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Portrait of a legal life

Cover Story

Cite as: May 2015 89 (5) LIJ, p.22

A portrait of the late giant of the law brought legal luminaries together at the historic  Sir Zelman Cowen Centre. 

By Carolyn Ford

Sir Zelman Cowen AK GCMG GCVO QC PC was a popular subject for artists. The late Australian Governor-General has been portrayed no less than 12 times – 10 on canvas, two in stone – one for a portrait donated to Victoria University by philanthropist couple John and Pauline Gandel in March.

The oil painting, done in 1998 by Archibald Prize contender Anna Minardo who has also painted Rupert Murdoch and Pope John Paul ll, now hangs on the mezzanine level of the historic Sir Zelman Cowen Centre in Queen Street.

The painting was unveiled on 23 March by former Family Court judge Linda Dessau who becomes Victoria’s first female Governor on 1 July.

There he sits, looking like the wise man he was, extending his hand in greeting, a typical pose for the Melbourne-born giant of the law, the “genius” credited with “healing” the office of Governor-General after the incendiary events of 1975 when Sir John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam government. Appointed by then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, Sir Zelman was Australia’s 19th Governor-General, from 1977-1982, replacing Sir John Kerr.

“It’s a very good likeness,” his widow Lady Anna Cowen said at the launch. “He looks engaged.”But it wasn’t the only painting of interest at the unveiling. In the Phillips Common Room for judges, newly named in memory of John Phillips QC, Victoria’s Chief Justice from 1991-2003, there hangs a portrait of Lady Cowen – her first. “It’s Zelman’s 12th [portrayal] and my first,” Lady Cowen said. Her portrait was painted by artist Stella Clarke, wife of the dean of the College of Law and Justice at Victoria University Professor Andrew Clarke, who Lady Cowen described as “brave” to make the attempt.

The unveiling, hosted by former Australian Attorney-General and now chair of the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre Nicola Roxon, was attended by a virtual who’s who of the legal fraternity.

Guests included Chief Justice Marilyn Warren, Chief Magistrate Peter Lauritsen and many other judges including Justice Geoffrey Nettle, Justice Tony Pagone, Judge Susan Cohen, Judge Paul Grant, Judge Felicity Hampel, Judge Ian Gray and Judge Peter Couzens. Also, Victoria Legal Aid managing director Bevan Warner, Victorian Bar president Jim Peters QC, criminal lawyer Rob Stary, barrister Robert Richter QC, Victoria University chancellor George Pappas and members of the Phillips, Cowen and Gandel families.

Family was a theme on the night. In a warm tribute to the distinguished lawyer and academic who died aged 92 in 2011, Ms Dessau revealed a little-known fact – that she is related to Sir Zelman, a man she described as a “sparkling” Australian. “You might think there is nothing to say that has not already been said or revealed . . . but in fact it is not the case,” Ms Dessau said. “Fay Pinkus, my grandmother, and Sadie Cowen were cousins. My mother Sybil Pinkus went to school with Lady Anna Cowen (nee Wittner).”

Dux of every school and university he attended, Sir Zelman was a Rhodes Scholar and the recipient of 20 honorary degrees. He was a Fellow of Oriel College Oxford and dean of Melbourne Law School from 1951-1966. He was awarded every civil honour on offer in Australia and left an indelible impression on constitutional law.

Ms Roxon said the portrait would be an added motivation for the Centre to improve on the work of its namesake. “Sir Zelman’s belief was that lawyers needed to better understand community issues, while the community needed to better understand the law,” Ms Roxon said. “This is exactly where the centre positions itself in providing quality legal training and research, so we hope to build on Sir Zelman’s achievements to support our community today.”

The centre provides training, research and support to government, the judiciary, legal practitioners, court staff and other professions associated with the legal sector. As well as delivering post-graduate and further training courses, the centre produces commissioned research projects to enhance the sector.


Carolyn Ford

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