Historic Memorials Collection

About this collection

Sir Edmund Barton, Prime Minister 1901 - 1903, Sir John Longstaff, 1911, oil on canvas, Historic Memorials Collection

Sir John Longstaff, Sir Edmund Barton, Prime Minister 1901-1903, 1911, oil on canvas

Historic Memorials Collection

The Historic Memorials Collection is a unique part of the Parliament House Art Collection. It comprises over 200 works of significance to Australia’s political and cultural history.

The development of the collection is guided by the Historic Memorials Committee, which is chaired by the Prime Minister of the day and comprises five other members based on parliamentary office. The Committee was established in 1911 and its original brief was to act “as a Committee of consultation and advice in reference to the expenditure of votes for Historic Memorials of Representative Men”. The brief has evolved since that time to encompass the commissioning or purchase of official portraits of Governors-General, Prime Ministers, Presidents of the Senate, Speakers of the House of Representatives, Chief Justices of the High Court and other distinguished Australians. Approximately fifty of the portraits are on display on the ground and first floors of Members’ Hall, while many others are on long-term loan to institutions such as Old Parliament House, Government House and Admiralty House.

The portrait subject is invited to choose their preferred artist, while the Department of Parliamentary Services manages the commission process and contract. The artist is required to complete a study of the portrait and submit this for approval by the subject, and by a reference group established by the National Portrait Gallery, before proceeding to the finished portrait. The Historic Memorials Committee makes the final decision on whether the portrait is suitable for inclusion in the Historic Memorials Collection.

Senator Michael Beahan, President of the Senate 1994 - 1996, Bryan Westwood, 1998, oil on canvas, Historic Memorials Collection

Bryan Westwood, Senator Michael Beahan, President of the Senate 1994-1996, 1998, oil on canvas

Historic Memorials Collection

Apart from recording Australia’s political history, the Collection also reveals changes in the history of portraiture in Australia.  Portraits from the early twentieth century were often sombre in tone and reflected the dignity of the office held by the sitter. Over time, portraits have tended to become less formal and capture more of the personality of the sitter, sometimes including objects of personal significance.

Portraits have also been commissioned or purchased of individuals who in some manner represent a parliamentary “first” such as the first Indigenous Australian elected to Parliament, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first woman elected to the Senate.

The Collection also includes paintings of significant events in parliamentary history, such as openings of Parliament, the first House of Representatives sitting in the New Parliament House in 1988, and the Centenary of Federation Commemorative Sitting of Federal Parliament in 2001.