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Portrait of a Lady (Sonia McMahon)
, 1999

by Esther Erlich

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

Sonia McMahon (1932-2010) née Hopkins, was the wife of William McMahon, Australian prime minister in 1971-1972. 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. They 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 charitable bodies including the National Brain Foundation, the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation, the Australian Cancer Research Foundation, the Microsearch Foundation and the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Association. 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, the remarkably handsome Julian McMahon. When she died, widely-mourned, newspapers ran tributes to the effect of the ‘end of an era of elegance’. Her estate comprised real estate valued at some $30 million.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of an anonymous donor 2014
Accession number: 2014.68