When Nicholas Harding was awarded the 2022 Wynne Prize for landscape, one sensed it wasn’t simply a vote for a single painting, but for a lifetime’s achievement. This is not to detract from that winning canvas, Eora, a vast bushland scene, almost 2 by 4 metres – a scale that might have intimidated most artists, let alone one who was battling a deadly illness.
Harding looked so thin and frail when he accepted the prize it seemed inconceivable that he had summoned up the energy to paint such a monumental work. It was, however, the second huge landscape he had completed in successive years, the first, Wilpena Pound and Eucalyptus (Sliding Rock) being the stand-out painting in the exhibition, Tree of Life, held at the S.H.Ervin Gallery in May last year. While these late works came together over many months, it took incredible determination to bring them to a conclusion – the same determination Harding displayed throughout his career. He was up for every challenge, including the challenge of cancer, which he fought fiercely, refusing to give up hope.
Nicholas Harding was born at Shooters Hill, in south-east London, in 1956. His father, Colin, worked for the Bank of NSW, and now lives in retirement in the Southern Highlands. Nicholas’s deceased mother, Vi, was a secretary.
The Hardings migrated to Australia in 1965, living first in Balmain, before moving to Normanhurst, where Nicholas attended high school. He began a BA at Macquarie University but dropped out after six months. His ambition was to be an artist, and perhaps the only classes he really enjoyed were in life drawing. Throughout his career Harding would be a prolific and compulsive draughtsman.
Having never gone to art school, Harding suffered all the frustrations and insecurities of the self-taught. His drawing skills would secure him work as an animator with Hana Barbera, a job he began in 1977, and would pursue for more than two decades. By the time he gave up the business he was directing animated commercials.
While working in animation Harding taught himself to paint, but by 1986 he had turned 30 and still not made the slightest impression. He considered giving up, but instead, discovered the work of British painter, Frank Auerbach. What made Auerbach unique was the way he trowelled on the oil paint, creating canvases that resembled relief sculptures. Yet the artist’s subject matter never strayed far from everyday life, mostly pictures of the streets where he lived, and portraits of friends.
Harding had discovered a visual language and an attitude that suited his own temperament. He began painting pictures of suburban Newtown and Redfern, or the streets around Central Railway, in thick impasto. Oils were applied in great slabs, with lines gouged out of a clay-like surface, although his palette was restrained, as he tentatively explored the possibilities of colour. At the same time he was making large, heavily-worked ink drawings on paper that had been roughed up in advance.
Harding entered the Faber-Castell Drawing Prize twice before being accepted on his third attempt. He took his work to Rex Irwin, the art dealer who hosted the event, and asked for an exhibition. Irwin, who regularly showed British artists such as Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and David Hockney was Harding’s first and perhaps only choice. It required several meetings over a couple of years, but eventually Irwin gave him a debut exhibition in 1992. It was an instant success, and the beginning of a long, productive partnership. Over the following 20 years, Harding would have a show with Irwin every year – or every second year, after he began exhibiting with Philip Bacon in Brisbane and Sophie Gannon in Melbourne. When Irwin joined forces with Tim Olsen, in 2013, Harding went along, staying with the Olsen Gallery after Rex retired. Few artists get through a career of thirty years, remaining loyal to only three galleries. With Rex Irwin, it was not only a business relationship, but a 30 year friendship.
Harding was the loyal type. In 1974 he met Lynne Watkins, then a student at Sydney College of the Arts, and the couple would stay together until the end. Their son, Sam, would come along in 1993.
The regular exhibitions with Rex Irwin secured Harding a loyal following, although the art museums were slow to respond. Despite his thickly painted surfaces, Harding remained a very traditional artist, a maker of landscapes, portraits, still life and interiors. He was content to leave the political messages and ‘subversive’ intentions to others. Like Cressida Campbell, an artist of a similar persuasion, he owed his early representation to Margaret Olley who would buy his paintings and donate them to public collections.
By 2000 Harding had become successful and confident enough to give up animation, and devote himself entirely to his own work. The change made itself felt in a much brighter palette and a freer application of paint.
The following year Harding would win the Archibald Prize for a portrait of John Bell in the role of King Lear. From this point on he became a highly collectable artist. There would be many notable exhibitions, including Drawn to Paint, a survey at the S.H.Ervin Gallery in 2010; and 28 Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2017, which even included in-flight portraits drawn on airsick bags.
Harding became an Archbald Prize fixture, appearing on 19 occasions between 1997 and 2020. He would win the Peoples Choice award in 2005, for a portrait of veteran painter, Bob Dickerson, swimming with his hat on. He would happily paint his favourite subjects a second time, as he did with John Bell, Margaret Olley, Margaret Whitlam and Rusty Peters. Success came with his second John Bell, but his best Archibald entry may have been a 2011 portrait of another actor, Hugo Weaving, who was a friend.
Weaving invited Harding to rehearsals of the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Waiting for Godot in 2013, and he quickly became addicted to these sessions. His theatre drawings would eventually fill many sketchbooks, which were exhibited at the Olsen Gallery, and Manly Museum and Art Gallery in 2020.
When I asked Lynne if Nicholas had any favourite genre or motif, she said that he loved everything, from the theatre drawings, to the panandus he painted on the north coast and the trees he saw in the Flinders Ranges. Every picture was an exercise in problem-solving, and that’s what he enjoyed most. It’s hard to think of a single more impressive work than Wilpena Pound and Eucalyptus (Sliding Rock), which may be one of the all-time great bush landscapes.
Harding was at the peak of his powers when he was diagnosed with cancer at the base of the tongue in 2017. He fought the disease, and believed he’d beaten it, but two years later another tumour was discovered in his liver, and all his efforts, all his love of life, were not sufficient to the task.
At the end, Harding was in the enviable position among artists, of being able to sell almost everything he produced. This did not, however, change his attitude to life. His friends speak warmly of his good nature, his dedication to his work, and his humanity. He was not a flashy man at all,” says Rex Irwin. “He was gentle and kind, and interested in many different things, which is why he had the kind of friends that a lot of artists don’t have.”
Nicholas Harding (12/7/1956 – 2/11/2022) is survived by his wife, Lynne Watkins; his son, Sam; father, Colin, and stepmother, Helen; brothers Chris and David, and sister, Jane. A final solo exhibition will be held at the Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, from 15 November – 10 December.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November, 2022