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William Cowan, 2017

by Nicholas Harding

William Cowan, 2017

oil on linen
135 x 150 (approx)
Collection of Trinity College Melbourne
Courtesy of Sophie Gannon Gallery, Melbourne

William Cowan AM (b.1944), past chair of the board of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, currently spearheads Directioneering, a firm assisting senior executives to build their careers. Early on, Cowan completed degrees in engineering and commerce from the University of Melbourne. He worked for Telstra for some years before gaining a Harkness Fellowship and becoming a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School, taking his master’s degree with high distinction in 1972. Since then he has held executive positions in firms including Powercor, CitiPower, Eflare, Nomad, Right D&A, Tricom, Booz Allen & Hamilton and McKinsey & Co. Meanwhile, he has chaired boards and committees of various not-for-profit organisations covering opera, theatre, media, agribusiness and the health sector. An alumnus and long-term committee member of the board of Trinity College (of which his father, Ron, was warden from 1946 to 1964), Cowan was its chair from 2006 to 2013. The college’s Bill Cowan Alumnus of the Year award is named in his honour.

Harding very often paints figures from the Sydney theatre, music and art circles in which he’s comfortable. Portraits initiated by artists rarely sell, but their exposure in exhibitions such as the Archibald Prize can lead to commissions. Thus, he undertook the portrait of Cowan for Trinity College. Cowan’s charcoal suit was only the second of the artist’s entire career; rarely has he painted shiny business shoes. Although real shoes are the same, painted shoes differ: highlights on Cowan’s right shoe are in grey paint, but those on his left shoe are violet. Unexpectedly, and largely because of Cowan’s attitude, this painting of a corporate man turned out to be one of Harding’s zestiest-ever portraits.