A painting of the actor David Wenham by Tessa MacKay has won the 2019 Archibald Packing Room Prize, the Art Gallery of New South Wales has announced. The Prize, worth $1500, is awarded by gallery staff who receive, unpack and hang entries, with head packer Brett Cuthbertson wielding 52 percent of the vote. A first-time finalist, MacKay’s hyperrealist portrait Through the looking glass sees the actor depicted in a café behind a glass pane. This marks the third time that Wenham has been the subject of an Archibald entry – he was depicted just last year by Jordan Richardson and was the subject of Adam Cullen’s Archibald Prize winner in 2000.

Archibald PrizeTessa MacKay’s Through the looking glass, oil on linen, 210 x 330.5 cm © the artist. Photo: AGNSW, Mim Stirling

MacKay said she was “thrilled” to receive the news of her win. “It took a while for the news to properly land with me. I was still processing the fact that I was a finalist.”

“Portraiture provides an opportunity for me to capture my subject’s personality, drawing the viewer’s empathy and curiosity… David’s thoughtful gaze in the middle of the work is a kind of anchor. The portrait is about stepping into David’s world. I like to think that his somewhat pensive eyes, lost in thought, are another kind of ‘looking glass’ that we’re peering into.

“Sydney had to be part of David’s portrait, but I wanted to nestle David within a figurative essence of Sydney.  Painting the streetscape reflections merging into the cafe interior meant that I could depict Sydney in a more interesting and playful way and it gave me the space to capture a multi-layered and complex urban world,” MacKay explained.

Cuthbertson has said he was immediately impressed with MacKay’s work, stating “Tessa’s is a really interesting portrait – there’s a lot happening in it. I’ve been looking at it every day since it came into the Gallery.”

“I love that your eyes are drawn to the pairing of the salt and sugar, and the glass vase in the foreground. That David’s in it is a bonus! Maybe that makes it Still life with David? I love the reflection of the glass and that David’s in a reflective mood too. We blokes have a lot to think about these days!” Cuthbertson added.

MacKay met Wenham through her husband, a writer and director. “A couple of years ago Tess asked if I would consider sitting for her,” said Wenham. “After viewing her previous portraits it was clear Tess was an immensely talented artist.

“Tess’s portraits are each carefully considered and not only display her supreme technical facility but also offer an insight into what fascinates or intrigues her about the subject… Aware of my fondness for sitting, people watching and general day dreaming, Tess had a very clear vision of what the look, feel and purpose of the portrait should be.

“Once the location for the portrait was locked in I couldn’t really fathom how on earth Tess was going to pull the painting off. Windows within windows, multiple reflections and numerous light sources added a degree of technical difficulty that was beyond my brain processing capacity,” Wenham added.

Archibald PrizeJun Chen’s Mao’s last dance. Photo © Jenni Carter/Archibald Prize 2019

Finalists for the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes were also announced today. Notable sitters from the arts world amongst the 51 Archibald finalists include Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet Li Cunxin, painted by Jun Chen; a founder and director of the Yellow House Artist Collective George Gittoes, by Anh Do; playwright Nakkiah Lui, by Laura Jones; and actor Sarah Peirse by Jude Rae. Peirse is depicted as Patrick White’s Miss Docker, a role she played to acclaim for Sydney Theatre Company’s production of A Cheery Soul last year. The late Edmund Capon, director of the AGNSW from 1978 to 2011 and highly influential in the development of the Archibald’s public profile, is the subject of a portrait by John Beard.

The Archibald Prize is worth $100,000 and is awarded annually for the portrait of a person ‘distinguished in art, letters, science or politics’, painted by an Australian resident. A record number of Archibald entries were received by the Art Gallery of New South Wales this year, beating 2014’s 884 with a significant 919 paintings. The winners of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes will be announced on May 10, with the exhibitions open to the public on May 11.

Archibald, Wynne and Sulman finalists