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John Joseph Ambrose Curtin

Portrait of John Curtin by Antonio Rubbo, 1947, Historic Memorials Collection

Antonio Salvatore Dattilo Rubbo (1870-1955), John Joseph Ambrose Curtin (detail), 1947, Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection. View full image

Prime Minister, 7 October 1941 to 5 July 1945
Australian Labor Party

John Curtin (1885-1945), Australia’s 14th Prime Minister, ‘is widely regarded as one of the greatest’.1 He shifted Australia’s wartime reliance on Britain to closer ties with the USA, and his considered planning prevented a recurrence of the post-World War I social and economic malaise.

Born in Victoria, Curtin left school at 14 to support his family. He became active in the Political Labor Council and Victorian Socialist Party,2 mentored by politician Frank Anstey3 and British unionist Tom Mann.4 In 1911, he became state secretary (and later national president) of the Timber Workers’ Union before transferring to the Australian Workers’ Union.

During World War I, Curtin was briefly jailed as a leading anti-conscriptionist before relocating to WA as editor of the Westralian Worker in 1917. That year he married Elsie Needham; they had two children.5 Having unsuccessfully contested three federal elections (1914, 1919 and 1925), Curtin was elected as Member for Fremantle in 1928, although he lost his seat in Labor’s landslide 1931 defeat. Returned at the following election, he held the seat until his death.

Though lacking front bench experience, Curtin was elected Labor leader after Scullin resigned in 1935. He quickly re-established party unity and encouraged national defence capacity. Curtin joined Prime Minister Robert Menzies’s Advisory War Council in 1940 but rejected his offer to form a national government. With Menzies frequently overseas, he cooperated with Treasurer Arthur Fadden ‘to prepare for the feared extension of the war into the Pacific’.6 Fadden later described Curtin as ‘the best and fairest I ever opposed in politics’.7

In 1941, having gained support from two Independent MPs, Curtin became Prime Minister – the third in six weeks and the first from WA. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour sharpened his focus on national defence, and in giving USA General Douglas MacArthur overall command of Australia’s military forces, Curtin declared ‘that Australia looks to America, free from any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom’.8 Following the Japanese bombing of northern Australia and fears of a land invasion, he authorised conscripts to serve in the Pacific, with the resulting efforts curtailing Japan’s offensive in Papua and New Guinea.

Labor decisively won the 1943 federal election, controlling both Houses for the first time since 1914. With this mandate Curtin reformed taxation and increased social security, while developing an assisted immigration policy. However, wartime pressures and intense travel saw his health suffer, culminating in a severe heart attack in late 1944. Never fully recovering, he died six weeks before the war in the Pacific ended. The official war historian (and later Governor-General) Paul Hasluck said of Curtin: ‘His own dedication was complete. He held back nothing from his service to the nation'.9

Antonio Salvatore Dattilo Rubb
Italian-born Antonio Rubbo (1870-1955) studied art in Rome and Naples and was awarded a Diploma of Professor of Drawing in Public Institutions by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Naples. Arriving in Sydney in 1897, he established his own studio while also teaching art at various private schools and the school of the Royal Art Society of NSW. A council member of the Royal Art Society of NSW from 1900, Rubbo was also its longest serving instructor, teaching there between 1907 and 1934. Throughout his career he advocated for the inclusion of art in school curricula. In 1919, he was a founding member of the War Memorials Advisory Board, and in 1924 founded the Manly Art Gallery and Historical Collection. In 1932, he was appointed Cavaliere of the Order of the Crown of Italy. In 1947, Rubbo was commissioned to paint the posthumous portrait of Prime Minister John Curtin. He also helped to establish the Dante Alighieri Art and Literary Society and became a life member of the Society of Artists in 1954. His work is represented in state and regional galleries in Australia as well as in public institutions in New Zealand.10

John Joseph Ambrose Curtin
by Antonio Salvatore Dattilo Rubbo
Oil on board
90.6 x 70.3 cm
Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection

1. Information used in this biography is taken from the following: ‘Australia’s prime ministers: John Curtin’, National Archives of Australia; G Serle, ‘Curtin, John (1885–1945)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1993; ‘Prime Ministers of Australia: John Curtin’, National Museum of Australia; ‘Australian Prime Ministers: John Curtin’, Museum of Australian Democracy. Websites accessed 1 October 2021.
2. L Byrne, ‘Defining Labor: a study of the political culture of the Victorian Labour Party, 1901–1921’, PhD thesis, Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne, 2016.
3. I Turner, ‘Anstey, Francis George (Frank) (1865–1940)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed 1 October 2021.
4. G Osborne, ‘Mann, Thomas (Tom) (1856–1941)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed 1 October 2021.
5. ‘John Curtin’s partner: Elsie Curtin’, National Archives of Australia, accessed 1 October 2021.
6. John Curtin: before office’, National Archives of Australia, accessed 1 October 2021.
7. Serle, op. cit.
8. J Curtin, ‘The task ahead’, The Herald, 27 December 1941, p. 10, accessed 5 October 2021.
9. Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942–1945, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1970, p. 634.
10. Information in this biography has been taken from the following: C Oakley, ‘Rubbo, Antonio Salvatore Dattilo (1870–1955)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1988; ‘Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo’, Art Gallery of NSW; ‘Anthony Dattilo Rubbo: 1870–1955’, National Portrait Gallery; ‘Dattilo-Rubbo, Anthony’, A McCulloch, S McCulloch and E McCulloch Childs, eds, The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Aus Art Editions in association with The Miegunyah Press, 2006, p. 366. Websites accessed 25 March 2021.

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