The unveiling of the official portrait of the Rt. Hon Joe Clark on May 28, 2008 focused attention once again on the Prime Ministers' official portraits and the process whereby the paintings are commissioned and installed in the Centre Block. There is some confusion surrounding how portraits are painted due to the fact that for many years there was no official process in place.
As late as the 1960s portraits were initiated in an informal manner by friends, colleagues or even House officials. For example, the portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald was commissioned by his friends and colleagues and paid for by subscription drawn from among his friends and supporters. The posthumous portrait of Sir Robert Borden was commissioned at the request of the Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Prime Minister King also commissioned his own portrait.
Nor was there ever any particular timeframe within which portraits would be painted. Seven of the official portraits were painted posthumously. Those of Prime Ministers Abbott and Bowell must have broken some records, as both were commissioned and unveiled over a century after the two men served in office. In contrast, Prime Ministers Macdonald and Mackenzie King unveiled their own official portraits while still in office. For the most part, official portraits have been commissioned after the Prime Minister has retired from political life.
It was not until the 1960s that some structure was brought to the commissioning of official portraits of Prime Ministers. As part of the heightened interest in history surrounding the festivities marking the 100th anniversary of Confederation in 1967, the government commissioned the portraits of Prime Ministers Diefenbaker and Pearson. This set the stage for a more formal Government involvement and the project was entrusted to the Secretary of State's office; both portraits were unveiled in 1968. By the late 1980s the Department of Public Works was given responsibility to commission official portraits; today, PWGSC remains responsible for providing funding for the portraits.
In keeping with a practice established for Speakers' portraits in 1864, the selection of the artist is left to the subject. In that way, the painting is a reflection of the taste and character of both the artist and the subject.
The average period of time for a commission to be completed is 18 months from the time the Minister of Public Works invites the former Prime Minister to sit for their portrait to the official unveiling in the Centre Block. Official unveilings, involving invited guests and receptions, were only introduced in the 1960s. While each artist works in different ways and in different media, they all rely upon a combination of methods to capture the character of their subject. The result is a collection of paintings that is as varied as the careers and personalities that they portray and commemorate for future generations.