Skip to main content

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The Gallery’s Acknowledgement of Country, and information on culturally sensitive and restricted content and the use of historic language in the collection can be found here.

John Sumner

Jim Paterson

synthetic polymer paint and dry pigment on board (sheet: 76.4 cm x 50.0 cm)

John Sumner AO CBE (1924–2013), described as the 'father of Australian drama', was born in England and trained and worked in repertory theatre there before World War 2. He first visited Melbourne while serving with the British Merchant Navy, and returned in 1952 after several years working as a stage manager and director at the Dundee Repertory Theatre and in London's West End. In Melbourne, he started out as manager of the Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne, but within a year he had convinced the University to support his idea to establish the Union Theatre Repertory Company – Australia's first professional theatre company. In 1955, as founding Artistic Director, when his actors were working an 80-hour week and he was designing lights and sets and producing programmes himself, he produced the world premiere of Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, the play which is now considered a turning point in Australian theatre history. It became the first Australian play to be performed in England with an all-Australian cast, running for seven months in London and winning the 1957 Evening Standard Award for best play. Between 1955 and 1959 Sumner was in Sydney working with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust.

After returning to the UTRC – which became the Melbourne Theatre Company under his leadership – Sumner oversaw the expansion of the company to its new Russell Street premises and eventually to the Playhouse of the Victorian Arts Centre, and worked energetically to nurture the careers of Australian playwrights including Lawler, David Williamson, Nick Enright, Alex Buzo and Alan Seymour. He directed more than 100 productions, and it is said that the MTC 'became a model for every successful state theatre company and set the standard for Australian theatre in presenting a mix of the best plays from Australia and overseas to a large subscriber base.' Sumner remained at the helm of the MTC until 1987, commuting between Australia and England for the last twelve years of his tenure. He was created CBE in 1971 and named an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1985. At the 2004 Helpmann Awards, Sumner received the JC Williamson Award for his life’s work, and in 2009 the premier performance space in the MTC's Southbank Theatre centre was named in his honour.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of Jim Paterson 2004
© Jim Paterson

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. Works of art from the collection are reproduced as per the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The use of images of works from the collection may be restricted under the Act. Requests for a reproduction of a work of art can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

Artist and subject

Jim Paterson

John Sumner AO CBE (age 52 in 1976)

Subject professions

Performing arts

Donated by

Jim Paterson (1 portrait)

Related portraits