The Historic Memorials Collection (HMC) is Australia’s longest running art commissioning program and holds over 260 works of art by prominent Australian artists – and is still growing. The collection charts our political history and the evolution of official portraiture in Australia.
Established in 1911 by Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, the collection is guided by the Historic Memorials Committee, a bipartisan panel of parliamentary officeholders chaired by the Prime Minister and advised by the National Portrait Gallery. The Department of Parliamentary services manages the collection.
The HMC includes portraits of Australia’s Heads of State, Governors-General, Prime Ministers, Presidents of the Senate and Speakers of the House of Representatives, and Justices of the High Court. It also includes portraits of important parliamentary ‘firsts’, and commemorative records of significant parliamentary events.
The collection’s history
The collection was championed by prominent artist Tom Roberts after he completed the monumental painting The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by HRH The Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V) 9 May 1901 in 1903. Roberts wrote to Fisher’s predecessor, Alfred Deakin, in March 1910 asking for a collection of records painted,
… if not by me by someone you can trust to give faithful representations of the first leaders of the Commonwealth.1
It was, Roberts declared, ‘the duty of the present for the future’.
Deakin’s Government fell shortly after. However, the idea was embraced by Fisher who announced to Parliament his intention to create ‘suitable memorials of the men who have done so much for Australian Federation’.2
To manage the commissioning process, the Federal Executive Council established the Historic Memorials Committee. From its inception, the committee has been chaired by the Prime Minister of the day and made up of parliamentary officeholders: the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Vice-President of the Executive Council, the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.
In 1912, the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board (CAAB) was established, and nominations sought from Gallery directors and artists to advise the Committee on the suitability of the commissioned artists and the portraits. The CAAB also advised the Commonwealth Government on purchasing art for a National Collection. Many of the works purchased became the foundation of the Australian National Gallery (now the National Gallery of Australia) and contributed to the collections of the National Library of Australia and the National Portrait Gallery. In 1972, the CAAB was disbanded, and their responsibilities passed to the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council of the Arts. Today, the HMC Committee is advised by the National Portrait Gallery.
The commissioned artists
The HMC artists are highly regarded, being amongst the finalists and winners of prestigious national prizes for portraiture, such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s Archibald Prize. Early HMC artists William Beckworth McInnes, Sir John Longstaff and George W Lambert dominated the Archibald Prize from 1921 to 1931. Sir William Dargie, who painted Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for the HMC, won the Prize eight times. Other Archibald Prize winners in the HMC include Sir Ivor Hele, Clifton Pugh, Judy Cassab, Bryan Westwood, and Wes Walters.
The commissioning processes
Despite its prestige, the HMC like the Archibald Prize is also known for its controversies. Occasionally, the final portrait has been rejected by the Committee or the sitter, and an alternative commissioned. To minimise the risk of rejection, the Committee follows a rigorous approval and commissioning process, which includes the submission of a study for review and approval. To assist the sitter and artist, advice is provided by designated experts. The artist may be required to make alterations to the portrait if it does not meet expectations. The press and the public can also be vocal judges of the portraits, with media interest surrounding their unveiling.
The sitters are permitted to borrow the preparatory studies for their portraits for personal display during their lifetime. Several former and current Members of Parliament have their sketches installed in their homes or offices at Parliament House.
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1. Tom Roberts, letter to Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, March 1910, National Library of Australia, MS 1540, ‘Papers of Alfred Deakin’, Item 15_981_7, accessed March 2021
2. A Fisher, ‘Estimates’, House of Representatives, 18 December 1911, p. 4603.