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Another first for Bernie Teague

Cover Story

Cite as: November 2015 89 (11) LIJ, p.17

The one-time solicitor is the first judge to have his portrait commissioned by the LIV. 

By  Carolyn Ford

The Hon Bernie Teague is not one for sitting still but sit he did for Lewis Miller, the artist commissioned by the LIV to paint his portrait.

It took four sittings and the result is an affectionate, faithful take on a singular man.

From polka dot bow tie to perched glasses to snowy white hair, there is no mistaking the framed legal identity.

It wasn’t easy, however. Mr Teague would talk. His glasses were broken. And the eyes and mouth proved challenging. As well, the process was filmed, from first charcoal sketch to final unveiling, a new experience for the Archibald Prize winning artist.

The entire experience was new to Mr Teague, but firsts are not uncommon for to the 77-year old, the first lawyer in his family. There have been many other firsts, but the most significant is his October 1987 promotion to the Supreme Court bench, becoming the first solicitor in Victoria to be appointed a judge in the state’s highest court.

It was, in the words of Peter Riordan SC (now Justice Riordan), chairman of the Victorian Bar Council on the occasion of Mr Teague’s farewell from the Court in February 2008, “an extraordinary honour for an extraordinary man”.

During his more than 20 years on the bench, Mr Teague presided over more than 90 murder trials, retiring as the senior judge in the trial division of the Court and as principal judge in its criminal division.

Now, stemming from that achievement, the one-time solicitor becomes the first judge to have his portrait commissioned by the LIV.

It begins a tradition long held by the Victorian Bar, which routinely commissions portraits of barristers appointed to the bench.

After a tour of the Supreme Court Library, where many judicial portraits hang, it was decided Mr Teague would wear a suit and not the wig and robes normally associated with such paintings because that’s the way he is seen.

The Honourable Bernie Teague
  • Born 16 February, 1938
  • Married to Patrice, seven children
  • Educated at De La Salle College
  • Arts-Law (hons), University of Melbourne
  • Admitted as solicitor, 1962
  • Partner, law firm Corrs, 1963-87
  • Member of the LIV Council, serving two terms as president, 1974 and 1987
  • Victorian Legal Personality of the Year, 1985
  • Judge, Supreme Court of Victoria, 1987-2008
  • Victorian Adult Parole Board member, 1991-2014
  • Churchill Fellowship to study judicial mentoring program, 2008
  • Made Officer of the Order of Australia for services to the law, judiciary and the community, 2009
  • Appointed to head royal commission into Victoria’s bushfires, February 2009
  • Appointed inaugural chair Wellbeing and the Law Foundation 2013
  • Recipient LIV’s President’s Award 2013
  • Appointed to head inquiries into Hazelwood mine fire 2014, 2015
  • Appointed chair of the Victims of Crime Consultative Committee, April 2015
  • Appointed chair Victorian Legal Admissions Board, 2015.
  • Starting such a tradition was not the reason Mr Teague’s great, lifelong friend Justice Emilios Kyrou suggested immortalising him in oil to LIV CEO Nerida Wallace earlier this year. It was more personal than that.

    “Bernie Teague has achieved so much and contributed so much to the legal profession, the judicial system and the community generally. That needed to be acknowledged and celebrated,” said Justice Kyrou, whose first three months doing articles at Corrs Chambers Westgarth in 1983 was under the tutelage of Mr Teague, then a partner at the firm.

    The pair became instant friends and collaborative colleagues. They co-wrote a feature for the LIJ and years later, with remarkable synchronicity, the junior solicitor went on to follow the senior media litigator to the bench – the first and second solicitors in Victoria to gain such appointments.

    “He distinguished himself as a judge, he certainly paved the way for myself and other solicitors to be considered as potential judges,” Justice Kyrou said.

    “You just have to respect someone like Bernie when you meet them and work with them. I have enormous affection and respect for Bernie.

    “I don’t think we will get another Bernie for a while. I thought how wonderful it would be for the LIV to recognise his contribution, which continues, in this way.”

    So tasked by the Appeals Court judge, Ms Wallace approached the self-effacing septuagenarian, who reportedly laughed at the suggestion but said he’d think about it.

    “He came back to me and said his wife was a great fan of Antiques Roadshow and she had said to him, well, you also could be painted by a significant painter and referenced in a hundred years’ time on a TV program like that,” Ms Wallace said.

    Lewis Miller was commissioned to paint Mr Teague’s portrait and an early challenge was finding sitting times in the subject’s hectic schedule. Mr Teague is a famously hard worker. For most of his career the self-confessed workaholic has risen at 4am to be in chambers by 5am. He has slowed but only slightly, now rising at 5am. He is currently leading the reopened Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry and is chair of the Victorian Legal Admissions Board.

    Time was found in July and August. Mr Teague, told no hair-cuts for the duration, was required to sit for two hours at a time looking directly at Mr Miller, who said he worked quickly because he was “greedy to see the image form”.

    Mr Teague said he enjoyed the process of seeing the painting come to life but admitted to struggling with sitting still.

    “I tried to look relaxed but I would be thinking of all the other things I might be doing.”

    An extra dimension was added to the project by creative director Michel Lawrence, who filmed the process. Mr Lawrence’s photographs, including Nick Cave and band members, Lloyd Rees, Sidney Nolan, John Perceval and Arthur Boyd are in the National Portrait Gallery, National Library, Queensland Art Gallery and Heide Art Gallery.

    The 14-minute film complements the painting, explaining why Mr Teague’s portrait was done through a series of interviews with Justice Kyrou, Ms Wallace, LIV president Katie Miller and former Victorian Premier John Brumby (2007-2010), with other comments from the painter and subject.

    In the film, Mr Teague reflects on the only time he wept in court. It was the trial of a battered wife who killed her husband. Her necessarily detailed retelling of years of abuse at his hands had the trial judge in tears. It is this empathy for others and down to earth nature that is so highly valued in Mr Teague.

    Justice Kyrou speaks of it in the film, as does Mr Brumby who reflects on Mr Teague’s qualities, including that work ethic, in choosing a royal commissioner to lead the Black Saturday investigation.

    “We had the terrible events of Black Saturday with 173 lives lost . . . we had to find a royal commissioner, someone professionally capable but also, given the huge loss of life, someone who could perform a healing role across the community. So we chose Bernie Teague. He was well regarded right across the parliament. I think he was exactly the right person for the job.”

    Empathy, wisdom but also the many tragedies that have come before him as a judge and royal commissioner are all there in the painter’s telling brush strokes.

    Mr Miller said painting a portrait was an “incredibly difficult high-wire act”. He must paint but also keep Mr Teague’s face animated through conversation. Revealing the finished image to the subject was “pretty ghastly”.

    “The painting has an energy to it which is what I was after. I try to be an honest painter. It’s not my job to flatter, that would be deadly . . . [but] my affection for Bernie has come through,” Mr Miller said.

    The verdict?

    “Lewis has done an excellent job, I’m very happy with it, there’s no doubt it’s me. It’s stern, there’s a lot of lines, but I like it. But I’m embarrassed about the whole thing,” said Mr Teague, while seeing it was fitting to acknowledge former solicitors in this way.

    “It’s appropriate that the LIV is doing this. It’s just embarrassing that I am the guinea pig.”

    Justice Kyrou said, “It captures him. It’s such a good likeness, wrinkles and all. The brushstrokes capture the charm of this man, it’s him.”

    The final review of the portrait which was unveiled at the National Gallery of Victoria on 27 October and will be hung in the LIV, goes to the person who knows him best, his wife of 52 years, Patrice.

    “Oh, it’s great, it’s very much Bernard.”

    Artist Lewis Miller
  • Lewis Miller was commissioned to paint Bernie Teague’s portrait – the fourth judicial figure he has committed to canvas alongside the Hon Kim Santow, the Hon Robert French and the Hon Susan Crennan.
  • The Melbourne-born painter has been short-listed for the Archibald Prize 16 times. He won it in 1998 with his portrait of artist Allan Mitelman. He won the Art Gallery of NSW’s sporting portrait prize in 2000 with his painting of Ron Barassi.
  • In 2003, Mr Miller was appointed Official Australian Artist to the conflict in Iraq by the Australian War Memorial. The artist spent three weeks in the Middle East where he recorded the services of the RAN, the RAAF, the Army and Special Forces (SAS).
  • Mr Miller’s work is represented in private and public collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, National Gallery of Victoria, Australian War Memorial, High Court of Australia Canberra, National Portrait Gallery Canberra, Monash University, Deakin University Art Collection, University of New South Wales, Auckland War Memorial Museum, Karolyi Foundation Venice, France Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York.
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