The portrait Malcolm Fraser never wanted you to see
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The portrait Malcolm Fraser never wanted you to see

When Malcolm Fraser oversaw the introduction of Australia's first freedom of information law in March 1982, he might not have imagined how quickly the reform would come back to haunt him.

His death on Friday at 84 saw admirers cast a mournful eye over his portraits in the national capital. Together, the group of at least three paintings tell a remarkable tale.

The portrait of Malcolm Fraser by Sydney artist Bryan Westwood at Old Parliament House. Mr Fraser reportedly loathed it at first sight.

The portrait of Malcolm Fraser by Sydney artist Bryan Westwood at Old Parliament House. Mr Fraser reportedly loathed it at first sight.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Less than a year after he lost office in 1983, Mr Fraser's first portrait was accepted by Canberra's Historic Memorials Committee to hang in King's Hall at Old Parliament House.

The former prime minister, however, had other ideas.

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National Portrait Gallery staff hang Westwood's first study for the Fraser portrait last week.

National Portrait Gallery staff hang Westwood's first study for the Fraser portrait last week.Credit:Rohan Thomson

He lobbied the committee not to exhibit the $7500 commission by Sydney artist Bryan Westwood, reportedly "loathing it at first sight".

Against a dark background, a pensive Mr Fraser stands suited and with arms crossed in the oil on linen work, now owned by the Parliament House Collection.

As South Australian Sir Ivor Hele was commissioned to paint a second, and final, attempt at an official portrait, the Westwood work was sentenced to hang in a wire storage facility deep inside a National Gallery storage unit, never to be seen by the public.

Despite the best efforts of Mr Fraser the portrait did eventually see the light of day after Canberra Times public service writer Kerry Coyle used the new freedom of information law to seek access in the autumn of 1985.

The disliked portrait being moved by National Gallery staffers Sara Kelly and Tim Fisher in 1985.

The disliked portrait being moved by National Gallery staffers Sara Kelly and Tim Fisher in 1985.Credit:Canberra Times

Her application hinged on whether a painting owned by the Commonwealth could be considered to be a "document" to fit within the requirements of Section 4 of the new Act. "Document" was said to include any written or printed matter, any map, plan or photograph, and any article or thing that is able to be reproduced.

Secretary of the Historic Memorials Committee Mr P. Cheah said to his knowledge it was the first official portrait that had not been shown to the public on the insistence of the subject.

The Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment expressed doubt that a painting could indeed be a "document" but ruled it would be released, however briefly. The resourceful scribe and photographer Peter Mayoh were shown the elusive portrait in the warehouse in Fyshwick.

Mr Fraser was reportedly made aware of the decision and readers saw the painting, held by two gloved curators.

The second portrait by Sir Ivor was described by a visitor to Parliament House to show a "much more authoritive if not haughty figure". It now hangs at the centre of new Parliament House.

Last week National Portrait Gallery staff made space for Mr Westwood's first study for his original portrait, showing a relaxed Fraser in a dove-grey suit leaning against a flowered armchair.

His final work hangs outside the Senate chamber at Old Parliament House.

The study was sold from the gallery of Mr Westwood's longtime agent Robin Gibson. It will hang alongside a work of Gough Whitlam who died in October.

On Monday, Mr Gibson remembered Mr Fraser thought the Westwood work was inappropriate for an official portrait.

"He saw it as too casual and domestic," the Sydney gallery owner said via email.

The commotion did nothing to slow down Mr Westwood's career.

He twice won the Archibald Prize for portraiture, including in 1992 for a painting of Labor prime minister Paul Keating which is now in King's Hall, and his works feature in the collections of a number of national and state institutions. He died in 2000.

Weighing in to the debate in May 1985, Mr Fraser's mother Una welcomed the painting's extended stay in storage.

She told The Canberra Times the decision not to exhibit the painting was the right one.

"At the time, Malcolm was in office and was very busy," Mrs Fraser said. "He had very little time to give for a portrait. And for an artist to do the job properly, he needs the proper time."

"Whether or not it goes up is not up to me. I let Malcolm choose these things for himself," she said.

Another artistic depiction of Mr Fraser also had to be replaced.

Sculptor Victor Greenhalgh was critical of the bronze bust he created of Mr Fraser for Ballarat's historic Avenue of the Prime Ministers. After Mr Greenhalgh's death, cartoonist and artist Peter Nicholson was commissioned to make another bust of Mr Fraser which stands alongside 26 other prime ministers, including John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Tom McIlroy is a political reporter for the Financial Review in the federal press gallery at Parliament House.

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