Cleaner Wins Tidy Sum In Nation’s Richest Art Prize

A child beggar on the streets of London, Mary Wade’s life was already tragic when she was sentenced to death by hanging in 1789. That sentence was later commuted to penal transportation to Australia – a daunting prospect for an 11-year-old whose crime was stealing a younger girl’s clothes. Wade’s story deeply affected Megan Seres, whose 10-year-old daughter Scarlett was studying colonial Australia at school and was cast as the child convict in a play. ‘‘It really brought home how incredibly lucky we are,’’ she said. ‘‘You know we have schools and there are laws against children working.’’ Scarlett added: ‘‘Going to this strange country that you know nothing about without your family I think would be quite scary.’’

Wade’s life also inspired Seres to paint Scarlett as Colonial Girl, which was awarded the $150,000 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize on Wednesday. The portrait of her daughter as the child convict took Seres 31⁄2 months to complete. ‘‘Because I wanted to capture that glow of the Australian landscape, I put gold underneath,’’ she said. ‘‘That was a really interesting way to go, my work is usually quite dark.’’ Thirty finalists were chosen in this year’s prize, judged by artist Anne Wallace, Greta Moran, founder of the Moran Prizes, and Doug Hall, a former director of the Queensland Art Gallery. The judges said Seres’ winning painting revealed the close relationship between mother and daughter and ‘‘an awareness of the vulnerability of the young, but also conveys the forbearance required of convict women and the gravity of their situation’’. ‘‘It is a work which stands alone as an idea which is deeply personal, yet able to embrace history and cast it into contemporary realm.’’

Perth photographer Johannes Reinhart won the $50,000 Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize for Mermaid Show, a portrait of Michelle Smith who performed as Tina Tuna at Perth’s Fringe World Festival.

Wade arrived in Sydney in 1790 and was sent to the penal settlement on Norfolk Island. She went on to have 21 children and was granted freedom in 1812. She died at the age of 82 in Wollongong and had more than 300 living descendants at the time of her death in 1859.

Seres said the $150,000 prize money, Australia’s richest art award, will allow her to concentrate on a new body of work inspired by a BBC adaptation of the 19th-century mystery novel The Woman in White. She will travel to Belfast for three months for research before returning to her home at Gerringong on the NSW south coast to create artworks for an exhibition to be held in Britain. ‘‘I manage a holiday property and I’m a cleaner,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s not glamorous at all  but what it does it gives me a bit of freedom so I can say, ‘Look, can I clean on Thursday rather than Monday’.’’ The Moran Prizes exhibition is at Juniper Hall in Paddington until February 2017.

Andrew Taylor Sydney Morning Herald 27 October 2016