The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra has celebrated its 20th birthday, not with 20 candles on a cake but with 20 new portraits on the wall, among them Richard Tognetti, Jacki Weaver and Li Cunxin.

Richard Tognetti painted by Louise Hearman. Photographs courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

The specially commissioned works, created over the last 18 months, were unveiled today by the Gallery’s Director Angus Trumble who said that it was “a historic occasion” to commission 20 new portraits in one hit, adding: “Every single one has been privately funded by philanthropic support. They have not cost the tax payer a single penny.”

Featuring leading Australians across various fields of endeavour, the portraits will be shown in an exhibition called 20/20: Celebrating twenty years with twenty new portrait commissions, at the NPG from October 20 to February 10, 2019.

“We wanted to ensure that any such 20 extended to all corners of the country, and reflected a balance of gender, of occupation, of ethnicity and so forth that would reflect the character of Australian society today but also fasten on remarkable individuals spread across many walks of life,” said Trumble.

Jacki Weaver photographed by John Tsiavis

Subjects representing the arts include Australian Chamber Orchestra Artistic Director Richard Tognetti painted by 2016 Archibald Prize winner Louise Hearman, actor Jacki Weaver in a photograph by John Tsiavis that distills her power and force as an actor in some of her more troubled and intense roles, Queensland Ballet Artistic Director Li Cunxin painted by Jun Chen, author Peter Goldsworthy in front of his screen, painted from behind by Deidre But-Husaim, and writer Louis Nowra in a painting by Imants Tillers that the artist described as “a kind of mental picture rather than a physical one” featuring the back of Nowra’s head, a stick figure and his chihuahua Coco (upside down) along with various quotes.

Pop star Jessica Mauboy features in a brooding black and white photograph using double exposure by David Rosetzky, while Margaret Seares who began her academic career specialising in keyboard music of the 18th century, and who has served as Chair of the Perth International Arts Festival, the University of Western Australia, and the Australia Council and Deputy Chair of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, is painted in a lithe watercolour by Cherry Hood.

The other portraits feature former rugby league player Mal Meninga by Peter Hudson, champion woodchopping axeman David Foster by Jacqui Stockdale, basketballer and coach Andrew Gaze by George Fetting, economic policy and reform strategist Fred Hilmer by Evert Ploeg, Chair of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Catherine Livingstone by Mathew Lynn, company director, grazier and philanthropist Tim Fairfax, by Russell Shakespeare, track cyclist Anna Meares by Narelle Autio, Nicholas Paspaley Jnr, Chair of the Paspaley Group of Companies, by Andrew Bonneau, highly decorated former Australian Army soldier Ben Roberts-Smith by Julian Kingma, former rugby union player and member of the Wallabies Tony Shaw by Sarah Rhodes, 2018 Australian of the Year Michelle Simmons, a pioneer in atomic electronics and quantum computing, by Selina Ou, and former banking executive Gail Kelly by Paul Newton. Completing the 20, neurotechnology innovator Tan Le features in a mirrored photograph by John Tsiavis (who also photographed Jacki Weaver).

The 20 portraits will only be seen as a group until the exhibition closes in February when the works will join the NPG collection.

Jessica Mauboy and photographer David Rosetzky

Three subjects – Jessica Mauboy, David Foster and Tony Shaw – were at today’s media launch, each with the artist who portrays them. As the cameras swarmed around Jessica Mauboy, she told reporters that she showed photographer David Rosetzky around where she lived as they discussed ideas for the portrait, and said that she felt “honoured” to be in the exhibition, adding “I have never expected anything like this”.

As she fielded a barrage of questions, Rosetzky told Limelight that he was “thrilled” when the NPG approached him. “I was familiar with Jessica from watching her on television and I knew her music but I hadn’t decided on my approach to the portrait until we did meet. I took a few examples of some ideas that I had and some samples of my previous photographs to show Jess and get her feedback on. I was very interested in her ideas and how she wanted to do this particular commission.”

Rosetzky had been working on a series of double exposures and showed some of them to Mauboy, and the idea really seemed to suit her current life style. “She was telling me about her life and her journey as a performer and a singer, and one of the things she said which really stayed with me was this sense of stillness and groundedness that she has within this very chaotic lifestyle. I think she was just about to head off to Eurovision. So that stayed with me – that idea of stillness and chaos, or stillness and movement, so that was part of the concept that I was going with. One [image of her] is quite still and she has a strong connection with the camera, whereas with the other one there is a sense of movement and emotion and that stemmed from that initial conversation with her,” said Rosetzky.

He did consider using colour to capture her vibrancy, but said: “there is something about the simplicity of working with the black and white and the texture of the grain of the 35mm frame that I used that I thought was a good way to define my portrait of her. We are familiar with seeing portraits of Jessica Mauboy and they are all highly coloured and glossy, so I thought I wanted to go for something a little more somber and quiet with a little more depth to it perhaps.”

David Foster with his portrait by Jacqui Stockdale

Woodchopping champion David Foster, who lives in Devonport, Tasmania, took artist Jacqui Stockdale to a woodchopping arena called Henley on Mersey at Bell’s Parade in Latrobe, set in parkland near a river.

“It’s where they’ve had an annual wood chop for the last 100 years and my ancestors have chopped there and I’ve chopped there and my son has chopped there,” Foster told Limelight. “I just happened to say to her ‘this tree is over 400 years old, imagine the stories that this tree could tell’, and that’s how [the idea for the painting] clicked.”

“I thought of bringing the tree into it because the tree was the storyteller behind the narrative [so] it goes beyond just David’s living history,” said Stockdale of the portrait, which she titled What the tree saw.

“It would have been very easy to have a big portrait of me and have people stand back but Jacqui’s idea was to walk up and experience the person. I’m very happy with it. The closer you get to it the more real it feels,” said Foster.

Tony Shaw and Sarah Rhodes

Shaw admitted to Limelight that when he was first approached by the Australian Rugby Union about being represented in the exhibition he initially said no. “I thought others were more appropriate and was told very abruptly, ‘you will be doing it!’ then Pat Corrigan the benefactor rang me and in a much shorter conversation said ‘you will be doing it Tony’. He was quite persuasive so I had no choice in the end,” he said with a laugh. “But it was a wonderful honour, I really appreciate it. I did seriously think that others had done more and deserved it more but I’ll take it. I’m very happy with it, Sarah did a great job.”

“My practice is really around psychological portraits and I was trying to work out why I was chosen to photograph a rugby union personality and then the penny dropped. It’s the crazy eyes,” said his artist Sarah Rhodes who said she wanted to make “a psychological portrait showing the intensity of him as a player on the field back in the 70s and 80s.”

“She was at me to increase the intensity and get the look going!” said Shaw.

20/20: Celebrating twenty years with twenty new portrait commissions is at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra until February 10, 2019