An official war artist during the Second World War, Harold Abbott was an accomplished portraitist who had studied at the Royal Academy of Art in London before returning to Australia and enlisting in the Australian Imperial Forces. After the war he returned to teaching, working at the National Art School in Sydney before becoming the State Supervisor for Art.
Born in Sydney in 1906, Harold Frederick Abbott was a portrait painter and teacher of art by profession. From 1923 he began studying art part time at the Sydney Art School under Julian Ashton and Henry Gibbons. In 1931, after being awarded the NSW Society of Artists Travelling Scholarship, Abbott moved to London where he spent the next two years studying at the Royal Academy, returning to Australia in 1933. Having years of academic training behind him, Abbott became highly accomplished in portraiture and still life studies, as well as genre paintings and in 1940 Abbott won the Sulman Prize for his painting Vaucluse interior . Portraiture was of particular interest to Abbott, and the influence of Old Masters such as Velazquez, Rembrandt, and Goya is evident in the portraits he produced. Of portraits, Abbott wrote in an article in Art in Australia in 1939 “...that welling-up of the unconscious that we call inspiration only appears in a portrait when the artist understands his subject intuitively as well as consciously”. His dedication to depicting his subjects with great honesty and likeness is evident in all of the portraits he produced throughout his career. Characteristics of his style were his simplicity in approach, his awareness of compositional balance, his use of light to create depth and shadow, and his narrative painterly style.
In 1941, Abbott enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, and in 1943 he was appointed acting lieutenant as a war artist in 2/9 Australian Field Regiment. Abbott spent the next two years serving as an official war artist for Australia, during which time he produced a large body of works documenting scenes and portraits that reflected his experiences and encounters from the Second World War. As a result of his commission, the Australian War Memorial holds 180 of these works in their collection.
Abbott’s skills in genre painting were well suited to his duties as a war artist; he constructed highly balanced scenes with a strong underlying narrative that provided a comprehensive and truthful documentation of Australia’s involvement on the home front, in the Pacific Islands, and in Singapore during the Second World War. On the home front, works such as Main Street , Atherton (AWM collection, ART22293) emphasise the effect that the military presence had on the rural town of Atherton, Queensland – impacting both physically and visually upon the otherwise sedate backdrop. Abbott did not often portray the horrific events of war; rather he focused on those specific elements that formed a part of every soldier’s day to day life. His genre works evoke a sense of calm tranquillity, and provide eyewitness accounts of everyday life at war – ranging from hygiene and recreation, to machinery and repairs, as well as general camp scenes which incorporate the local flora, fauna, and surrounding landscapes. In a marked departure from the relatively calm documentation of daily activities, Abbott produced a highly confronting and dramatic triptych depicting the fall of Singapore and prisoners of war working on the Burma-Thailand railway. In a triptych of suffering ( Defeat, Singapore ; On the Thailand Railway, 1 ; On the Thailand railway [all 1946]) Abbott is no longer concerned with the subtler elements of war and portrays the traumatic and deeply disturbing devastation he witnessed in Singapore. Sombre images of emaciated prisoners of war disintegrating under the weight of hard labour and destruction confront and shock the viewer. Abbott’s natural colour palette is replaced by bold reds and yellows that serve to heighten the dramatic representation of torment and suffering. These works are demonstrative of Abbott’s engagement with emotion and drama – a theme that he again touches upon later in life.
As a war artist Abbott also produced many portraits, each one reflecting his skill in being able to capture an individual with great honesty and likeness. His subjects ranged from high-ranking officials and officers to local natives and Japanese prisoners of war. For all those of whom he made portraits, Abbott endeavoured to collect as much information as possible; he would spend time talking with them and observing their behaviour, consequently producing works of a very sincere and personal nature.
In the 20 years following the war, Abbott did very little painting and exhibiting. He instead applied himself to teaching at the National Art School in Sydney, where he later became the head and State Supervisor of Art. In the late 1960s, when he was in retirement, he resumed painting again – however his style was markedly different. Narrative and figurative works in oils and watercolours gave way to bold abstract compositions in acrylics. Abbott ventured away from much of his academic training towards explorations in form, colour, design, technique, and mood. Starting with the use of bold colours and semi-abstract configurations, his works became increasingly non-figurative, eventually discarding all familiarity in form to develop purely abstract expressions in art. Prior to his death in 1986 in Sydney, Abbott held eight solo exhibitions and his work is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, as well as various regional art galleries across Australia.
Assistant Curator, Australian War Memorial
Dimcevska, VickyNote: Assistant Curator, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, ACT