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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Portrait of a Lady (Sonia McMahon), 1999

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
Gift of an anonymous donor 2014
© Esther Erlich

Accession number: 2014.68

Currently not on display

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Artist and subject

Esther Erlich

Sonia McMahon (age 67 in 1999)

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On one level The Companion talks about the most famous and frontline Australians, but on another it tells us about ourselves: who we read, who we watch, who we listen to, who we cheer for, who we aspire to be, and who we'll never forget. The Companion is available to buy online and in the Portrait Gallery Store.

Portrait of a Lady (Sonia McMahon), 1999 Esther Erlich
Portrait of a Lady (Sonia McMahon), 1999 Esther Erlich
Portrait of a Lady (Sonia McMahon), 1999 Esther Erlich
Portrait of a Lady (Sonia McMahon), 1999 Esther Erlich

Desperately seeking Sonia

Magazine article by Angus Trumble, 2015

Esther Erlich’s portrait of Lady McMahon.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.