One of Australia's most loved and richest portrait awards, the biennial Shirley Hannan National Portrait Award celebrates realistic portraiture in memory of our eponymous patron.
Hannan, a gifted portraitist, was well known in the Bega Valley as a staunch supporter and generous patron of the arts, funded the John Balmain National Award for Portraits and Figure Drawing from 1993 until she re-established it in her own name in 2002 with a substantially increased first prize of $15,000.
A prerequisite for the award was made that those works selected to hang depict their subjects accurately without abstraction and demonstrate a sound skill and knowledge of drawing and painting technique. The award was established with a specific and unremitting realist bent, which continues to this day.
Before her death in 2005, Hannan doubled the prize purse to $30,000 and it was decided to discarded the figure drawing component of the prize, concentrating on portraiture alone.
Hannan's husband, Brian Settle, established the Shirley Hannan Trust to perpetuate the Shirley Hannan National Portrait Award as a biennial, national portrait prize with a focus on accurate depiction.
In 2012, Hannan's son Peter, himself a talented photographer, paid further tribute to his mother's memory with a generous personal donation of an additional $20,000 bringing the prize purse for subsequent awards to $50,000.
Shirley Hannan was a very determined person who strove to be the best at anything she chose to do. Her husband, Brian Settle, says his favourite photograph of her was taken in her teens when she was a member of the RMIT swimming team.
She studied interior design at RMIT and later went on to become an architectural draughtsman and Mr Settle says that is where she perfected her understanding of perspective and detail.
After the death of her first husband, Jim Hannan, in a diving accident her interest turned to sculpture and she haunted scrap metal yards for material to make copper and brass lamps. These are displayed to advantage in the cottage she rebuilt on a beautiful property overlooking the ocean just outside Bega on the NSW Far South Coast in the 1970s. She did a great deal of the physical work herself, stripping and repolishing the timber ceiling and lining boards.
Mrs Hannan then turned her attention to furniture-making, mainly heavy – very heavy – tables. “How she lifted the timbers I don’t know as she was on the skinny side,” said Mr Settle.
In 1979 she took a course in drawing and painting at Bega TAFE College and began painting. “She started with landscape but inevitably was drawn to the challenge of portraiture – her real love,” Mr Settle said.
Her first exhibition was in Melbourne in 1984, followed by another the following year.
In 1989 she travelled to the USA and studied under master pastelist Daniel Greene at his summer school in New York. Other tutors over the years were David King, John Balmain, Kay Blackie and Ian Chapman. Mrs Hannan also travelled extensively around Australia which led to “old timer” and “typical Aussie” portraits. A trip to Russia in the 1980s inspired her “Russian Characters” series.
“Problems began when her paintings started to sell and commissions were becoming too many to handle,” Mr Settle said. “I told her she would have to stop selling as there would be nothing left to her family after her death. “I suggested that she do two series, not for sale, and as a result the family has an excellent selection of Aboriginal portraits painted from 1998 to 2000 with subjects from NSW, Western Australia, Central Australia and the Northern Territory. “Her second series captures the atmosphere of the shearing sheds in full swing,” Mr Settle said.
Over the years Mrs Hannan had won the John Balmain Portrait Award at the Bega Valley Regional Gallery several times and been highly commended many more. The well-known Melbourne portrait artist John Balmain had established the award in 1980 to honour his father who was a founder and patron of the Bega Valley Art and Craft Society. He continued the sponsorship until 1993 when Mrs Hannan took over the patronage.
She renamed it the Shirley Hannan National Portrait Awards in 2002 and then in 2005, after she was diagnosed with cancer, she and her husband established a trust to ensure its continuation.
After her death later that year, Mr Settle acted as trustee and after the 2010 Award, he handed over management of the trust to Mrs Hannan’s son, Peter Hannan who increased the prize purse to $50,000.
The Bega Valley community has many reasons to thank Shirley Hannan and her family. Her substantial gift is more than the very generous prize purse; it is her investment in the cultural future of the area.