With the recent retirement of Edmund Capon from the directorship of the Art Gallery of New South Wales it is well worth remembering another long term Director who, like Capon, left a lasting legacy on the New South Wales state collection.
|Erosion by the Creek (1954), watercolour by Hal Missingham|
Art Gallery of NSW collection
The seventh of eight children, Harold (Hal) Missingham was born in Claremont, Western Australia, on the 8th December 1906. He was educated at several schools in and around Perth but left school at fourteen in 1920, not long after the death of his father. The following year he was apprenticed to a process engraver at J. Gibney & Son, Perth (1922-26). This training inspired him to study art under James W.R. Linton and A.B. Webb at the Perth Technical School (1922-26).
After completing his engraving apprenticeship Missingham travelled to England in early 1926 where he enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. With several months to wait for his course to begin, he travelled to Paris and briefly studied at the Colarossi and Julian académies in Paris. His first lithograph, Roofs of Paris (1926), was made during this time. Later that year he returned to London and began his studies at the Central (as it was informally known). His teachers there included Noel Rooke (illustration), Bernard Meninsky (life drawing and painting), A.S. Hartrick (lithography) and W.P. Robins (etching). In 1927 he decided to return to Australia but only made it as far as Canada before his money ran out; he returned to London in 1928 and resumed his studies at the Central.
1930 was an important year for Missingham, both professionally and emotionally. That year he was awarded a Senior Art Scholarship by the London County Council for three years full-time study at the Central, he also began exhibiting his work. His first known exhibition was a mixed show at the influential Zwemmer Gallery in London. 'Harold’ Missingham exhibited two works, Scilly Isles [lithograph], priced two guineas, and Formal Opening of New Cafe at Mayland, ten guineas. Through contact with fellow Central student Olive Long, Missingham met Esther Long (Olive’s sister) and they married on 24 July 1930.
Missingham relinquished his scholarship early in 1932 so he could find employment. While painting and printmaking was his main artistic interest, the Great Depression forced him to work mainly as a commercial artist in advertising agencies. During the 1930s he worked as a commercial artist in London and in the early 1930s he developed an interest in photography. In 1933 Missingham began teaching at the Central, and he also taught at the Westminster School of Art and at Chelsea Polytechnic. While at Chelsea he became friends with Henry Moore who also taught there. In 1935 Missingham was commissioned to paint a mural for the Orient Line ship S.S. Oronsay and he painted the work while en route for Australia. After six weeks in Perth he returned to London.
In 1939 Missingham and his wife decided to move back to Australia but they did not travel until the following year. Back in Western Australia the thirty-four-year-old artist took a position at Gibney’s in Perth and was later commissioned as a Camouflage Officer with Western Command in Perth. During early 1941 Missingham moved to Sydney and joined the as a Signaller. Despite his military obligations, he continued to take photographs and paint. From 1943 to 1945 Missingham had several exhibitions at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney, and through these shows he made his name as a promising artist on the Sydney art scene. As well as his painting he was illustrating Sydney Ure Smith’s Australia: National Journal and other Ure Smith Pty Ltd publications.
1947 photo by Max Dupain
Collection National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
In March 1945 Missingham, along with Bernard Smith and Social Realist artists James Cant, Dora Chapman, Roy Dalgarno, Roderick Shaw, established the Studio of Realist Art () as an artist’s centre and art school in Sussex Street, Sydney. Although was not officially controlled by the Communist Party of Australia (), was sympathetic to its aims and it was financially supported by leftist elements within the trade union movement (Campbell 1995, pg 40). Unlike most of the founders, Missingham was not a member of the but would have been regarded as a fellow traveller. During 1945 he taught drawing for .
The influential art publisher Sydney Ure Smith knew Missingham during the war years and urged him to apply for the position of Director of the National Art Gallery of (now ) which was vacant after the resignation of Will Ashton. Missingham was reluctant to accept Smith’s proposal and was reported to say, “Why pick on me? I’m a painter, I don’t want to run a gallery, least of all a dirty, dismal place like the New South Wales Gallery.” (Missingham 1973, pg 2). Smith (a vice-president of the board of trustees) talked Missingham around to the idea and he applied for the position.
Thanks, in part, to a Labor State Government in New South Wales being tolerant of left wing progressive views, Missingham was appointed Director of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney on 3rd September 1945 (the 'National’ was dropped from the official title of the Gallery in 1958). He was the first permanent director of the gallery to fully embrace modernism, although he faced much resistance from the conservative members of the board of trustees. Missingham wrote of his many battles with the trustees, especially John W. Maund, in his 1973 memoir, They kill you in the end. Soon after his appointment he began purchasing painting by contemporary Australian artists including Drysdale and Nolan.
An early assessment of his work was by artist Herbert E. Badham in A Study of Australian Art (pg 145):
“Hal Missingham is eclectic in his opinions. To him there is no one expression – all is grist for the artist’s mill, but hard work is necessary for the acquisition of craftsmanship to refine the personal statement… His own work shows skill and a lively emotive content which places it high in the category of today’s art.”
Despite his appointment as Director of the , Missingham continued to paint and take photographs, especially during the 1950s. He exhibited his work with many groups and became a regular exhibitor with the Australian Watercolour Institute (); he served as President of the from 1952-55.
As well as creating art he became a prolific author. Missingham’s main written works include:Australian Alphabet (1942); A Student’s Guide to Commercial Art (1948); An Animal Anthology (1948); Good Fishing (1953); Hal Missingham Sketch Book(1954); My Australia (1969); Australia Close Focus (1970); They kill you in the end(1973); Blackboys and Blackgins, Grass Trees of Western Australia (1978); and Design Focus (1978). As well as these works he wrote introductions to numerous books and exhibition catalogues and designed the catalogues for most of the exhibitions at the .
During his twenty-six year directorship of the , Missingham organised many successful exhibitions, including: 'Australia at War’ (1944-46); 'French Painting Today’ (1953); 'Italian Art of the 20th century’ (1956); 'Recent German Graphic Art’ (1956); 'Contemporary Japanese Art’ (1958); 'Russell Drysdale retrospective’ (1960); 'William Dobell retrospective’ (1964); 'Sidney Nolan retrospective’ (1967); and 'Design in Scandinavia’ (1968-69). He also organised a 'Young Australia Painters’ exhibition in Japan (1965), and a 'William Dobell’ exhibition in London (1965).
His major achievements at the gallery included the increased professionalism of the curatorial and conservation departments, the establishment of the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales (which raised much needed funds), and a building expansion. Missingham retired from the directorship on 3rd September 1971, eight months before the long delayed extension of the gallery, known as the Captain Cook Wing, was opened.
|Pt. Arkwright, Coolum Beach, watercolour by Hal Missingham|
Missingham returned to Western Australia in 1973 and set up home with his wife at Darlington on the western fringes of Perth. Despite being officially retired he concentrated mainly on his painting and photography which he did during his many tours of Australia and abroad. He had many exhibitions during the 1970s and early 1980s around Australia and regularly showed his work at the Greenhill Galleries, Perth. In late 1985 and early 1986 an exhibition of his late career work was held at the Freemantle Arts Centre, Western Australia.
Tragedy struck Missingham in June 1986 when an electrical fire destroyed his garden studio at Darlington. While no one was hurt, the seventy-nine-year-old artist lost all his photographic negatives and colour transparencies. In July/August 1987 Missingham held his final exhibition at the Greenhill Galleries in Perth. Mentally traumatised by the fire, the following eight years saw a slow decline in his health, and in late life he became totally blind following a series of strokes which began in 1988. Hal Missingham died in 1994. He was survived by his wife Esther and their two children.
His work is included in all Australian state galleries as well as the British Museum. While much of his archive of photographic images was destroyed in the 1986 fire, his papers are deposited in the National Library of Australia. According to the 2009 edition of the Australian Art Sales Digest, the highest price paid for his work was a 1946 watercolour titled Blackboy Grove which sold for $9,900 at Gregson Flanagan, Perth (lot 33) in November 2006.
© Silas Clifford-Smith 2013
An edited version of this PEER REVIEWED biography was first published on the Design and Art Australia Online (DAAO) website in 2009