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Canberra-based Australian artist and Archibald Prize finalist Gwen Pratt turns 100 on New Year's Eve

  • Megan Doherty

Modest and unassuming, Canberra artist Gwen Pratt has created portraits of outstanding Australians including painter Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Cyclone Tracy hero Major-General Alan Stretton. She was a finalist in the 1965 Archibald Prize with a portrait of fellow artist Douglas Pratt, a relative via marriage.

Her focus has resolutely been on others, but on New Year's Eve, 2017, the attention was inevitably switched to Mrs Pratt as she celebrated her 100th birthday with family and friends.

Canberra artist Gwen Pratt who turns 100 on New Year's Eve, 2017. Photo: supplied

Her daughter, Val Johanson, of Williamsdale, said Mrs Pratt was born in Sydney at one minute to midnight on December 31, 1917.

"I think the doctors gave her mother the option of her being born on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day," Mrs Johanson said.

A detail from Gwen Pratt's portrait of painter Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Photo: supplied

Mrs Pratt was the daughter of draughtsman, William, and homemaker, Emily, the middle daughter of three girls.

"All three daughters were creative," Mrs Johanson said. "Wynne, the eldest, was a photographer and Norma, the youngest, was a dress designer."

Known for her strong technical approach and ability to capture light and likeness, Mrs Pratt's fans extended far and wide, including to an art curator at the United States Embassy in Paris who declared in 2004: "Gwen's paintings are the best I have seen in Australia".

After winning a National Art Award at the age of 12, Mrs Pratt began art lessons with JS Watkins, and then at the Julian Ashton school from 1956 to 1961 with Henry Gibbons. She studied at the Royal Art Society of NSW and privately with Douglas Pratt and Joshua Smith.

A detail from a painting by Canberra artist Gwen Pratt. Photo: Supplied

Mrs Pratt was one of the first female artists to be elected as a fellow of the Royal Art Society of NSW, in 1971.

Portraiture was her first love, with commissions to paint everyone from the wife of a Greek ambassador to Mercedes Benz Australia managing director Allan Cheetham. Her painting of Major-General Stretton is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

The portrait of artist Douglas Pratt by his relative via marriage, Gwen Pratt, a finalist in the 1965 Archibald Prize. Photo: supplied

"I think she just found people fascinating," Mrs Johanson said.

It was a visit to stay with her niece, who was living on a mission station at Papunya, in the Northern Territory, which brought Mrs Pratt into contact with Aboriginal painters Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Keith Namatjira. They allowed Mrs Pratt to paint their portrait.

Canberra artist Gwen Pratt with her daughter Val Johanson (far right), grand-daughter Sharon Charles, great-grandson Ben Charles and great-great grand-daughter Gracie Charles. Photo: supplied

"I understand from conversations with my cousin that mum got on very well with them and was accepted by them," Mrs Johanson said.

Also a mother to three daughters, Mrs Pratt moved to Canberra in 1970. Her husband, Ken, had died aged 51, leaving her to raise her girls alone.

Major General Alan Stretton, 1987 by Gwendolene Pratt oil on canvas laid on composition board. Photo: NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

Mrs Pratt lived in Parkhill Street, Pearce and then moved out to Williamsdale to a farm with Mrs Johanson and her family.

"She loved the farm, loved the animals, the garden," her daughter said.

Canberra artist Gwen Pratt was sought after for her portraits. Photo: supplied

After a stint at a retirement village on the Central Coast, Mrs Pratt now lives at the Fred Ward Gardens nursing home in Curtin. She has developed Parkinson's disease.

"She still cries because she can't paint anymore," Mrs Johanson said.

"She's a very proud and independent lady and didn't like to ever use any aids, so no walking stick, no glasses, no hearing aid."

Mrs Pratt is quite the family matriarch, with three daughters, seven grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren (another on the way) and two great-great granddaughters.

The family gathered at the nursing home in Curtin on Sunday to celebrate Mrs Pratt's milestone, reflecting on a career and life that was fully embraced.

"She was a great traveller," Mrs Johanson said. "She travelled overseas many times collecting material for her artwork - including two extended trips with us and our four kids after her husband died unexpectedly and we travelled Europe twice in a van for five months. What wonderful experiences."