Former Prime Minister of Australia

TitleJohn Gorton
Collection : Museum of Australian Democracy
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 152.5 h x 106.5 w


Sitter Profile

The Rt Hon. Sir John Grey Gorton, GCMG, AC, CH (1911–2002), joined the RAAF in late 1940. In 1942 a Japanese Zero pilot shot him down and he crash-landed suffering severe facial injuries when his head smashed against the gun sight. On his discharge Gorton turned to farming.

Seen as “A knockabout bloke with the larrikin streak, his scarred features and crumpled suits, his candid approach and laconic air, jaunty grin, tousled hair and ever-present cigarette,” he was elected as a Liberal Party senator in 1949. In 1967 when Prime Minister Harold Holt drowned Gorton took his place. He was a controversial and progressive leader in a politically tumultuous time.

In 1971 he was replaced as leader after casting the deciding vote against himself. In 1975 he quit politics. Only in retirement was he finally recognised as a party elder.


Painting Story

I had been an admirer of John Gorton since he sacrificed his leadership of the Liberal Party and his position as Prime Minister. I was amazed by his unselfishness. In 1996 I asked him to pose for an Archibald painting, and I was thrilled when he agreed to sit for me.

The first sitting was in the Gorton home in Vaucluse where John (don’t call me Sir John), and his wife Nancy made my wife and I most welcome. We arrived about eleven o’clock and within minutes John had offered me a drink saying he was about to have one.  As I had never met a Prime Minister before I was quite nervous so I accepted. He he came back minutes later with a glass which would have held at least three fingers of scotch.

John was then 85, still very agile and quick witted. He talked about many facets of his life, including his miraculous escapes during the war and his air force crash in 1942 in Indonesia.  He said was his injuries were so bad, the Dutch landowner who eventually rescued him, mistook him for a Japanese flyer and almost shot him. It wasn’t until 1944 that he finally went to hospital for surgery for his injuries but by this time there was little could be done. I think it’s ironic that in later his terrible disfigurement became badge of honour, even giving him a recognisability advantage as a politician.

I was constantly struck by his humility and his generosity. I asked him how he found the time to be well informed enough to make so many critical national decisions. He said a PM needed to rely on the opinion of his ministers, but factional bargaining meant his some of his ministers were not always up to the mark. This sometimes led to ill-advised decisions based on inferior advice. At this point Lady Gorton intervened to say, ‘Yes, but you always got the blame.’

John turned to her and said very gently, “Yes Nancy, but that is as it should be.”

An amazing man -I hope my portrait has done him justice.


Museum of Australian Democracy
John Gorton New York Times