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How do Harris's moral flaws affect the value of his ouevre?

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Monday, 7 July 2014


Until his sex crimes came to light, Rolf Harris had been one of the best-known and most-liked celebrities, both here and in Britain. He spent virtually all of his adult life in Britain so that the average Australian is probably unaware of the full breadth of his achievements. Nevertheless, Harris was always up-front about his country of birth and regularly visited here. He was in many ways one of our unofficial ambassadors. Now, following his very recent conviction on 12 counts of indecent assault on four victims (with the expectation of further charges), there has already been an orgy of retribution against him.

There is little doubt that Harris deserves his almost six year (half of it custodial) sentence, and that the public was right to amend its assessment of his character. On the other hand, a question does arise about the extent to which his conviction for sex offences should detract from other aspects of his life, particularly public recognition of his achievements in art and entertainment.

Rolf Harris began as a champion swimmer from Perth, who studied art. When Harris was a teenager in Perth, his self-portrait in oils was one of the 80 works accepted to be hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales as an entry for the 1947 Archibald Prize. He subsequently painted a portrait of the then Lieutenant Governor of Western Australia, Sir James Mitchell, for the 1948 Archibald competition, and he won a WA prize (the 1949 Claude Hotchin prize for oil colours) with a landscape painting.

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Harris subsequently moved to Britain. While there, he started to draw animations for television programmes and began a musical career. In 1957, he wrote what later became his theme song Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport, which was a Number One hit in Australia, and a Top Ten hit in the UK and the United States. His other big hit Two Little Boys reached Number One on both the Australian and UK charts (where it stayed for some weeks) and had wide international appeal. Harris is credited with inventing the wobble-board and pioneered the playing of our native instrument, the didgeridoo, in popular entertainments.

Harris achieved further fame in Britain presenting a number of successful TV shows. Harris presented nineteen series of AnimalHospital for BBC One and the show won the Most Popular Factual Entertainment Show award at the National TV Awards on no less than five occasions. On many of his television appearances, Harris painted pictures on large boards in an apparently casual manner. He always surprised audiences with the quality and clarity of his canvas at completion.

Until recently, Harris was one of Britain's bestselling popular artists, with some pieces valued at close to £1 million. His most famous work is probably his portrait of the Queen. In November and December 2002 London's National Gallery exhibited a collection of Harris's art.

In 2001 and 2004, Harris presented Rolf on Art, a television series that highlights the work of a selection of his favourite artists. Harris had also presented three series of the BBC art programme Star Portraits with Rolf Harris. In January 2007, a one-hour documentary titled A Lifetime in Paint, about Harris's work as an artist-from his early years in Australia to the present day-was screened on BBC One.

In the short time since his trial, the ARIA Hall of Fame has already expelled Harris. British media have reported that it is likely that he will be stripped of his CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), while the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) has told UK media that Harris would be stripped of the BAFTA Fellowship awarded to him in 2012. In addition, the Council for the Order of Australia has indicated that his Australian honour (Officer of the Order of Australia) may be withdrawn. "The Boy from Bassendean", as he was known, is also honoured with a plaque inlaid into one of the Perth suburb's footpaths. There are now plans to dig it up.

Harris has received two honorary doctorates. One from the University of East London in 2007 and another from Liverpool Hope University in 2010. Following his conviction, both universities removed his honorary doctorates

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Art collectors, galleries and eBay reportedly are scrambling to distance themselves from Harris. Some regional ­galleries in the UK were reportedly offering half-price sales to rid themselves of his work, while one former admirer said that she would burn a £50,000 Harris portrait of pop singer Bonnie Tyler. Across Britain, paintings by Harris in schools and public buildings are being quietly removed, as well as a plaque at Colchester Zoo. Harris' 2006 portrait of the Queen ceased being on view last year, after being exhibited on loan at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery for several years.

Disgusted Australians have had their own individual reactions. Daytime television queen Kerri-Anne Kennerley reportedly plans to tear down her Rolf Harris mural (painted for a morning TV show some years ago). In addition, residents of the Victorian town of Warrnambool are now in dispute over a mural the former star painted on a wall of its Lighthouse Theatre in the 1980s. Some want it painted over, while others see no need to destroy the artwork.

A West Australian Education Department spokeswoman said that several Harris artworks would be removed from the walls of Perth Modern School, where he was a student from 1943 to 1947. Edith Cowan University similarly announced that seven of Harris' works had been removed from display.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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