Big Interview: Rolf Harris considers a life in art for new exhibition
Sep 20 2010 By Dan Hodges
After 65 years in front of an easel, Rolf Harris has earned the title of Britain's best-loved artist. With an exhibition of originals and limited edition prints opening this week in central London, he told DAN HODGES how his passion for painting refuses to wane
Achieving recognition in their own lifetime is something few artists achieve. Try to count how many painters also forge a half-century career in TV and novelty singles, and the list surely narrows to just one name.
While Rolf Harris is rightly loved as a man of many talents, it is perhaps his skill as a painter which has cemented his status as a national treasure. Some of his finest work has been collected together in a touring exhibition called A Life in Art, which launches at the Whitewall Gallery in James Street, Westminster, on Thursday with a personal appearance from its creator.
Far from resting on his laurels following the retrospective, Rolf is still painting prolifically, trying to keep up with the huge demand for his work that has been generated by the tour.
"Once an original has sold it's gone, unless you get permission from the owner to keep it in an exhibition for a while, so I'm painting all the time to try to keep the stocks up," said Rolf.
"I've just supplied them with five more paintings which I've done in the last couple of weeks."
Rolf's art is inspired by a huge variety of subjects – landscapes, wild animals, cityscapes, people at work – almost all of which are based on scenes which captivate him while travelling.
"I can't bear the thought of having everything in an exhibition being the same," he said. "I hate it when I go into a gallery and the paintings are all identical, with the same subject but from slightly different angles.
"I always want to paint what I see, and I use a camera to grab so many different images of what I see around the world. I put them on to the computer, and then I can print those out and use them as a reference for the paintings.
"It makes wildlife painting so much easier, because there's no way you can do a painting while standing and watching an animal in the wild – they don't stay around for long.
"I'm still travelling but I haven't done much in Africa recently. The last time was in Kenya a year ago, when they had some kind of military coup."
Playful self-portraits have formed a part of Rolf's back catalogue since 1946, when the 15-year-old Rolf became the youngest ever artist to have a painting hung in Australia's prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture.
Self-portraits from the decades since reveal his evolution as an artist and an individual, always sporting glasses and scrutinising himself, his unmistakeable hair and beard gradually turning from dark brown to grey.
"I really love to see them, because there are some which are fantastic images and I think to myself, gosh, I wish I could do one nowadays which has that much charm to it," said Rolf.
"It's difficult to try to keep them fresh, and I get a little bit too precious in trying to get them exactly right. Sometimes I think it would be better to do an impression and not refine it so much, so if you come up close it would just look like large brush strokes."
The sale of paintings and limited edition prints through the touring exhibition has been unprecedented, says Rolf, with original works going for upwards of £30,000. The agony of putting a value on an artwork is now thankfully out of his hands, having long been the responsibility of his agent.
"When I first started out, people would say 'how much for the painting', and I wouldn't have a clue," said Rolf. "I would give them away to friends and people who I admired, because I didn't have a clue what sort of price to put on them.
"When I did my first exhibition in this country in the late 80s, the people who set it up asked what I thought about prices. I said a few hundred, but they said make it at least £1,000 before you start because you're underpricing yourself enormously.
"Artists can't decide how much a thing is worth, they've got no idea. Now I'm very happy to have an agent who decides all that.
"To have the success I've had in this exhibition is just phenomenal. In the last exhibition we sold four originals – one chap came in and bought two. He said one reminded him so much of Poland when he was a young boy."
Painting may be Rolf's first love, but a string of immortal hits like Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport, Jake the Peg and Two Little Boys have brought him sustained affection from generations of festival-goers and music fans that shows no sign of abating.
"If something works, you're thrilled to bits by it. I'm very happy with the painting, but I'm also still entertaining and still doing gigs," he said.
"I just did Bestival on the Isle of Wight, and I was the opening act at Glastonbury, where I now hold the record for the largest crowd at an opening act. There were 130,000 people there – it was stunning and amazing, and they were all singing every line of the songs along with me. I'm looking forward to doing some more next year."
As for the prospect of retiring from painting or public life any time soon, Rolf is unequivocal.
"No way," he said, "I love it too much."
Rolf Harris: A Life in Art is on display at the Whitewall Gallery in James Street, Westminster, until October 7. Opening hours are 10am to 7pm on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, 10am to 8pm on Thursday and Friday and 10am to 6pm on Sunday. For details click here.