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A retrospective exhibition of Sir Edmund Barton: life, times and Federation

Wednesday, 2 December 2020 in Exhibition

Australia’s first Prime Minister had an enormous impact on shaping modern Australia. Sir Edmund Barton’s government marked the culmination of the drive to Federation for the six colonies, while his tenure as Australia’s first High Court judge included decisions on landmark issues that continue to affect Australia today. 

A century after his death, a new exhibition at Australian Parliament House celebrates the life and work of Edmund ‘Toby’ Barton GCMG PC KC. Born in Sydney in 1849, Barton was an outstanding student, graduating with distinction in the Classics at the University of Sydney, where he gained the University Medal and attained a Master of Arts degree. He practised as a barrister before entering the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, where he soon became Speaker, and later Attorney-General. 

His dedication to reinvigorating the Federation cause in the last part of the 1800s earned him the moniker ‘Australia’s noblest son’, but he was also unkindly dubbed ‘Toby Tosspot’ by the Truth newspaper for his love of wining and dining. The slur detracted from the extraordinary work he accomplished prior to Federation and then during his management of the first ‘cabinet of kings’ populated by five previous state premiers. 

In 1903, Barton resigned as Prime Minister to take up the position of Senior Puisne Judge in the inaugural High Court of Australia. For almost 17 years, he interpreted the Constitution he’d helped to write. Sir Edmund remained on the bench until his death at the age of 70. 

The exhibition is divided into key themes from Sir Edmund’s life:

  • His political progress captured in Bulletin cartoons,
  • His family life and interests, including a passion for Australian Federation culinary culture
  • His roles as Federation’s leader and Australian parliamentarian
  • His government’s legislative achievements, and
  • His position as a Justice of the High Court.

Of particular interest to history buffs, the exhibition includes a photographic portrait of each individual member of the first Commonwealth Parliament. This large work is rarely on display and provides a fascinating glimpse of the individual MPs who created Australia’s first pieces of legislation. 

This work accompanies other key items associated with Edmund Barton that have been loaned to Australian Parliament House from a range of institutions, helping to weave together his extraordinary story. 

Bookings for the exhibition are essential to comply with COVIDSafe restrictions. Tickets are available through the Parliament House website. 

Image: Norman Carter (1875-1963) The Rt Hon. Sir Edmund Barton GCMG KC (detail), 1913. Oil on Canvas. Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection.

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