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Bill Leak Gough Whitlam

165 x 183 cm

Image courtesy the artist's estate

“I was given an opportunity to paint Gough Whitlam and I seized it,” says Bill Leak. Asked by Nick Whitlam whether he was interested in painting his father, Leak said yes immediately, though it was a while before he actually got around to doing it. “I didn’t want anything else on the easel to distract me.”

Leak rates his painting of Gough Whitlam as “amongst my most pleasurable experiences of painting anybody. He was the ideal model. His biography is being written at the moment so he would bring his biographer Richard Hall along with him and they would talk while I painted. It meant that I could enjoy his conversation without having to engage in it. I was like an outside observer able to concentrate on the painting. And it kept Gough animated because he was thinking about what he was saying rather than about being painted.” In fact, so successful was it as a strategy that Leak has since got friends around to talk to his subjects.

Recently named “a national treasure”, Whitlam quipped that by his own estimation he was “an international treasure”. Leak decided to picture the elder statesman and former Labor prime minister on a flimsy director’s chair as a contrast with his bulk. “It’s as if he’s poised on a couple of tooth picks,” says Leak. “His is such an overwhelming presence.”

Born in Adelaide in 1956, Leak studied at the Julian Ashton School before embarking on a career as an artist, illustrator and cartoonist. A regular exhibitor in the Archibald, he won the People’s Choice award in 1994 for his portrait of Malcolm Turnbull.