‘After I die I can haunt it’: A portrait of a comedian with Archibald ambitions

As an Australian who grew up around the arts scene, Paul Verhoeven – author, broadcaster, comedian – says being painted for the Archibald has always been a “secret, shameful ambition.” When he mentioned it in passing to his wife, the writer Tegan Higginbotham, Verhoeven says he expected her to laugh “but she really is wonderful like that, she’ll humour anything”.

He didn’t think much more of it.

But during the first blush of the pandemic, as the “zombie movie stuff wore off and we all found ourselves ensconced in toilet paper forts and drinking too much,” Verhoeven says Higginbotham took up a surprising lockdown hobby and “romantically revealed” she was onboard with his “silly little dream”.

Painting mostly from memory, and observing him on the couch playing “a lot of Animal Crossing”, Higginbotham – entirely new to the practice of portraiture – eventually turned out “Paul in Blue”, an impressionistic oil painting of her husband sporting a “Magnum PI-inspired” moustache.

He says continuity of image demands he must now keep the facial hair forever.

At Verhoeven’s insistence, the work was shipped off for consideration in Australia’s most famous portraiture prize. Despite his “intense conviction it was going to get through,” the work was passed over. But fond memories soften that ego blow.

“When Tegan started painting we had this beautiful living room with great natural light. She’d be grinning as the sun filtered in, a little jazz playing in the background. It was really idyllic,” he says. “So whenever I look at it I remember that period … this private moment we shared.”

Once the painting was returned, they hung it immediately, testing friends on Zoom by positioning Verhoeven directly in front of it to see if they’d make the connection. He says they’re often more surprised by its provenance than its presence.

“I think people assume that I have personally insisted … but it’s really more about celebrating Tegan’s wonderful work.”

His love for the piece only grows with time. “It will be in the house until I die and then maybe after I die I can haunt it.

“I’m going to make it into a horcrux and just tether my spirit to the painting to make sure I live forever.”