The life’s work of a great painter

Have you noticed I’ve been writing a lot about art lately? Perhaps because I’ve always been a wordy woman. I used to draw a lot when I was a young child, but somehow I lost it, when our life fell apart, and eventually I was sent away to boarding school, where I wasn’t allowed to do art as a subject: that was for the non-academic students! I was channelled into words from early on, and was taught next to nothing about art and artists in my youth. Yet I’ve always been attracted to visual people, and I love landscapes and representations of them, and of people. But I’ve never taken to abstract art; I’m drawn, in my own amateur sketching, to representational images; to see what’s there and recreate it on the page, bringing out the beauty, shape, colour and atmosphere.

And of course, art is a visual form of life writing, be it of the landscape, built objects, or people; it’s all a representation of life, an interpretation and a celebration of it.

The latest exhibition at the Tweed River Gallery is of a collection of the work of Robert Hannaford, a South Australian artist, who does portraits, landscapes and still life. He is here at present, doing a commissioned portrait of Margot Anthony, patron (with her husband Doug Anthony) of the gallery. He’s had a series of open studios, the last one this afternoon, where you can watch him painting her. More of that later, when I’ve tried to squeeze my way into the queue for his last session.

The gallery has a couple of his paintings in the permanent collection; the most famous one is ‘Bill’, which won the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 1990. Bill is the quintessential outback Aussie guy, perched on a stool, lean and long-legged, a cigarette in one hand, bush hat on one knee, old yellow dog draped behind the stool, and Bill himself, gazing at you with his serious and intense eyes, handlebar moustache veiling the slight downward turn of his mouth, thinning hair combed across his head and fluffing out untidily over his ears. This is the face of a man who has lived and worked hard, and is uncompromising in facing life as he sees it full on. You feel as if he is watching you, waiting to hear what you have to say; but he may not answer, of if he does, it will be laconic. Bill is a favourite with visitors to the gallery, and if for any reason he disappears, people want to know where he is, when will he be back.

I see Bill as very much like his painter. Robert Hannaford is a slight man in his late sixties. He has lived his life around painting, it is his passion and his raison d’etre. I first met him, in a passive sense, when he sat next to me at the opening of the new exhibitions. I noticed the intensity of his gaze, and was a little disturbed by the gutteral noises he made occasionally to clear his throat. I later learned that he had an aggressive cancer of the tongue in 2006, which is in remission, but it has left him with a slight speech impediment, and he seems a lot thinner and slighter than he was in self-portraits done before this period.

The exhibition of his work is large, and includes many sketches and studies for his major works, as well as many of his commissioned portraits, some self-portraits, and landscapes. It goes right back to his earliest work, from late teens, when he began recording the world he saw around him. The works that arrested me and drew me in more than any others were his landscapes, which, though they are representational, have a simplicity and immediacy, and a boldness of colour and shape, which made me feel as if I were there.

In the wonderful study of his work, Robert Hannaford: Natural Eye, by John Neylon (Wakefield Press), Hannaford is quoted about why he became an artist: ‘I was not interested in becoming an “artist” — rather I wanted to learn as much as I could about the world and life. With my abilities and temperament drawing and paining became a way of doing this.’

His art is life and about life; there could be no more vivid and moving representation of it, and I found myself drawn into the world he sees and paints.

I recommend, if you can get to the Tweed River Gallery, that you see this exhibition of his life work before it closes on the 29th January. And later, I’ll add a comment about his open studio.

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3 Comments

Filed under artist, Robert Hannaford

3 responses to “The life’s work of a great painter

  1. Christina Houen

    Just back from the last Open Studio for the Anthony portrait. The artist stands about 4 metres back from the subject, who sits in black office armchair on a raised dais. When I first saw the portrait, on Thursday, her face and expression were already speaking; then, he was working mainly on the face, adding touches of colour and highlight. His stance and movements are remarkable; he stands poised, intently gazing, brushes in one hand, and then darts forward, sometimes retreating a few paces before placing one small stroke of the brush, or etching it in more firmly with finger or brush handle, occasionally softening it with a cloth. He is like a dancer, and at times he seems about to leap forward into the portrait.
    Today he was holding up a mirror and I asked him what he saw: ‘a reverse image. The eye gets stale, so a reverse image brings back the freshness.’
    Sometimes he gets up on a chair and holds the mirror up so he can look into it upside down. ‘It’s all about seeing what’s THERE.’ Later, he added, ‘it’s also painting what I know — the anatomy of skin, bone, and muscle. If you just paint what you observe, you get the proportions all wrong.’
    Later, he added as an aside: ‘Picasso said you don’t finish a painting, you abandon it!’
    I was privileged to watch a great artist at work. It struck me that what he said applies to realist writing too; to describe what’s there, and what one knows is there below the surface, and to see it fresh, not to let the inner eye get stale.
    Although posed portraits are not my favourite form of art, I came to love this painting as I watched it take shape, colour and light, and I am eager to see it hanging in the gallery, when its time comes.

  2. Such an interesting post. I love Robert Hannaford’s work, and he has such true quality. I always voted for his portraits in the Archibald Prize, which in my view he should have won.

  3. I agree with you. I haven’t followed the Archibald until this year, but seeing his exhibition won me as a devotee of his work; and I admire the man, his passion, his vision, his integrity.

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