Steven Miller on Nancy Borlase

Part of a series of new perspectives on portraiture commissioned for Archie Plus

Nancy Borlase

Fred Usher and Self portrait

Fred Usher 1943
oil on hardboard
Gift of Michael Gleeson-White 1988
© Nancy Borlase Estate

Self portrait 1943
oil on hardboard
Purchased 1986
© Nancy Borlase Estate

‘I’ve had the shakes since childhood’, Nancy Borlase joked as she carried a tinkling tray of teacups into her sitting room. I looked forward to this ritual of afternoon tea with home-made biscuits after each of the oral histories I made with her for the Gallery.

‘I’m now 90, but I survived the great Napier earthquake of 1931. That’s what the critics don’t understand when they say my line is nervous.’ She said this with a twinkle in her beautiful blue eyes. Her Self portrait of 1943 doesn’t do them justice. But the strength and intelligence are there.

She was 22 when she arrived in Australia, initially to study sculpture in Sydney. A sculptor’s sensibility is evident in the chiselled features and weightiness of these two portraits.

Pacifist Fred Usher, a local from Balmain, was a regular at her home for Trotskyite meetings when he was conscripted into the Civil Construction Corps. His ill-fitting uniform seems to billow into a grotesque, mocking face, hinting at emotions rippling below his own contained gaze. For me, this portrait is a true marker of the national mood at a time when Australians were exhausted by warfare. It suggests that, along with resilience, there was also reflection, uncertainty and fear.

Steven Miller of @dogsinozart Instagram fame (and head of the National Art Archive)

View these works and more as part of the Gallery’s collection online