Tasmania’s Dame Enid Lyons and  Western Australia’s Dorothy Tangney were the first two women to be elected to Australia’s federal parliament. In 1943 Tangney won a seat in the Senate and  that same year Dame Enid was elected to the House of Representatives.

It was decided by the Historic Memorials Committee that both women should have their portrait painted, to be hung in Kings Hall, at what is now Old Government House.



The artist chosen for Dame Enid’s portrait was  Miss Mary Edwards, from Sydney.

Miss Edwards  had come to the notice of the general public the previous year,  amid the controversy of the Archibald Prize.  Along with  fellow artist Joseph Wolinski  she had launched a legal suit against the awarding of  the prize to William Dobell. The pair argued, unsuccessfully,  that Dobell’s  portrait of Joshua Smith was actually a caricature.



Mary Edwards and Joseph Wolinski


Once Mary Edwards’  painting was completed it was sent off to the Historical Memorial’s  Committee for approval, but it did not pass muster!

Here is the completed portrait, aka rejected portrait. 😎

Mary Edwards was humiliated…and furious. She said she should at least have been given the opportunity to make alterations, or to submit a new painting. ‘I was shocked by this treatment, to which no other artist has ever been subjected, as far as I know. The advisory board expressed satisfaction with the portrait and accepted it for submission to the Historic Committee. I still think I have done a good, strong portrait, a good likeness, and perhaps a bit unusual, because its background is a nocturne of Canberra instead of the conventional chocolate-box background of brown tones.‘  (Morning Bulletin Dec. 8 1945)

It was the way the artist was informed of the decision that really grated. When an envelope arrived from the Committee she expected it to contain her  commission cheque for two hundred guineas, not a curt note of rejection.

Oddly enough, the portrait of Senator Tangney by Bowral based artist Tempe Manning had also been rejected.  This was because the Committee considered that Miss Manning had slimmed down the plump Senator by a large margin.  Speaking on behalf of  Manning as well as herself, Edwards  said, ‘We have been shockingly treated. They cannot make fools of us like this. The Committee would not have dared treat me as it did if I had been a man.‘ (Daily Telegraph Oct 9 1945)  Complaining that the Committee was made up of politicians the artist took direct  aim at Prime Minister Ben Chifley (one of its members), saying that he might know a lot about politics or engine driving, but what had he ever heard about art?

Edwards had incurred considerable expenses in completing the  rejected portrait. There were sittings in both Canberra and Devonport, Dame Enid’s home in Tasmania. It’s no wonder she was upset about the commission not being paid

Sydney’s Sun newspaper had a lot of fun with the controversy, suggesting that a surrealist  image may have been better received;

Why all this fuss over the portraits of Senator Dorothy Tangney and Dame Enid Lyons?’ asked Mr Dilly-Dali, one of our foremost pavement artists, whose work has been described as more futuristic than next Wednesday fortnight. ‘There would have been no criticism had Dame Enid been portrayed as a disembodied eye hovering over a blue gasometer while above and beyond fluttered a tiny white dove bearing in its beak a yellow locomotive……

Meanwhile, ex-Prime Minister William (Billy) Hughes had his own opinion; ‘I make no claim to be regarded as an art critic, but one must remember that Dame Enid is a very good looking woman, and flattery is permissible, or at worst excusable in such a case. The old gentlemen who rejected the portraits were somewhat lacking in chivalry…or were they jealous of the women painters? ‘ (Southern Mail Oct 11 1945)

Whatever the case, the whole process of immortalising Dame Enid for the nation had to begin again.


Mary Edward’s rejected portrait was subsequently  purchased by the Tasmanian Art Gallery. Unfortunately I can’t publish a photo here without paying a large fee, but let’s just say that it’s a confection of mauve/blue and pink. I would love to defend Miss Edward’s work, but in good conscience, I can’t.  The portrait reminds me of an aging Barbara Cartland. The Speaker of the House at the time, Sol Rosevear, said she looked like a debutante wearing all the wrong clothes. 😨

In her defence, Miss Edwards  argued that she had painted the portrait with a view to how it would look in years to come.  She explained that she had deliberately heightened the colours so that as the paint mellowed it would take on a deeper quality without losing its tonal value.

In December the portrait was placed on exhibition at Anthony Hordern’s Art Gallery. The Sydney Morning Herald’s art critic  had this to say;

The portrait of Dame Enid Lyons rejected by the Historic Memorials Committee  is now on exhibition ….The committee, which acted on the recommendation of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board displayed surprising wisdom in its decision. The portrait is a creation in blue and pink, which rivals the best that Hollywood can offer. If one demands from art, however, a sense of the spirit – of those deeper thoughts and feelings which are its justification and its triumph – then one must reject this work. Beauty does not lie in the superficial, but in an artist’s awareness of truth – poetic knowledge of rightness within the creator. Truth is the ultimate, which, when revealed, is recognised instantly and without question. Of this portrait, as of all mediocre paintings, one can only say that it does not even touch the fringe of that creative world of the imagination,   (Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 11 1945)

Oh dear me.  I only hope Mary Edwards didn’t read that piece.

William Dargie, who had won the Archibald Prize in 1945,  was commissioned  to paint a replacement portrait. By the time it was completed Dame Enid was no longer in politics due to ill-health.  However,  the painting currently hangs in the  Historic Memorials Collection at Parliament House.


Dame Enid Lyons by William Dargie


And what did dear Dame Enid have to say about the whole controversy? Well, she was far too diplomatic to comment.

Mary Edwards  later changed her name to Mary Edwell-Burke and moved to Fiji. She died there  on January 19 1988.

Here is the full  story of  Senator Tangney’s  rejected portrait





  1. Another fascinating piece. Must visit Tassie to see the original portrait!

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