Left: The Right Honourable Lester Bowles Pearson, Prime Minister 1963-1968, painted 1968 by Hugh Mackenzie, Tempera on masonite, 96.7 x 76.7 cm. The House of Commons Heritage Collection

Right: Hugh Mackenzie painting in studio


Text from TIME, April 26, 1968

    “Painting the portrait of a political leader is at best a hazardous business. When Toronto artist Hugh Mackenzie was asked by Ottawa to suggest a list of portraitists who could best tackle Lester Pearson, he had a variety of reasons not to covet the assignment himself. ‘I’m not really a portrait painter, anyway,’ he says, ‘but somebody who sticks figures in landscapes.’ Besides, Mackenzie’s sister happens to be married to Pearson’s son, Geoffrey, and, said he, ‘you can’t have a hint of nepotism in something like this.’

     As it was, the $2,500 commission stayed in the family. The retiring Prime Minister’s wife, Maryon, scouted the field, too, and her emphatic choice—nepotism or no—was Mackenzie. His portrait will hang outside the House of Commons Chamber. When it is unveiled, probably early next month, the public will see a Pearson far different from the cherubic figure so often portrayed by Canada’s cartoonists. Painted in egg tempera, with a subtle ochre background, the portrait shows Pearson characteristically half-slouched in a chair, in a mood at once relaxed and restrained. Explained Mackenzie: ‘The longer I was with him, the more aware I was that he was more powerful that we had been led to suspect, and that there was a certain air of reserve about him.’

     Mackenzie had three sessions with the P.M., and spent most of his time taking photographs or making tempera sketches of Pearson’s hands, mouth and nose. He started painting in January and worked on the portrait seven hours a day for two months. When he was finished, he felt so elated that, ‘I went out and got absolutely loaded.’

     Mackenzie, who studied under New Brunswick’s Alex Colville and acknowledges his debt to ‘Magic Realist’ Andrew Wyeth, entered the project with ‘visions of another Peter Hurd incident.’ He particularly fretted over Maryon’s critical response: ‘Can you imagine her saying anything looked great?’ He need not have worried. Maryon was delighted with her husband’s head and hands, although she would have preferred to have him sitting upright. Pearson’s verdict: ‘It’s orthodox enough to be acceptable, and yet different enough to be interesting.’”


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