The Archibald Prize-winning painter Yvette Coppersmith will unveil her new portrait of the 20th premier of Victoria, Creswick-born Sir Alexander James Peacock, late in 2019 at the Premiers’ Portraits Gallery in the Victorian Parliament in Melbourne.
Ms Coppersmith was commissioned to create the work to add Sir Alexander’s likeness to the collection of paintings of the state’s leaders in March 2017, and says it was a more difficult process than she envisaged.
She says trying to capture the essence of a person without meeting them was challenging. Working on the picture for six months straight from commission after researching Peacock, she found herself struggling with capturing the likeness to her satisfaction, not completing the work until March 2018.
Reflecting on the arduous process, Ms Coppersmith laughs now, but admits it was actually a stressful creative period.
“I thought I’d have it finished by Christmas 2017,” Ms Coppersmith says, thus giving her three months to make an Archibald entry (which she would win).
“I worked on it for six months solidly, and then into January and February of 2018. It pushed all my times out and that’s why, in all my interviews, I said I did my (Archibald) winning piece in the week before it was due.
“There were a number of challenges: I couldn’t meet him, so there was a lot of research. I went to see the other paintings (of Peacock) in Creswick, so I saw the Max Meldrum to try to get a sense of the colouring in his skin.”
There are two portraits of Alexander Peacock in Creswick. One is held at the Creswick Museum and is of a younger Peacock in uniform; the other, by renowned Melbourne painter and colour theorist Max Meldrum, hangs in pride of place in the dining room of the Creswick Havilah Masonic lodge, of which Peacock was Grand Master for a time.
“The Max Meldrum portrait was done at a time when Peacock was a lot older than the photograph I was using as a reference,” says Ms Coppersmith.
“I could see his hair was silver; it wasn’t white. You start this problem-solving process: not only colours, but ‘what kind of style is going to look suited to the painting?’ I sorted out the composition early on; there were three canvases to scale.
Peacock, born in Creswick in 1861, served as premier of Victoria on three separate occasions: in 1901; 1914; and 1924.
He was a supporter of Federation, and held several ministerial roles before his first term leading a government. That government fell to a no-confidence motion from conservative forces.
His second term as premier began just before World War One, and the stresses of that conflict brought about his government’s demise.
A decade later Peacock became premier for the third time, at the head of a conservative government. How he was at heart a liberal, and his championing the end of the existing rural gerrymander in Victoria saw him opposed by fellow MPs. He called an election and was defeated by Labor.
Peacock became Speaker of the House in 1928 and remained in the role until his death in 1933.
Every premier since 1933 with the exception of Ian MacFarlan, premier for 51 days in late 1945, is represented in the Parliamentary collection. It is now tradition to commission a painting of each premier at the end of their parliamentary term.
Currently there are 19 portraits, leaving 28 unrepresented premiers. In 2017, the Parliamentary Library commissioned four posthumous portraits that provide important additions to Parliament's existing collection: Peacock; Sir William Murray McPherson (premier 1928-1929); Edmond John Hogan (premier 1927-28, 1929-1932); and Sir Thomas Bent (premier 1904-09).