His name is John Feltham Archibald. Last week when a friend and I visited the Archibald I became curious about the man behind the prize. Who was he? What motivated him? This week I got to 'know' him and I’m so glad I did.
Born in Geelong Victoria in 1856, he had only one ambition, to be a journalist. But the road to achieving his dream was somewhat convoluted and included time on the goldfields, which proved to be a defining influence in his life.
He endured the hardship of bush life, lived it first hand and encountered characters that were proverbial gold to his journalist’s heart ... argumentative miners, a pub keeper, Aboriginal elders, hard working Chinese diggers and a drunken padre.
At the age of 24, he and fellow journalist, John Hanes, pooled what little money they had, purchased a box of battered display type, put a deposit on a second hand printing press and rented a room in a ramshackle building at 107 Castlereagh Street, Sydney.
There in 1880 they launched the Bulletin, a radically different news magazine that quickly caught the imagination of Australians. Artfully capturing the picture of outback life, the day it arrived each week in the bush became known as Bully Day, a red letter day on the bush calendar. They would sit around on dusty verandahs and gather at watering holes, devouring stories and poems of the life they knew.
Many of the giants of Australian literature we know and love today climbed those narrow, well-worn stairs to his office and sat around his desk overflowed with papers and surrounded by a wall of pigeonholes crammed full of stories and poems waiting to be spoken.
Archibald was a genius at spotting talent even when it was buried under awkward sentences and wandering thoughts. He was an exceptional editor and called himself, “a soler and heeler of paragraphs”. It was said that his “tactful sub-editing helped Henry Lawson find his laconic and superbly succinct prose style” which Australians came to love and value.
But maybe his greatest attribute was his compassionate heart. He noticed if his worker’s trousers were wearing thin or their boots leaked. He asked if they had enough food for their families. When he discovered that Henry Lawson was struggling to make ends meet, he gave him five pounds and a ticket to Bourke, where Lawson wrote many of the poems so dear to our heart.
In his will, he bequeathed a significant part of his estate to launch what has become Australia’s most prestigious portrait prize. The idea came to him after he commissioned John Longstaff to paint a portrait of Henry Lawson. So delighted was he with the finished work that he saw the value of a portraiture prize.
He also bequeathed to Sydney the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park. His will stated that the fountain was to be created by a French designer and was indeed build in France and shipped to Australia.
But while Archibald is best remembered for his bequests to the city, I have no doubt his greatest legacy is in the lives of the people he helped use their gifts and through the Bulletin find their place in the world; people like Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, Henry Kendall, Ethel Turner, CJ Dennis, Mary Gilmore and Norman Lindsay.
I guess for all of us, our legacy is less about what we leave in our will than what we leave in our life. Who stands a little taller, has stepped out with more courage to use their gifts or faced their difficulties with fresh hope because of some small part we’ve had in their lives? Maybe the investment of our love, our time and just being-there is the greatest legacy we can leave.
But I think the most valuable thing I learned from Archibald was that he worked with what he received, not discarding it, but soling and heeling it into something more beautiful and meaningful. I remember the days when we had our shoes repaired, when the bootmaker would work his magic and give them new life. Now we discard and replace them as we do so many things in our lives, difficult jobs, awkward people, things that aren't working out. Oh Lord, give me the eyes to see beyond the messiness and difficulties to find the gold worth discovering underneath.