Jules Francois Archibald and Henry Lawson - NLA nla.pic-an23351871-v
Jules Francois Archibald and Henry Lawson - NLA nla.pic-an23351871-v

The Archibald Prize is one of Australia’s richest art prizes. Every year, hundreds of visual artists from all over the country paint the portraits of famous and not so famous Australians to compete for the prize. Every year finalists are selected, and are exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW. And almost every year there is outrage at the choice of winner. But who is the Archibald who gave the prize its name?

Jules Francois Archibald was born in Victoria with the very plain first name of John. He began working from the age of 14 as an apprentice in a printery. By the age of 18, he had his heart set on a career as a journalist. But this path would prove to be rocky, and he worked as a clerk in the Victorian Education Department for a couple of years, which enabled him to live ‘the free and solitary young man’s life in the vivid, polyglot and swarming parts of Melbourne’. At around this time, Archibald took on a French identity and changed his first name to Jules and his second (Feltham) to Francois. For the rest of his life, Archibald was a confirmed and dedicated Francophile.

 In 1878, Archibald embarked on one of the most formative experiences of his life, travelling to the Palmerston Goldfields in Queensland. Here he experienced the Australian frontier firsthand, which would later prove instrumental in his mythologising of ‘the bush’ in his publishing career. On his return to Sydney, Archibald gained work at the Evening News, a local scandal rag, and became friend with fellow journo John Haynes. Together they founded The Bulletin in 1880, which became one of the most important literary journals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, known affectionately by many as the Bushman’s Bible.

Archibald became a fixture on Sydney’s, and indeed Australia’s, literary scene from this time. But success had a price to pay. In 1882, he and Haynes were sent to Darlinghurst Gaol for failing to pay fines over a libel action, where they stayed for six weeks. And later as his mental health became increasingly fragile, he spent time at the Callan Park Asylum, having suffered bouts of depression and ill health for many years.

One of the regular, and most popular, contributors to The Bulletin in its heyday was the poet and author Henry Lawson. He was born in the NSW country town of Grenfell, to a Norwegian father, Peter Larsen (the surname was later anglicised to Lawson), and a resourceful and determined Australian-born mother, Louisa Lawson nee Albury.

The family moved often when Henry was young, following the goldfields as Peter Larson / Lawson was a miner. By 1873, when Henry was six years old,  the family settled on a farm at Pipeclay (north-west of Sydney). At 14 years old, Lawson suffered a debilitating and isolating hearing loss, which dogged him for the rest of his days.

Henry Lawson received little schooling during this time. When he was 16, he moved to the city to live with his mother, taking up an apprenticeship as a coach painter and unsuccessfully studying for his matriculation. He briefly moved to Melbourne, where he tried to get his deafness treated, but to no avail.

Lawson began writing at this time, spurred on by his mother, a noted suffragete. One of his earliest, and best known poems, is Faces in the Street. Others had life on the frontier as their theme, which appealled to the readership of The Bulletin. In 1892, Lawson was financed by J F Archibald to travel around inland NSW, which armed him with ‘memories and experience …that would furnish his writing for years.’ Lawson married in the 1890s and travelled with his wife and two children to New Zealand and England.

But the last twenty years of his life were marked by isolation and loneliness, caused by his psychological disengagement from society, hearing problems and his love of drink. Lawson and his wife separated in 1902, and thereafter he spent regular spells in gaol for not paying maintenance for his children, and for drunkenness. He was also a regular at Sydney’s mental hospitals and inebriate asylums. When Lawson died in 1922, he was given a state funeral, the first author to have been given this honour. 

Lawson and Archibald had much in common. Both received little education and were impelled to leave home at a young age. Both had unhappy marriages and home lives, spent time in gaol and were committed to institutions. But despite all these hardships, both were dedicated to the cause of Australian literature, and had a strong influence on the cultural life of Sydney, and indeed, Australia, in the fin de siecle period.

* DON”T forget – it’s History Week from 5th to 13th of September 2009. The theme this year is Crime, Scandals and Corruption, and there are heaps of things on around Sydney and NSW. To find out what’s on, go to the History Council of NSW’s website: http://www.historycouncilnsw.org.au/events/history-week