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A Pioneering Life

by Lauren Dalla, 1 December 2005

During her time in Australian politics, Dame Nancy Buttfield was an impressive advocate for equality for women and was responsible for ending the marriage bar for women in the Public Service.

Senator Dame Nancy Buttfield DBE, 1958 by Ivor Hele
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Senator Dame Nancy Buttfield DBE, 1958 by Ivor Hele

Born on November 12, 1912 into one of South Australia’s leading families, Nancy was the second daughter of car industry pioneer, Sir Edward Holden and his wife Lady Hilda Holden.

Nancy’s interest in politics was encouraged by her father, a State Parliamentarian, and developed after she joined a model parliament that met in the Christadelphian Hall near Holden’s city factory.  Sir Robert Menzies, a family friend, also provided advice about a possible political career.

Nancy Holden married business man and company director, Frank Buttfield in 1936.  In 1954 she won Liberal Party support to contest for the safe Labor federal seat of Adelaide but was defeated.  The following year when a seat became vacant, Nancy Buttfield was elected to parliament and began her career as Liberal Senator for South Australia, serving for sixteen and a half years from 1955 to 1965 and again from 1968 to 1974. 

During her time in Parliament, Buttfield impressed Parliamentary observers through her ability to speak her mind.  An advocate for women’s’ rights, she lobbied for equality for women and for the ending for marriage bar for women in the Public Service.  Encouraged by Menzies, Dame Nancy Buttfield also broke down a long-established barrier in Parliament House, becoming the first woman to drink at the previously male-only Member’s Bar.  In addition to her parliamentary duties, she was director of the Co-operative Building Society for 30 years and a member of the Commonwealth Advisory Council for the Handicapped.  Through a staunch anti-communist, she was the first Senator to visit the USSR and she toured china alone in 1962.  In 1972, she was made a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. 

After her retirement, Dame Nancy served on many boards and made substantial philanthropic contributions to youth and the arts, including establishing the Youth Venture Club with her husband and endowing $60,000 for the Dame Nancy Buttfield biennial prize for decorative arts. 

South Australian artist Ivor Hele (1912-1993) was Australia’s longest serving official war artist, depicting the activities of Australians in North Africa, New Guinea and Korea.  Aside from his war paintings, Hele also painted landscapes and erotic nudes; however he is most celebrated as a portrait artist.  Throughout his career Hele completed many portrait commissions and he won the Archibald Prize five times in the 1950’s, most notably with his portraits of Sir Robert Menzies in 1954 and a self-portrait in 1957.  In 1969 he was awarded a CBE for his service to the arts.  Despite his success, Hele rarely exhibited his works and his last solo exhibition was at the 1970 Adelaide Festival of the Arts.  Hele is also represented in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection by his portrait of Sir Lloyd Dumas. 

Dame Nancy Buttfield commissioned this portrait by Hele in 1958, early in her career as Senator.  Characteristic of Hele’s style it demonstrates his ability to work quickly to capture the likeness and feeling of the subject, a skill Hele perfected depicting the realities of war.  In this portrait Dame Nancy Buttfield stares out at the viewer and Hele has presented her as a composed, elegant woman.  Hele’s treatment of the paint, particularly to depict her luxurious fur coat and poised demeanour, combined with the use of warm palette; capture his subject’s strength but also reveals and alluring quality. 

Earlier this year the National Portrait Gallery acquired by gift a bronze bust of Dame Nancy’s father, Sir Edward Holden (1885-1947).  This new addition to the permanent collection will be unveiled at the Gallery in early 2006.