National Portrait Gallery launches In Their Own Words project

Playwright David Williamson, whose 1976 interview will play alongside his own portrait as part of a new audio tour at the National Portrait Gallery. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Playwright David Williamson, whose 1976 interview will play alongside his own portrait as part of a new audio tour at the National Portrait Gallery. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

In one form or another, the face of renowned Australian playwright David Williamson has been a part of the National Portrait Gallery's collection. Now for the first time, so, too, will the sound of his voice.

A 1976 interview with the acclaimed writer at the beginning of his career, long before he would pen Emerald City or the screenplay to Gallipoli, will feature as part of a new audio tour at the gallery.

In Their Own Words includes more than 150 recordings of interviews with prominent Australians talking about their life and their work that will feature alongside their portraits for visitors to listen to.

For Williamson, being able to listen back to his younger self, while alongside a portrait of him from the 1970s, was like reuniting with an old friend.

"I hadn't heard the recording for 44 years, so it was sort of a pleasant shock to be reacquainted with my former self," he said. "I was surprised by the confidence of my younger self that I could keep writing plays that people would keep coming to."

The project, a collaboration between the Portrait Gallery and the National Library draws on the more than 1000 audio interviews conducted by oral historian Hazel de Berg with famous Australians who were born between 1865 and 1953.

The interviews were carried out during a 27-year period, and include talks with such figures as Margaret Olley, Harry Seidler and Colleen McCullough discussing their works and worldviews.

Audio clips will be available for gallery visitors to hear alongside their portraits.

Hazel de Berg's daughter Diana Ritch, who was at the Portrait Gallery for the launch of the audio trail, said her late mother would have been thrilled her life's work would have been used so prominently.

"She has had a famous posthumous life, because during her life she made her way into the background so she would make the person she was interviewing the most important," Ms Ritch said. "Now that something like this is happening, it fills me with such pleasure."

While the tour will heavily draw on de Berg's collection, the gallery intends to expand the number of people speaking alongside their portraits through audio recorded by the gallery.

Portrait figures who were alive before the advent of sound recording will also be included, with actors recording audio based on their written words.

In Their Own Words has been more than three years in the making, and for project lead Karen Vickery, she said it was a chance for gallery viewers to gain insight into a piece that wasn't just from a curator or art historian.

"There's something quite magical about being able to stand in front of an interpretation of a portrait and hear that person speaking, and bringing that portrait to life," Ms Vickery said.

Williamson said the collection of interviews conducted by Ms de Berg decades ago had proved to be even more important as the years have gone on, providing an insight into a very different Australia. "Back then, we were still very Anglo-Celtic, and I knew change was coming back then, but I didn't anticipate quite how much we would have in the years since," he said.

This story Gallery reunites Williamson with his voices of yester-hear first appeared on The Canberra Times.