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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The Gallery’s Acknowledgement of Country, and information on culturally sensitive and restricted content and the use of historic language in the collection can be found here.

Study for John Bell as King Lear

1998-2001
Nicholas Harding (artist)

ink, charcoal and conté on paper (frame: 56.8 cm x 45.8 cm, sheet: 43.9 cm x 33.5 cm)

John Bell AO OBE (b. 1940) is Australia’s preeminent Shakespearean actor and director. Having graduated from the University of Sydney in 1962, he acted at the Old Tote and with all the state theatre companies before spending five years at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK. On return, he co-founded the Nimrod Theatre in Sydney, which staged premieres and influential interpretations of many Australian plays in the 1970s and 1980s. Nimrod also initiated a distinctively Australian Shakespeare style. In 1990 Bell founded the Bell Shakespeare Company, which has set the standard for Australian performances of the playwright’s works ever since. Bell acted for the company in the roles of Shylock, Macbeth, Henry V, Titus Andronicus, Malvolio, Coriolanus, Richard III, Leontes, Prospero and King Lear – several of them over different productions, many years apart. He retired from his eponymous company in 2015. In 2017, to general rejoicing, he resumed the stage in the title role of The Father for the Sydney Theatre Company.

Nicholas Harding, an habitué of the theatre, was at the first productions of the Bell Shakespeare Company, and conceived of a painting of Bell as he watched him in The Merchant of Venice in a stifling tent in 1991. Over the course of a decade, his imagination inflamed by various performances, he made several portraits of him. This ‘study’, to which Harding returned repeatedly, evolved alongside the much bigger John Bell as King Lear, which won Harding the Archibald Prize in 2001. He also won the People’s Choice Award – his was the first painting to claim both honours. Recently, Harding drew the septuagenarian Bell in pyjamas, rehearsing The Father.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of the artist 2010
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
© Nicholas Harding

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. Works of art from the collection are reproduced as per the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The use of images of works from the collection may be restricted under the Act. Requests for a reproduction of a work of art can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

Artist and subject

Nicholas Harding (age 42 in 1998)

John Bell AO OBE (age 58 in 1998)

Subject professions

Performing arts

Donated by

Nicholas Harding (3 portraits)

Related information

The Companion

Permanent collection catalogue

Café and shop

On one level The Companion talks about the most famous and frontline Australians, but on another it tells us about ourselves: who we read, who we watch, who we listen to, who we cheer for, who we aspire to be, and who we'll never forget. The Companion is available to buy online and in the Portrait Gallery Store.

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Through thick and thin

Magazine article by Dr Sarah Engledow, 2017

Sarah Engledow likes the manifold mediums of Nicholas Harding’s portraiture.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

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