Henry Bolte portrait

Henry Bolte, premier 1955-72
Title Premier Henry Bolte
Artist William Dargie
Date 1980
Medium Oil on canvas
1300 x 1140 x 90 mm
Premier 7th June 1955 – 23rd August 1972.

Sir Henry Bolte was the 38th and longest serving Premier of Victoria, his term of office lasting for seventeen years (1955-1972). While his conservatism and insistence on strong leadership often made him a controversial figure, he introduced a period of stability into Victorian politics that had hitherto been unknown.

The son of gold miner and publican, Bolte was born in Ballarat 20th May 1908. He attended Ballarat Grammar School, and worked in a variety of jobs before settling at sheep farming and grazing in the Ballarat district. He entered State politics in 1947 when he was elected MLA for Hampden, holding the seat until his retirement in 1972. He became leader of the Liberal Party in 1953. The Labor Party was at this time deeply divided between the Catholic 'right' and Communist ‘left' factions. Bolte, a wily manipulator of public opinion, made political capital out of this growing schism and within two years was Premier of Victoria.

While Labor's continuing factionalism and a weakened Country Party enabled Bolte to rule without credible opposition, his term of office coincided with a period of great prosperity and improved employment prospects that enabled him to successfully address many of the State's chronic problems. Bolte's ambition to make Victoria a national economic force resulted in the development of electricity generation resources in the La Trobe Valley as well as new manufacturing industries in Melbourne and regional centres.

Bolte prided himself on not being of the 'establishment', exploiting his status as a farmer and 'ordinary bloke' to gain a populist following. He managed a fine balance between city and rural issues and kept the electorate and business on side, thereby delivering Victorians an unprecedented period of political stability. He was knighted in 1966 at the height of his career. He died on 4th January 1990.

The Artist and the Portrait:

Sir William Alexander Dargie (b. 1912-d.2003)

The portrait is the first of a former Premier to have been commissioned by Parliament. It was commissioned towards the end of the premiership of Dick Hamer, Bolte's successor and a man with a marked sense of history and heritage.

Dargie was the ideal artist to paint Bolte, for his confidence, success and conservatism as an artist matched Bolte's in the political arena. Dargie was for decades the pre-eminent portraitist of the Australian establishment. He was famed for his highly skilled likenesses of eminent politicians like Sir Robert Menzies, captains of industry like Sir James Elder and members of the Royal Family including H.M. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.

Dargie studied at the Melbourne Technical College under Napier Waller and Archibald Colquhoun, gleaning from the latter the tonalist techniques developed and promoted by Max Meldrum. Dargie adapted Meldrum's formal emphasis on harmonious tonal relationships into his own unique form of academic realism. While the colour harmonies and contrasts in his portrait of Bolte may be seen as a study in tones, Dargie's real interest lies in capturing some essential quality of the sitter.

In his book On Painting a Portrait, Dargie emphasised his interest in 'arrangement' or the placement of the sitter. He would begin by thinking about what to do with the arms and hands. The way Dargie has 'arranged' Bolte in this picture boldly captures his sitter's assuredness and unblinking self-confidence - Bolte is seated, legs apart, as if ready to spring into action. Much emphasis is placed on the hands, his large, strong and capable farmers hands. The forcefulness of this portrait and its 'likeness' is indicative of Sir William's mastery of the genre. He won the Archibald Prize a record eight times between 1941 and 1956.


© William Dargie