Private Harold Abbott (front) operating a radio set in the field, Reference number: P00911.001 Private Harold Abbott (front) operating a radio set in the field
P00911.001

Date of birth: 14 June 1906
Place of birth: Sydney, New South Wales
Date of death: 8 June 1986
Place of death: Sydney, New South Wales

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. Abbott became highly accomplished in portraiture, still life, and genre paintings, winning the Sulman Prize in 1940. Portraiture was of particular interest to Abbott. 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, an awareness of compositional balance, 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 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, during which time he produced a large body of work documenting scenes and portraits that reflected his experiences.

Harold Abbott, ‘Army workshop’, 1944, Reference number: ART22210 Harold Abbott, Army workshop, 1944,
ART22210

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. Abbott focused on specific elements that formed a part of every soldier’s day-to-day life. His genre works provide eyewitness accounts of everyday life at war, ranging from hygiene and recreation, to machinery and repairs, as well as 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 confronting triptych depicting the fall of Singapore and prisoners of war working on the Burma-Thailand railway. The three panels of A triptych of suffering include Defeat, Singapore, On the Thailand Railway 1, and On the Thailand Railway 2. 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. These works are demonstrative of Abbott’s engagement with emotion and drama – a theme he revisits later in life.

As a war artist Abbott also produced many portraits, each one reflecting his skill in being able to capturing 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; his style, however, was markedly different. Narrative and figurative works in oils and watercolours gave way to bold abstract compositions in acrylics. Prior to his death, 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.

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