28 March 2023

Portraits of Australian prime ministers since Federation

I asked my students if they knew all 29 Australian Prime Ministers since Federation (1901). Everyone knew the first two P.Ms, but no-one knew the rest, until Menzies in WW2.

The gallery of portraits of past Prime Ministers (top image) 
Parliament House Canberra

So I referred students to The His­tor­ic Memorials Collection, the Australian art programme founded by Andrew Fisher in 1911. It was guided by the Historic Mem­or­ials Committee, chaired by each P.M. The Committee comm­issioned official port­raits of the Governors-General, P.Ms, Senate Presidents etc. All of the 25 portraits of Australian P.Ms are dis­played in order in Parliament’s Members’ Hall. Some portraits hang in King's Hall between the House of Representatives & Sen­ate cham­bers, Canberra. From 1927-88 it was the heart of Old Parl­iament House.

1. Edmund Barton (1849-1920). Barton was sworn in as leader of the new Commonwealth of Australia on 1 Jan 1901, after being in the NSW Parliament. A leader of Federat­ion movement, he help­ed draft Australia’s Constitution and later became a judge of our High Court. Was P.M 1901-1903. Artist: Norman Carter. 

2. Alfred Deakin (1856-1919) This Member for Ballarat Victoria held the office of P.M three times after Federation. Deakin built on Aus­tralia’s constitut­ional foundations, introd­uced legislation for a site for a new national capital and estab­lish­ed the High Court. Was P.M: 1903-4; 1905-8; 1909-10. Artist: Frederick McCubbin. 

Robert Menzies
by Ivor Hele

3. John Watson (1867-1941) Member for a NSW electorate 1906-10, Watson was considered the world’s first national Labour government leader. Appointed as P.M at 37, he remained Australia’s youngest. Was P.M 1904-1904! Artist: John Longstaff.

4. George Reid (1845-1918) Reid was NSW Premier from 1894-9. He led the Free Trade Party, and was the Federal Oppos­it­ion Leader for 6 years of Parliament, then as PM from 1904-5. Artist John Longstaff.

5. Andrew Fisher (1862-1928) A Labor member in Qld, Fisher was one of only two Australian P.Ms to have held office on 3 occasions. Fis­h­er established the Commonwealth Bank, found­ed Canberra and created the Royal Aust­ral­ian Navy. Was P.M: 1908-9; 1910-3; 1914-5. Artist: E Phillips Fox.

6. Joseph Cook (1860-1947) Member for Parramatta, this NSW Liberal man was P.M from 1913-1914, until he prov­oked a double dissol­ution election and was defeated by Fisher. Artist: Norman Carter.

7. Billy Hughes (1862-1952) A member for Labor Party NSW. He joined the Nationalist Party and was the longest continuous House of Repres­entatives member, 51.5 years. During the hardest years of WWI, The Little Digger was P.M 1915-1923. Artist: George Lambert.

8. Viscount Stanley Bruce, (1883-1967) was a Nationalist Party member in Vict­or­ia. During his term, the government was transferred from Melb­ourne to the new capit­al. Bruce was the first P.M to work in Canberra’s Old Parliament House and to live in the P.M’s official Canberra residence, The Lodge. Was P.M 1923-1929. Artist: William McInnis.

9. James Scullin (1876-1953) was a Victorian Labor member. When his term started, Wall St crashed and he focused on managing the fail­ing economy. And he nomin­ated Isaac Isaacs as the first Australian-born Governor-General. Was P.M 1929-1932. Artist: William McInnes.

10. Joseph Lyons 1879-1939, a member of the United Australia Party, was elected to Federal Parliament in 1929, having ser­ved as Premier of Tasmania. He established the Australian Broad­casting Commission and regulated the growing air travel industry. Was P.M 1932-1939, the only Tas­manian ever. Artist: William McInnes.

11. Earle Page (1880-1961) represented NSW from 1919-61. He was one of the longest serving parliamentarians, 42 years, and a co-founder of the Coun­try Party. Page was P.M briefly in April 1939, after Lyons’ death. Artist: Fred Leist.

12. Robert Menzies (1894-1978) represented Kooyong Vic­toria for the United Australia Party. In 1941 he resigned as PM, hav­ing lost his Cabinet support. As leader of the new Lib­eral Party, Menzies won the 1949 election, setting new goals in immigration, social services, hospit­als, schools & universities. Was P.M 1939-1941, 1949-1966 when he retired, longest serving P.M ever. Artist: Ivor Hele.

13. Arthur Fadden (1894-1973) Country Party member in Qld in 1936-49 and 1949-58: Fadden replaced Menzies after his resignat­ion in 1941, briefly as P.M. During his 22-year parl­iam­ent­ary career, Fadden also served as Treasurer. Artist: William Dargie.

14. John Curtin (1885-1945) Labor member for Fremantle WA 1928-31 and 1934-45, Curtin was most remembered for his leadership of the nation during WW2. Was P.M 1941-1945, dying in office, before WW2 ended.

15. Frank Forde (1890-1983) Labor member in Q­ld, Forde served as a deputy leader to James Scullin, John Curtin and Ben Chifley, then was Australia’s shortest serving P.M after Curtin’s death in 1945.

16. Ben Chifley (1885-1951) Member for Macquarie NSW 1928-31 and 1940-51, Labor man Chifley became P.M after Curtin’s death in 1945. Chifley started Australia’s post-war renew­al with an immigration programme, Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme and Australian National University. Was P.M 1945-1949. Artist: Archibald Colquhoun.

17. Harold Holt (1908-1967) Liberal member for Victorian from 1935-67, Holt became P.M after Menzies’ retire­ment in 1966. His gov­ernment used the 1967 referendum to recog­nise Indigenous Australians, relaxed immigration laws and increased Aus­t­ralia’s Vietnam War role. Was P.M 1966-1967. In Dec 1967, Holt drowned at sea. Artist: William Pidgeon.

18. John McEwen (1900-80) Member for Victoria 1934-71, this Country Party man was caretaker P.M after Harold Holt drowned (1967-1968). McEwen became as Deputy P.M until retire­ment in 1971.

Malcolm Fraser
by Ivor Hele

19. John Gorton (1911-2002) A member in Victoria 1949-75, Gorton became P.M in 1968, winning the Liberal Party leadership ballot af­ter Holt’s drowning. He established the Australian Arts Council, and the National Film & Television Training School. Was P.M 1968-1971 when Gorton lost office in a no-confidence vote. Artist: June Mendoza.
20. William McMahon (1908-1988) NSW Liberal member from 1949-82, McMahon became P.M in 1971. He was the first P.M to appoint a Min­is­t­er for Aboriginal Aff­airs. Was P.M 1971-2, in Par­liam­ent until retiring in 1982. Artist: Ivor Hele.

21. Gough Whitlam (1916-2014) Labor member in NSW 1952-78 who ended our fighting in the Vietnam War, int­roduced free tert­iary education and a national health scheme. He was the first Australian P.M to visit People’s Rep­ublic of China. Was P.M 1972-1975 until his govern­ment was dismissed by Governor-General John Kerr in Nov 1975. The por­t­rait was painted by Clifton Pugh for the Archibald Prize competition.

22. Malcolm Fraser (1930-2015) This Victorian Liberal became caretaker P.M, after Whitlam govern­ment's dismissal and won the next election. Fraser promoted multi­culturalism, introduced fam­ily allowances, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and commis­sioned a new Parl­iam­ent House. Was P.M 1975-1983. Artist: Ivor Hele. 

23. Bob Hawke (1929-2019) This Victorian Hawke won the 1983 elect­ion and became Australia’s longest-serving Labor P.M. He focused on globalisation, micro-economic reform and industrial relations, floating the Australian dollar and reducing tariffs. Was P.M 1983-1991 when Hawke was defeated by his own party’s ballot.

Bob Hawke
by Bill Leak

24. Paul Keating (1944- ) A Labor member in NSW 1969-96, and after eight years as Treasurer in the Hawke government, Keating became P.M. He continued economic ref­orms, wrote Indigenous land rights legislation and reformed vocat­ion­al ed­ucation. Was P.M 1991-1996. Artist: Robert Hannaford.

25. John Howard (1939- ). Member for NSW Liberals 1974-2007, he was Australia’s 2nd longest serving P.M. He introduced major taxation reform & the Goods and Services Tax. He brought in strict gun control legislation after the Port Arthur mass­ac­re. But he, who was brutal to refugees, was P.M until the govern­ment was def­eated.

Portraits have not yet been painted for Labor P.Ms, Kevin Rudd & Julia Gillard, and Conservative P.Ms Tony Abbot & Malcolm Turnball. Or read  Political Lives: Australian Prime Ministers and their biographers, Chris Wallace, 2023


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - what an interesting exhibition to visit ... I certainly couldn't name all ours ... Not one to rush to see, but informative ... even if as 'a character portrait look' - I hope the artists have been given a good nod too ... cheers Hilary

Deb said...

I know Prime Ministers' Portrait Gallery in Canada serves a similar function, but I wonder if the surroundings in Ottawa are more attractive than ours?

bazza said...

Menzies was the first Australian PM that I was aware of and probably the first international Australian statesman (I am prepared to be corrected!). Several other names bring back memories. When Bob Hawke had the cheek to place a hand on the Queen's back there was outrage - which amused me greatly! In general Australian politicians are different to those in the UK; much more down to earth I think.🙂

Hels said...


same with me. My family were all very dedicated to one political party, so I never heard any discussions about politicians from other parties. Thus although I never saw John Curtin and Ben Chifley in real life, I truly believed they were my grandfather's best friends :)

Does it matter that even reasonably intelligent people don't know the all nation's prime ministers? Probably not. Some men (sic) were prime ministers for such a short time, I doubt if anyone would remember them.

Hels said...


I don't remember seeing the Canadian gallery... I wonder if there are any photos on line.

But yes, the top photo shows that the portraits in Canberra are hung on a extremely simple background, without any wall structure to separate each portrait. Even the rope looks like the outside of a football ground.

Hels said...


probably our first prime minister to have an international impact was Billy Hughes. During WW1 he was totally committed to the Empire's success, including spending a lot of war-time in Britain himself, trying to change British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith's strategies, working hard to get conscription passed in Australia etc. In the end, he sent so many Australian men to Europe that 62,000 died and 156,000 were wounded.

But Robert Menzies was definitely taller, heavier, louder, more confident, better connected at home and overseas, and more ideologically committed.

DUTA said...

Well, politicians and politics are not what they used to be. Young people won't make any effort to remember them. So, displaying their portraits in a gallery is good for posterity.

Andrew said...

Reflecting society as a whole, it is interesting to note how their life spans increased, especially after WWII.

hels said...

I wonder if young people are interested in history, national identity and politics at all? I hope students here go on an excursion to Canberra when they are doing history at school, to see the portraits, courts, Parliament buildings etc

hels said...


yes, you can see their life spans increase, their values espoused more confidentally and their programmes more significant (eg banning the White Australia Policy)

mem said...

I actually think that a lot of young people are informed in ways that I wasn't as a young person . I think as housing becomes even more tight and the environmental issues which they will have to deal with really bite they will be an unstoppable force for change . I am very tired of "old " people making disparaging judgements of the young . We have made a big mess of things and then fail to acknowledge our incredible good fortune to have been young when we were. I count my generation as just about the luckiest that ever lived Anyway who is that brought up the current generation ??? US !! I sometimes feel quite ashamed of my BB generation .

Hels said...


Everything changes over the decades, of course. And I agree that the post-war generation had the luckiest time - great medical care, easier access to tertiary education, much better employment chances, better housing chances etc. etc. Therefore I have no reason to doubt that the next generations did _not_ receive the best education, academically speaking - fewer reading skills, less interest in history and geography, little interest in learning foreign languages.

mem said...

Well maybe just maybe the skills they are gaining will be more useful in what is coming than what we learned in school and after . My grandfather could quote great long swathes of poetry which was very useful in the days before radio and probably gave entertainment to many in those days . I am hopeless at remembering poetry probably because there wasn't that much reason to really stick at it . . The skills we need change with the times and maybe we cant actually "do it all".I find that young people are often much more savvy when it comes to evaluating information especially from the internet, than their elders . This rings true when you consider that most scam victims are older rather than younger . I know I am generalizing but I still am pretty humbled by some of the insights that young people have.

Hels said...


I couldn't agree more with your statement "I find that young people are often much more savvy when it comes to evaluating information especially from the internet, than their elders". It is absolutely true for our generation that when we have technological issues, we have to ask our grandchildren for assistance.

But equally, when the high school grandchildren have to write essays at school, the result is often a mess. They wouldn't know about the British Empire, the creation of states, Australian Federation, WW1, the establishment of Canberra as the capital city etc etc. I doubt if they even know who the present prime minister is!

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Viagens pelo Rio de Janeiro e Brasil. said...

Boa noite de quarta-feira. Obrigado pela visita e comentário.
Obrigado pela matéria e excelente trabalho. Aprendi muito sobre a Austrália com sua matéria e dedicação.
Luiz Gomes

mem said...

I always thought that the abolition of teaching History in high school was a huge mistake . Part of John Howards effort to control the "Black Arm Band " teaching of history I think .

hels said...

I agree, Luiz. Blogging might be the best, most educative invention to come into our lives.

hels said...

what a very bad mistake he made :( and it is the children who are paying a great price.
I buy my grandchildren coloured history magazines to capture their fascination, but it is not the same.

Hels said...


would you say that your adults and school students know enough about your national history?