate and personal issues in their portraiture, the Portia Geach Memorial Award has established a platform from which artists can cultivate connections with their contemporaries and professionally develop their networks. The award is an opportunity for emerging and established female artists to develop their exhibiting profile and open doors to new ventures.

Jean Appleton won the first award in 1965 with ‘Self Portrait’. Past winners include established artists such as Elisabeth Cummings, Jenny Sages, Wendy Sharpe, Anne Cape, Lucy Culliton and, in 2014, Sophie Cape with her painting ‘Romper Stomper’, of actor Dan Wyllie. As the award continues to draw high-profile artists such as Sharpe, Flint and Cape the standard of winners and entrants has not wavered. This not only maintains the quality of works in exhibition for the prize but also encourages emerging artists to apply and engage with the tier of established artists exhibiting.

In 2014, young emerging contemporary artists such as Mirra Whale, Laura Jones, Tamara Dean and Clara Adolphs were selected as finalists for the award. This was an opportunity for them to further develop their exhibiting history and industry exposure. It also allowed them to foster supportive networks amongst their peers and dismantle the romantic notion of artists working in isolation. The fact that all four women chose to depict each other in their portrait submissions for the 2014 award demonstrates just how lasting and cherished these connections can be.

To date, the Portia Geach Memorial Award has nurtured emerging and established artists to exhibit quality works competitively in their field, while celebrating the promotion of female artists. Looking toward the future the award will continue to create a space for contemporary female artists to display a high standard of contemporary portraiture.

50th Portia Geach Memorial Award
18 September – 25 October 2015
S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney

Courtesy the artists and S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney.

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