Whitlam Institute


Mr Rex Irwin

Mr Rex Irwin delivered the below speech at the opening of the exhibition Dedicated to the Dedicated: Whitlam, the Arts and Democracy on Thursday 6 June 2019 at the Margaret Whitlam Galleries, Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney University, Rydalmere.


When I received the phone call from Leanne Smith inviting me to speak to night it reminded me of a call I received some years ago, from an even more August Institution, which went something like this!

Mr Irwin, yes, Mr Rex Irwin,

Yes, you are Lucian Freud’s dealer, Yes, in Australia.

This is the ....President of the Oxford Union, we are organising our guest speakers for next year.

WELL, at that point I thought I had made it, I had visions of dinner at high table and return business class air fares.

However, the President quickly went on to say,

We want to ask MR Freud to address the Oxford Union,

and I wondering if you would be kind enough to give me his telephone number.

So as you see the Arts can sometimes be a disappointment.

Many people think of the arts as an indulgence, or an extravagance. - if they think of them at all.

But as Mr Whitlam said in 1975. ‘The arts are not a luxury for a privileged elite. They belong to the whole community. They belong to the whole world’.

And to the Whitlams they WERE part of THEIR world, part of their very existence, they read books, they went to the theatre, they went to exhibitions.

In fact in 1971 we met at the opera , we were Tuesday subscribers - when the Opera was then playing in the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown.

I don’t believe that an enthusiasm and a love for the Arts can be taught

but it certainly can be learned and can be encouraged by Patronage.

Government patronage of the arts is enormously important but generous Government support can often lead to large bureaucracy, which eventually leads to that bureaucracy becoming the new academy and sometimes stifling the very arts it was designed to support.

In October 1973, I was able to offer a small service to Mr Whitlam on the occasion of the opening of the Sydney Opera House by Her Majesty the Queen.

With their usual thoughtfulness, the Whitlam’s had organised a party for their political staff and office staff and their families – to have a drink on the lawns of Kirribilli House before they left to meet the Queen at the Opera House – and then for us to watch the proceedings on television.

When I arrived on my motorcycle – after much security – because Madam Marcos was also staying at Kirribilli House – PANDEMONIUM WAS REIGNING – and a half-dressed Prime Minister was in a flap.

It seems he had left his evening shirt in Canberra.

This was a stiff fronted shirt to be worn with a wing collar and a white tie and tails.

What are we going to do, said Margaret.

I’ll just have to wear a dinner jacket, said Gough.

You can’t, said Rex.

Why not, said Gough.

Because you A LABOR PRIME MINISTER and people will think it is AN INTENTIONAL SNUB TO THE QUEEN.

So any bright ideas, said the Prime Minister?

I asked Margaret for a pair of scissors,

a can of spray starch,

and an iron.

I cut the collar off the soft fronted shirt, sprayed and ironed like a MAD MAN and produced a pretty good imitation of a stiff fronted shirt.

The Prime Minister got dressed, looked very smart – picked up the file with his speech in it – underneath which was the correct evening shirt.

Once properly dressed, the Prime Minister gave me a great big hug and gave me the old collar I had cut off which he signed for me and which is now part of the Whitlam Archive.

When I was thinking of art patrons of the past – four names came to mind,

The Medici, Louis IVX, Napoleon and WHITLAM.

Great leaders and great patrons of the arts.

Now I am sure any similarities with these leaders and with their aspirations for the arts and with his aspirations for the arts would not be lost on MR Whitlam ...

Even though he may NOT have had the same territorial ambitions as the other three, except in MR Whitlam’s case, on behalf of Australia’s First People.

HOWEVER, tonight I am here under a false pretence as

I am not going to speak about the Whitlam Government’s support of the Arts

But rather my private friendship with the Whitlams, particularly MARGARET Whitlam, which included our mutual interest in the arts.

My connection with the Whitlams and the Arts was based purely on Friendship.

A few weeks after the Whitlam Government was elected Margaret asked me to got to Canberra to help her choose pictures for the Lodge , to try to make it look like a Prime Minister’s Official residence and less like a run down country Motel.

Sadly this was not easy but we tried.

It was at this time that Margaret Whitlam became Big in my life, you will realise how big when I tell you that when I showed my Mother a photograph of myself and Margaret, the Wife of the Prime Minister of my new Country , taken outside the Lodge when we were working on the pictures,

She , my Mother , remarked....Darling she looks very nice. But who is the little man with her.

Aren’t Mother’s a joy?

During my stay at the Lodge I had breakfast in bed every day, brought to me by the Prime Minister of my New Country, A VISION IN BLUE PYJAMAS....VERY BIG BLUE PYJAMAS.

And every day he said , as he handed me the newspaper,

‘I AM VERY SORRY COMRADE it’s the Australian. It’s all we can get here’.

One morning in Sydney Margaret rang me when I was in my bath and said. ‘Get on your bike and see how many Erect Penises you can find in public places’.

Well few things Margaret said to me surprised me but I did feel this remark deserved an explanation.

Apparently a poster of Michaelangelo’s Statue of David had been seized by the Police in South Australia - as pornographic - and the Prime Minister was to be asked a question about this in the house that afternoon.

Well in Hyde Park there were penises everywhere, the Archibald Fountain had a very noticeable one and there were lots in the War Memorial - if not erect - certainly heroic .

You should have heard the Prime Minister in Question Time, armed with my information, he was DAZZLING,

Arrogant, Amusing, and erudite - and I am glad to say that Good Old MR Hansard made a note of it all.

In 1973 I did have one minor artistic triumph with the Whitlams, I suggested that the Prime Minister use Blue Poles on his official Christmas Card and I am delighted to say he did.

And in so doing it removed the picture from the criticism and ridicule to which it had been exposed.

It sent a message to the World that Things Were Changing in Australia, and they were.

I am delighted to say my friendship still extends to the younger members of the Whitlam family and I understand it was Catherine Dovey who was instrumental in asking me here tonight.

Margaret often used to write short chatty notes to me which I have donated to the Whitlam Archive so I thought might conclude by quoting my friend Margaret Whitlam.


I am afraid I have to stop now as Catherine must be hungry and I have to feed her. Close quote.


SpeechesJenna Beck