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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.

Portrait of a Lady (Sonia McMahon)

1999
Esther Erlich

synthetic polymer paint on canvas (support: 112.0 cm x 183.0 cm)

Sonia McMahon (1932–2010) was the wife of William McMahon, Australian Prime Minister from 1971 to 1972. Born into a wealthy Sydney family, she trained as an occupational therapist. At 23 she met 57-year-old McMahon, a lawyer who had been elected Liberal member for Lowe in 1949 and had become a cabinet minister in 1951. They married eight months after meeting and had three children; Sonia McMahon was the third, and most recent, prime minister's wife to give birth during her husband's term in office. In 1971 she made headlines by wearing a daringly-cut dress to dinner at the White House; the dress is now in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum. William McMahon, knighted in 1977, died in 1988. Over several decades Lady McMahon was a board member or patron of many charitable bodies. Renowned for her good cheer and resilience, she was frequently photographed at the races and charity and celebrity events, sometimes escorted by her actor son, Julian. When she died, widely-mourned, newspapers ran tributes to the effect of the 'end of an era of elegance'.

In Esther Erlich's painting, Lady McMahon poses in a small armchair dressed in immaculate white. Her tilted head and quizzical gaze suggest strength of character and a degree of tenacity.

Gift of an anonymous donor 2014
© Esther Erlich

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

Esther Erlich (age 44 in 1999)

Sonia McMahon (age 67 in 1999)

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On one level The Companion talks about the most famous and frontline Australians, but on another it tells us about ourselves: who we read, who we watch, who we listen to, who we cheer for, who we aspire to be, and who we'll never forget. The Companion is available to buy online and in the Portrait Gallery Store.

Portrait of a Lady (Sonia McMahon)
Portrait of a Lady (Sonia McMahon)
Portrait of a Lady (Sonia McMahon)
Portrait of a Lady (Sonia McMahon)

Desperately seeking Sonia

Magazine article by Angus Trumble, 2015

Esther Erlich’s portrait of Lady McMahon.

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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 past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

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