The AGNSW has announced 43 finalists including two of John Bell, while a Lisa Wilkinson portrait wins Packing Room Prize.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales has announced the finalists in this year’s 96th Archibald Prize. The popular prize for portraiture, now worth $100,000, attracted more than 820 entries, with 43 paintings making it onto the Gallery walls, among them two portraits of actor/director John Bell.

Forty percent of the finalists are new to the Archibald. There are also a number of Archibald regulars including Robert Hannaford (a finalist for the 20th time), Nicholas Harding and Paul Newton.

Peter Smeeth’s portrait of Lisa Wilkinson wins this year’s Packing Room Prize. Photograph courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales

But the man of the moment at today’s announcement was Steve Peters, the former Head Packer who retired in March after 35 years at the Gallery. In 1991, Peters inadvertently initiated the Packing Room Prize with an off-the-cuff comment, and was on hand to present his 26th and final Packing Room Prize – to Central Coast artist Peter Smeeth for his portrait of journalist and television personality Lisa Wilkinson.

Introducing Peters, AGNSW Director Michael Brand (mistakenly referring to his “40 years at the Gallery and 34 years now judging the Packing Room Prize”), described it as “the end of an era”.

Peters, who has famously had 51 percent on the vote in deciding the Packing Room Prize, said that his successor Brett Cuthbertson “is going to get 52 percent – global warming!”

The inimitable Peters – who is himself the subject of one of this year’s Archibald finalists, painted by Lucy Culliton – has always been a colourful character, and Cuthbertson looks set to follow suit.

Taking to the microphone, Cuthbertson – who described himself as “the new and improved Steve” – said he wanted “to thank Steve for 34 years of hostility and abuse. He’s taught me a lot about the Packing Room Prize. Number one is completely disregard anyone else’s opinion. I thought I could do that,” he said.

Lucy Culliton’s portrait of Steve Peters. Photograph courtesy of AGNSW

Smeeth couldn’t be there to accept this year’s Packing Room Prize as he was delivering a eulogy at the funeral of his best friend of 57 years in Yass. But he also entered into the spirit, saying via a message read by Brand: “As most of you know the Packing Room Prize is known by artists as ‘the kiss of death’. No winner of this Prize has gone on to the win the Archibald main event, and the fact that no reclining figure has ever won the Prize leaves me with no illusions of winning the big one. So punters, an early tip – put your money on others in the field!”

Smeeth has entered the Archibald Prize every year for the past 34 years. This is the fourth time he has been a finalist. In 2007, he was selected for a painting of soprano Amelia Farrugia, complete with a soundtrack of her singing. He was also represented in the 2010 Archibald with a portrait of Wilkinson’s husband Peter FitzSimons and, in 2011, he won the Sulman Prize.

Actor/director John Bell is the subject of two portraits – a small, dark, intense painting by Jordan Richardson and a larger work by Loribelle Spirovski, both first-time finalists. Spirovski met Bell when he was recently performing Enoch Arden (Tennyson’s epic poem set to music by Richard Strauss) with her partner, classical pianist Simon Tedeschi.

Bell was the subject of an Archibald Prize-winning portrait in 2001, when Nicholas Harding painted him as King Lear.

Jordan Richardson’s portrait of John Bell. Photograph courtesy of AGNSW

Harding is a finalist again this year with a portrait of revered artist John Olsen (who won the Archibald with a self-portrait in 2005). As usual, there are a sizable number of self-portraits and portraits of other artists among this year’s finalists.

Vincent Namatjira, the grandson of legendary Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, was one of those to paint a self-portrait. Among the more provocative works are Tony Albert’s playful self-portrait created using an assemblage of ashtrays from his collection of “Aboriginalia” – a term he coined for stereotypical Westernised depictions of Aboriginal culture. Tjungkara Ken has painted a traditional Tjukpurpa (dreaming story) of The Seven Sisters Dreaming as a self-portrait. As she says in her didactic label, her painting is “a self-portrait of my country. For Anangu, they are one and the same.”

Other subjects include actor Jack Charles painted by Anh Do; Gillian Triggs, outgoing President of the Australian Human Rights Commission painted by Yvette Coppersmith; Rupert Myer, Chair of the Australia Council for the Arts, painted by Paul Newton; and former gallery owner and art dealer Ray Hughes painted by Jun Chen.

Eileen Kramer, the extraordinary 102-year old dancer/choreographer who is still working, has been painted by Andrew Lloyd Greensmith – a plastic surgeon who co-headed the team that successfully separated conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna in 2009.

In one of the more unusual works, a number of boys from Sydney Grammar Edgecliff Preparatory School are represented with a portrait of recently retired Headmaster Mr John T Vallance, consisting of thousands of tiny painted blocks.

The AGNSW also announced the finalists in this year’s Wynne Prize, Sulman Prize and Young Archie.

The winners of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes will be announced on July 28. The exhibition runs at the Art Gallery of NSW, July 29 – October 22 and then tours.

See all the finalists HERE

Sign up to the Limelight newsletter