Australia’s much-loved annual art fixture the Archibald Prize for Portraiture opens on July 19 in Sydney. When it began 93 years ago with a prize of an astonishing 400 pounds it was something of a boys’ club, and so it remained for decades. Just four painters — the well-connected William Dargie , W.B. McInnes, John Longstaff and Ivor Hele — cornered the Archibald market until 1957, between them capturing the prize 25 times. In 1960 Judy Cassab’s portrait of fellow painter Stanislaus Rapotec won, only to be savaged by the budding art critic Robert Hughes.

So who was Mr Archibald? Jules Francois Archibald was first and foremost a journalist and magazine proprietor, but was also a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW. When he died in 1919 he bequeathed the income from one-tenth of his estate (valued at 89,061 pounds) to the trustees, to provide an annual prize. He left even more (almost 90,000 pounds) for a fountain to be designed and constructed in Hyde Park by a Frenchman Francois Sicard, a choice wholly appropriate to Archibald, who felt strongly about the French and the Australians fighting side by side during the Great War. It was an expression of his passion for all things Gallic, especially the Paris of Flaubert and Zola and the mythology of the boulevards and barricades. He was convinced his mother was French (she was in fact English, born near Cambridge) and he preferred to be known as Jules Francois Archibald, rather than John Feltham.

Archibald was born at Kildare, near Geelong, Victoria on January 14, 1856, the son of an Irishman of Scottish antecedents who had arrived in Australia in 1852 as a police sergeant. His father was well-read and encouraged his son, who, as the story goes, read out aloud to him Charles Lamb’s famous essay “A Dissertation on a Roast Pig” and then pronounced that young Archibald would very soon be writing something “quite as clever”.

At 15 Archibald was apprenticed to the Warrnambool Examiner as a compositor and soon moved on to Melbourne’s Herald. He then secured a job as a junior reporter on the Melbourne Daily Telegraph. He briefly clerked in the Victorian Education Department and worked in an engineering firm in Queensland, but journalism had him in its grasp and at the end of the 1870s he joined the Evening News as a reporter.

“Archibald’s unconventional mind distained the suffocating hypocrisy which infused Victorian Australian society …”

It was here he met John Haynes, and they hatched a plan. The Bulletin was conceived and its birth was January 31, 1880. The first issue was a fairly crude production with two of its eight pages devoted — in great detail — to the hanging of the Wantabadgery bushrangers. Its early issues were fraught with difficulties. One paper merchant placed a padlock and chain on their press and removed them only when payment was forthcoming. While Archibald was described as the “editor” and Haynes as the “business manager”, both men found themselves chasing prospective advertisers and dodging wrathful creditors.

Archibald’s editorship of The Bulletin for nearly 20 years was marked by the literary ascendancy of many contributors, and its pre-eminence in Australian newspaper circles. Some who contributed to The Bulletin and whose youthful efforts were shaped by its editorial policy were Henry Lawson, Edward Dyson, Will Ogilvie, Banjo Paterson, Steele Rudd and Ethel Turner.

Archibald was not the type of editor who wrote powerful leading articles from the viewpoint of a fixed editorial policy, and he knew little about politics, finance or economics. He was more interested in literary style, and he conceived the journal as a vehicle for its contributors to achieve a particularly Australian character and tone. He wrote little original material himself, preferring the job of ‘soling and heeling’, but in sifting through the hundreds of contributions that made their way to his desk, he was quick to spot the promise of an interesting story nestling in a thicket of ill-constructed words and would use his pencil like a pruning knife.

The Bulletin became a wellspring of exuberant anti-authoritarianism and republicanism and it drew the bush and the city together in a new nationalist bond. It had a sharp nose for controversy — the unpleasant underside of which was chauvinism and some alarmingly strident racism.

Archibald’s unconventional mind distained the suffocating hypocrisy which infused Victorian Australian society, he scoffed at polite society’s aping of London habits, manners and ideas, and The Bulletin was a ready vehicle to express these sentiments. It would champion more parliamentary freedoms, more humane laws and more independence of the press. While some found its cocktail of humour and feigned outrage a true expression of liberalism, others would find it an outpouring of violent and unrestrained radicalism. Archibald was occasionally threatened with horsewhipping and once looked up from his editing tasks to find an enraged doctor pointing a revolver at him. At one stage, Archibald and Haynes found themselves incarcerated in Darlinghurst jail, and it took a public subscription set up by the politician George Dibbs to raise enough money to pay their costs and secure their release. While in prison, they continued to receive items written by boundary riders, miners, housewives and “cockies”.

In 1903 Archibald had a mental breakdown and spent periods in Callan Park Hospital. He recovered, and resented the fact he had been incarcerated at all. In 1914 he sold his interest in The Bulletin and retired, a decision that was reversed when he joined the staff of Smith’s Weekly in 1918. While there he suffered another mental collapse. After failing to rally after an operation he died on September 10, 1919. His Bulletin lived on until January 23, 2008.

*This article was originally published at Daily Review