William Morris (Billy) Hughes (1862–1952) was the seventh Prime Minister of Australia (from 1915 to 1923), the longest serving member of the Australian Parliament (1901 to 1952) and a colourful and controversial figure in Australian political history. He was a strong supporter of Australia’s participation in the First World War, and of conscription. In 1916, while prime minister, he was expelled from the Labor Party, which he led, and survived by forming a new national party. In 1919–20 he attended the Versailles peace conference and signed the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of Australia. He became known by the troops as ‘the little digger’ on account of his reputation as a war leader and his battles for Australia in international relations. To some he was a great statesman and patriot, to others he was a renegade; he could be abrasive and ruthless as well as charming and amusing (ADB).
Hughes sat for Lambert twelve times in February 1927. Lambert painted him with uncompromising realism, full of life but capturing the lines on Hughes’s face which reflect his age (sixty-four) and his tensions, as well as his sharp, keen eyes. He conveyed the little digger’s slight build, large head and long bony hands; at rest, but still alert. He gave him a large right ear, perhaps to suggest his severe deafness. Looking directly at the viewer, Hughes wears a conservative grey suit and waistcoat, enlivened by a mauve necktie and handkerchief, and a blue background. As the Daily Telegraph reviewer observed on 9 September 1927, Lambert ‘has given him justice, without flattery’.
The portrait was commissioned for £150 by the Historic Memorials Committee as one of a series of portraits of Australian prime ministers, after Norman Carter’s portrait of Hughes was rejected by the subject. Lambert was one in a long row of artists asked to paint Hughes: Max Meldrum, John Longstaff, Marion Jones, Augustus John, Robin Guthrie and William Orpen also painted portraits of Hughes, but the Historic Memorials Committee did not purchase any of these.
As with all portraits painted of him, Hughes was not satisfied with the way Lambert depicted him, but recognised the artistic merit of the portrait. He wrote to Lambert on 4 December 1928: ‘By all means exhibit the portrait at the Royal Academy (London). You are quite wrong in assuming – which from the tone of your letter you do – that I question its merits as a work of art’ (ML MSS 97/2, pp.515–16). The official title at the Royal Academy in 1929 was ‘the Right Hon. W.M. Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia, 1915–23’.