By National Portrait Gallery
Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audiences are warned that the following exhibit may contain images and voices of people who have died.
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 boxing champions from our collection and their stories that have shaped our national identity.
Boxing is one of Australia’s oldest sports with the first recorded contest taking place in Sydney on 8 January 1814 between two convicts, John Parton and Charles Sefton. It continued to grow in popularity as a form of entertainment on the goldfields, a subversion of 'proper' Victorian society and into the professional sport of contemporary times. Over the years, many indigenous Australians have excelled in the field of boxing, starting with the boxing troupes of the early 1900s, where many Aboriginal fighters began.
Les Darcy, Australian Middleweight Boxer (c. 1910) by an unknown artistNational Portrait Gallery
Les Darcy was born in 1895 at Stradbroke near Maitland, NSW. He earned his first money in the boxing ring as a fourteen year old.
This image shows him at the beginning of his career at age fifteen. By the time he was eighteen, Sydney boxing promoters had begun to import fighters to challenge him. He became the Sydney Stadiums biggest drawcard with his supporters from Maitland travelling to see him.
January 1915 saw his last defeat fighting American Jeff Smith when he lost because his seconds refused to let him continue after being hurt by a foul blow that the referee did not witness. This only served to add to his fame.
Darcy won 22 consecutive bouts, in all winning 46 of his 50 professional fights and was never knocked out.
Les Darcy (c1917 (printed)) by Cameron StudiosNational Portrait Gallery
Smith's toughness, boyish good looks and his working class roots quickly made him a national hero – until he was suspected of shirking enlistment during WWI on his decision to earn money in America.
Denied a passport, he stowed away on a ship where upon he was stripped of his titles and promoters lost interest in him.
This image was taken in the Cameron Studios in his hometown.
Portraits of Australian boxers taken at this time typically adhere to an established stiff, clichéd form: fists poised, pecs primed and guard stance.
A fortnight after Smith enlisted in the army in New York, 1917, he was admitted to hospital with a dental infection, dying shortly after from pneumonia, aged twenty-one.
It is believed 250,000 lined Sydney’s streets as his coffin made its way back toward his native Maitland.
Les Darcy (1916) by unknownNational Portrait Gallery
Despite Smith's premature death and the controversy surrounding his breach of the War Precautions Act he maintains his folk legend status to this day.
Jerry Jerome (c.1912) by Milton KentNational Portrait Gallery
Jerry Jerome was a stockman and boxer born in 1874 at Jimbour Station, north of Dalby, Queensland, of Yiman descent.
He was known locally as an expert horseman, athlete and show boxer.
Amazingly, Jerome didn't begin his professional boxing career until 1908, aged thirty-four.
Whilst not having been trained as a boxer, he proved himself to be a competitive fighter.
He became the first Aboriginal man to win an Australian boxing title, winning the Australian Middleweight title in 1912 at The Stadium in Brisbane in a bout against fellow Queenslander, Charles Godfrey, knocking him out in four rounds.
He was known for confusing his opponents with his speed, dancing and weaving tactics – which also entertained the crowds.
When he retired from boxing in 1915, he had achieved 24 losses and 40 wins, 34 by knock-out, in his professional career .
The Sands Brothers (group photograph) (1800) by UnknownNational Portrait Gallery
In their green star spangled satin shorts, the 'Fighting Sands Brothers’, of Dunghutti descent, were the pride of the country.
Sports enthusiasts loved their story of six brothers raised in a small Aboriginal community on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, timbergetters and woodcutters by trade, who exchanged hardship for stardom.
They were photographed for postcards and featured widely in magazines. These mass produced images reveal how boxing created a means for Aboriginal men to achieve recognition and a degree of equality with their non-Aboriginal opponents.
Newspapers detailed each of their fights and they were the hot topic of many a bar-stool tale:
Did you know Alfie spent a portion of his wedding night fighting at Newcastle Stadium, with his bride ringside?
...that Dave, who won two-thirds of his bouts by knockout often did so without raising a sweat?
...or that they made a pact that if any of them were defeated they would be dealt a hiding next time in the ring!
Clem Sands by unknownNational Portrait Gallery
Following in the footsteps of their father and grandfather into the world of boxing, all brothers were respected fighters.
The brothers had a total of 607 bouts between them, winning a third of that total by knockout.
Clem held the NSW welterweight title from 1947 to 1951; Alfie was the NSW middleweight champion from 1952 to 1954; Russel, the youngest of the six, won State and National Featherweight titles in 1954 and Dave is regarded by many as the greatest Australian fighter to never hold a world title.
Gloves off (Tom Uren) (1996) by Ralph HeimansNational Portrait Gallery
Tom Uren lived most of his life in Balmain, Sydney, where he was born.
At a young age he excelled at football, surfing and swimming. Uren competed in surf carnivals to win prize money to help support himself and his family during the hardships of the 1930s in Australia.
This portrait refers to Uren's early ambitions as a heavyweight boxer, which were derailed by the outbreak of WWII when adventure struck and Uren enlisted in the army.
‘I wanted to become a great fighter, and that was the ambition and aspiration…in those days it was the sport where you really lifted yourself out of the norm.’
Ralph Heimans the artist, has said his portrait also refers to Uren’s fighting spirit in the political arena for issues of social justice.
Heimans captures Uren’s passion for heritage conservation of areas of inner Sydney, which can be seen in the background.
Uren’s father was a cousin of Les Darcy. Uren fondly remembers the support he received from his father during his boxing days.
‘My mother was never happy about that (boxing), but my father was as proud as punch but I really did enjoy fighting and not from the point of view of brutality, but from the point of view of scientific boxing…I was about 19 years of age and I was fighting, I remember, fought in the stadium, like I bid for the Australian heavyweight title, and I really was not fit enough, I'd only had flu a few days before and I shouldn't have fought, but it was the courage, my father said to me how proud he was of me…’
Returning home at war's end, Uren aimed to go back into the fight game but after poor health due to contracting malaria and a decisive defeat in England, he gave up the idea.
'I just couldn't, so the tragedy of all this ambition, of wanting to be a great fighter, and thinking about fighting and planning a future, I'll never forget as long as I live, of lying on that cold bench in that dressing room alone, with just a blanket over me, cooling down, and the thoughts that had gone through and had relived many of the years that I'd spent in prison camp and my aspirations and everything; I thought my world had crumbled around me. So it was a defeat really. If you take defeat in the right way it can be really character-building in a person...I found it a humbling experience...I had to try to build from there on.'
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.