Surfing & Australian Identity

Reflecting Australia’s obsession with sport, the National Portrait Gallery has many diverse portraits of Australian sportspeople. Let’s take a closer look at some of the great surfing legends from our collection and their stories that have shaped our national identity.

Midget Farrelly at Palm Beach (1964) by John WitzigNational Portrait Gallery


Surfing is a big part of the Australian identity and as a nation surrounded by coastline and first class waves, it is clear to see why. Introduced to Australia in 1915 by Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, the culture of surfing quickly gained popularity and has since grown from a recreational activity to a mainstream sport. Several of the world’s premier surfing competitions are held in Australia, drawing surfing enthusiasts from all over the world. 

Layne Beachley (2008) by Petrina HicksNational Portrait Gallery

Layne Beachley is a seven times world champion and one of the greatest of all time female surfers.

She has surfed waves over fifteen metres high and when asked how she had the courage to do this she said, ‘life is a challenge, you attract what you fear, so play fair and have fun.’

Layne’s electric blue eyes are the focus of the image.

The artist Petrina Hicks feels that Beachley’s strength is revealed through her eyes.

In 2004 Layne established the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars foundation to help women achieve their goals.

Having experienced financial hardship herself she says ‘a little bit of finance or just the knowledge someone believes in their ambition may be all it takes for a female to achieve greatness.’

Nat in Hawaii (1967) by John WitzigNational Portrait Gallery

Robert ‘Nat’ Young, a four times world champion surfer still lives his life devoted to the sport he loves.

The same year that this photo was taken, Nat won the men’s final at the Australian Surfboard Championship held at Bells Beach, Victoria.

Young played an integral part in the redesigning of the longboard in the late 1960s and the longboard renaissance in the early 1980s.

He is widely regarded as a pioneer of Australia’s surfing culture.

Nat was nicknamed ‘The Animal’ due to his powerful and aggressive surfing style.

Mark Richards (1976) by John WitzigNational Portrait Gallery

Born into a surfing family, Mark Richards had no choice but to start surfing at a young age.

Richards revolutionised high performance surfing with his reinvention of the twin fin surfboard.

The twin fin was faster, had greater manoeuvrability and gave Richards an advantage in competitive surfing.

Here Richards talks about his career as a pro surfer and surfboard shaper.

Mark Richards (1976) by John WitzigNational Portrait Gallery

‘Surfing gave me some of the greatest years of my life – nothing better than being in a sport that you like.’

Credits: Story

This exhibit was written by:
- Annette Twyman, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Sally Adair, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Sally Dawson, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Kirstin Gunether, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Emily Casey, Program Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery
- Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery
- Johanna McMahon, Art History intern, Australian National University.

This exhibit was edited and produced by Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery.

We would like to acknowledge the generous support from all artists and organisations for letting us include these works.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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