The journalist Keith Murdoch commissioned this portrait of his mother Annie, née Brown, wife of the Reverend Patrick John Murdoch, who emigrated from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, in 1884. Her Presbyterian background was basic to her character; she brought her children up under the stringent economy of a clergyman’s large family (ADB).
Her son had been a successful managing editor of the Melbourne Herald since 1921. He was still a bachelor at forty-two, when he commissioned the portrait of his mother, but married the next year. In 1931 he produced a grandson for Annie Murdoch; the boy was Rupert Murdoch, who became an international media tycoon.
Lambert painted Mrs Murdoch in Melbourne in September 1927, writing to Amy Lambert from Melbourne on 16 September that ‘Tomorrow I finish or try to finish the portrait of Mrs Murdoch which portrait ... is looking well’ (ML MSS 97/10, p.631). The portrait, titled ‘Mrs Murdoch’, was awarded the 1927 Archibald Prize in competition with fifty-five other portraits, including five by W.B. McInnes. It was more dramatic than those by McInnes and John Longstaff, but it was among Lambert’s smaller and more restrained portraits. Like many other prize-winning portraits, Lambert presented the face highlighted against a dark background.
It is a striking portrait and full of character. Lambert portrayed the alert-faced matron, with her brown eyes looking directly out of the picture with confidence and authority. He showed her smiling with what might be interpreted as genial amusement. Her necklace indicates her wealth and her lace inset hints at an inner softness. The fox fur over her shoulders, painted in a similar range of browns and greys as her hair, suggests that she might possess the sharp-witted character of this animal. As the critic from the Sydney Morning Herald commented on 14 January 1928, ‘Repose and strength are the dominant features of this striking portrait’.