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The Portia Geach Memorial Award

Maryanne Coutts,

Maryanne Coutts, Melbourne, 2007. Winner of the 2007 Portia Geach Award. Image courtesy of the Trust Company.

The Portia Geach Memorial Award is recognised as one of the most important celebrations of the talents and creativity of Australian female portrait painters.

The Award is held each year at the National Trust's S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney. The Trustees for the Award are the Trust Company.

Since its inception in 1965, the Award has played a major role in developing the profile of the nation's women artists.

The Award's first winner was Jean Appleton for her work Self Portrait. Jean won 1,000. Melbourne artist Maryanne Coutts took out the prestigious title in 2007, winning $18,000 for her painting Melbourne. The judges also highly commended Kim Shannon's Self Divided.

Portia Geach - the painter

Born in Melbourne in 1873, Portia Geach was determined to make a living from painting. She studied design and painting at the National Gallery School, Melbourne during the first six years of the economically tumultuous 1890s.

Her talent shone through and she became the first Australian to be awarded a tuition scholarship to London's Royal Academy Schools. She studied there for four years, also working in Paris and exhibiting in England, France and New York.

Around the turn of the last century, she returned to Melbourne and began experimenting with her art. She eventually turned to figure studies, portraits and atmospheric landscapes. She was exhibited at the Royal Art Society of NSW.

She painted murals for buildings in New York in 1917, and in 1926 was exhibiting at the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She continued to travel widely, including working visits to New Guinea, Noumea, Tahiti and New Zealand.

Raising the profile of female artists

Nancy Borlase and Laurie Short 1991 by Jenny Sages.

Jenny Sages, Nancy Borlase and Laurie Short, 1991, oil on canvas. Winner of the 1992 Portia Geach Award. Gift of the Margaret Olley Art Trust 1998. Photograph by David Reid. Image courtesy the artist, Christine Abrahams Gallery Melbourne, and the National Portrait Gallery.

Portia Geach spent much of her life fighting for the rights of women in Australia and, interestingly, painting a banner for the suffrage movement in 1905. The Portia Geach Memorial Award seems an appropriate legacy and ensures that, long after her death, women artists in Australia are being encouraged and supported in their endeavours.

The esteem in which the Award is held is summed up by local artist Fran Tomlin. Her portrait of art dealer Michael Nagy was one of 57 paintings hung in the 2002 Portia Geach Memorial Art Prize from a total of 310 entries. In an interview with The Northern Rivers Echo, Tomlin says:

It's like when people go up to receive an Academy Award and they say just being nominated is enough - it's just enough to be hung in the Portia Geach.

Tomlin also says that the Award gives artists like her an important fillip and some much needed recognition:

It's like being told I'm going in the right direction and every bit of encouragement you get as an artist is fantastic. Painting is an inner journey and a very solitary pursuit, so to be recognised this way is such a joyous thing and a great pat on the back. I feel extremely honoured.

Mary Moore was the 2001 winner for her self-portrait At Home. For Moore the $18,000 provided a much needed financial boost, commenting to The Australian that the win 'will buy me time to work, and a few other things for the kids, hopefully'.

(Eva Cox) Social Currency 1999 by Kim Spooner.

Kim Spooner, (Eva Cox) Social Currency, 1999, encaustic on linen. Winner of the 1999 Portia Geach Award. Gift of Eva Cox 2003. Photograph by David Paterson. Image courtesy of the artist and the National Portrait Gallery.

In an article by Lenny Ann Low (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 2002), the winner for 2002 Vicki Varvaressos says she seldom enters art competitions and her reasons underline why awards (and the dollars that go with them) can mean such a lot to the artists:

Well, actually it's really funny. You sort of think, 'Am I going to risk another sort of $35 entry fee and the transport costs?' You think, 'God, this is an expensive lottery'.

Ironically, the coverage and recognition that awards for female artists bring may help change the way female artists are viewed. Varvaressos says:

I just hope for the day that people can actually look at a picture and not think about the sex of the person that painted it. That would be wonderful.

The Award's creation

In her will (dated February, 1961) Florence Kate Geach established the Portia Geach Memorial Fund in memory of her sister, Portia Geach who died two years earlier in October 1959. Florence set aside the amount of 12,000 for the Fund. The income generated from the money was to be used to provide prizes for the Portia Geach Memorial Award.

The Award is available for:

... the best portraits painted from life of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters or the Sciences by any female artist resident in Australia during the 12 months preceding the date fixed by the Trustees for sending in the pictures and who was born in Australia or was British born or has become a naturalised Australian and whose place of domicile is Australia.

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Last updated: 11th December 2007
Creators: ACME, et al.