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Nicholas Harding

Nicholas Harding, 2016 by Mark Mohell
Nicholas Harding, 2016 by Mark Mohell

It’s amazing that anyone managed to keep a pet going before the invention of the internet. Online these days, on a plethora of owners’ forums, you can read all about the care of, say, Mexican neotenic salamanders, but in the early 1980s Nicholas Harding had to learn the ways of axolotls first-hand, by courtesy of a series of horrors involving his own – Montezuma – and his tankies. Now, practically everyone knows that by zipping their gill slits, leaping upwards and opening their jaws all at once, axolotls generate a vacuum; but empirically, Nicholas could only be sure they offed his catfish, Spike, sucking his eyes out and leaving his corpse floating on its side. The crunch came when he came home one night to catch Monte red-handed, half of Spike’s last surviving mate hanging out of his slash of a mouth. He tried separating them in a pioneering procedure, but lost them both – speaking euphemistically, not literally – on the table.

Nicholas Harding came here from England with his family in 1965, just before he turned nine. They came from a place where the landscape was benign; his grandparents grew prized flowers, and they used to picnic in the velvety grounds of grand houses. A few days after they got to Sydney, Harding took off his shoes to run across a grassy slope and was introduced, rudely, to bindies. His family had often gone to the beach around Eastbourne, where at low tide it was a long walk out, hanky on head, for a paddle. In Australia the beach was blinding; you’d get burnt and maybe bitten by sandflies, and you could well drown, like the prime minister. Rambling over English parks and commons, little blue-eyed Nicholas introduced an exploratory twig into any hole he found. Here, he was warned, you could get killed doing that.

As it happened, the Hardings settled in funnel-web central: Normanhurst, thirty-two kilometres north of the Sydney CBD on the edge of wilderness. A black snake often lay on the warm driveway, and Mrs Harding wanted it gone, but whenever she spotted it and called to her husband, he ran and got the camera, so he could send pictures back to the Old Country. There came a day when she and the reptile came face to face as she was heading out, fully dolled-up for lunch. Nicholas saw her hotfoot it in high heels to grab the shovel, come back and chop it into cutlets, which is a tale for the psychiatrist if ever there was one. Over the years the youngster got his hands on various mice and guinea pigs, but they served mainly to illustrate the concept of mortality. Eventually, a starving, tufty cat staggered out of the bush into the Hardings’ garden. Nicholas led his siblings in a nagging campaign until their parents said they could keep him. It was his first regular pet; apart from the axolotls, he hasn’t had another one.

Beach life (dog), 2006 by Nicholas Harding

Thrust into a series of shocks in a savage land, Harding drew. He’s still at it, making a long path to a little knowledge of the world and his fleeting place in it. He was introduced to classical music, theatre and art at home; he vividly remembers the night his father took him to see a documentary about Francis Bacon in a local hall, a violent storm striking as it played. His parents subscribed to Punch magazine, and he copied the style of its cartoons. Recently, going through old papers, he was chuffed to uncover scores of caricatures of his teachers. His drawings, first of Mick Jagger and then, a fortnight later, of the Stones’ sessional pianist Nicky Hopkins were published in the teen magazine GoSet in early 1973. A few years later, having finished school, chucked in an arts degree, worked as a petrol pump attendant and hitchhiked through Europe, Harding returned to Sydney to begin hack work with an advertising agency.

In 1977 he started training as an animator with the Australian arm of the American cartoon company Hanna Barbera. At that time, and through most of the 1980s, Hanna Barbera and Disney employed a couple of hundred animators in Australia, drawing hours of cartoons a year that were broadcast in the USA and locally. Nicholas drew for television cartoons and animated films including Dinky Dog, Scoobi Doo, Kwicky Koala, Black Beauty and Blinky Bill. In the mid-1980s he was on the team that made the hit movie Footrot Flats. Over this period – when he was also teaching himself to paint – he got familiar with the structure of animals underneath their hides, where they’d bend, how the mass was put together as a whole. Dinky Dog was the size of a pony, with a lavish coat; but the big galoot’s there, way back, in the pedigree of Harding’s recent gouache of Anna Volska’s dog Georgia, and his oil painting of Rex Irwin’s dog Bruno.

Study for John Bell as King Lear, 1998-2001 by Nicholas Harding

Harding held his first solo exhibition with Irwin, his long-term art dealer, in 1992. Various successes followed, but he was still working full-time and he and his wife Lynne had a son, too. In 2000, Irwin began to pay him a monthly stipend so that he could paint full-time (it was a gamble some gallery owners were prepared to take, in those days). A painter in earnest, Harding set to testing the truth of one of many instructive remarks by the American artist Frank Stella: ‘There are two problems in painting. One is to find out what painting is and the other is to find out how to make a painting. The first is learning something and the second is making something.’ In 2001 Harding won both the Dobell Prize for Drawing and the Archibald Prize, the latter with a painting of Anna Volska’s husband, John Bell, in costume as King Lear.

For years, Nicholas and Lynne have had season tickets to serious theatre in Sydney. In 2013, an exciting thing happened. They were in Paris, he on an Art Gallery of New South Wales Cité des Arts Internationale residency. Typically, Harding had gone over with a strong vision of what he intended to achieve: pictures of the city’s commuters, dogs, birds and spring flowers. He’s one of those artists who always has a sketchbook; he draws all the time (it’s surprising how many artists don’t, confining their activity to the studio). As he sat on a park bench or at a café table, Lynne opposite him with a book, he’d be distilling the essence of, say, passing dogs with his felt-tipped pen. In the studio, he’d reprise his sketchbook impressions in gouache on loose paper, quickly, so as not to forfeit the spontaneity. One day, outside their digs on the rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, he was enchanted to see a flimsy demountable replica of the Globe Theatre spring up; a travelling company was staging Romeo and Juliet in it. Watching the actors in costume, waiting to go on, pacing, practising their lines, dragging on smokes, he filled a small sketchbook and posted his pictures on Instagram.

Harding prowls through galleries in whatever city of the world he’s in, sitting for hours, sometimes, in front of paintings he’s always wanted to see. He talks readily, keenly and with authority about his art precursors and heroes. One of them’s David Hockney, for various reasons. Hockney’s made hundreds of portraits in series, in different styles and mediums. In 2002 he painted some portraits of couples, using watercolour, which took up four large sheets of paper each; and some of single subjects, using watercolour over two large sheets. Painting big watercolour portraits is nerve-wracking, and few people even try it. One of Hockney’s sitters said he could see the artist thinking five moves ahead, like a chess player, while all the while his brush moved lightly, with assurance. The upside of the medium, as Hockney puts it, is that it’s painting and drawing all in one, meaning you ‘get a liveliness in speed, probably sacrificing at times accuracy of some things. You have to move from light to dark. Every mark put down counts. You can’t remove them’. Harding probably squirreled the recollection of Hockney’s challenging watercolours away, intending, maybe, to try something along similar lines one day. In due course, he did – because unlike a lot of people, Harding often carries through what he thinks he might do.

There’s no getting out of making big watercolour pictures in several sections. They have to be painted flat, on a table, or else the paint will dribble. (It’s a skill in itself, working on the horizontal to represent someone who’s vertical; you have to know what you’re doing perspectivally.) One great big piece of paper would be no use; first it might hang over or slip off the table, and secondly you couldn’t reach some parts of it – you’d have to move around, working from the side, the top, the bottom, and that wouldn’t do.

Stephen Kirschenbaum and Treize, 2016 by Nicholas Harding

In his Paris studio, Harding embarked on a series of watercolour portraits, each extending over two sheets of thick paper and undertaken over a two-hour sitting. That’s where he painted an American art collector, Stephen Kirschenbaum, whom he’d always intended to portray with his terrier, Treize. As it transpired, Treize was Harding’s unlucky number. During the first two hours, jealous of Kirschenbaum’s attention to the artist, he was fractious, yelping and whining until the artist called a break. Taking a few deep breaths, Harding had to concede that the only way he’d have any hope of capturing Kirschenbaum was if he looked fixedly at Treize the whole time; thus, over a third hour, the planned full-face portrait turned into more of a profile. Ultimately, the artist painted Treize in Australia, relying on his memory and referring to a photograph. He sits on a separate sheet, a permanent legacy of his sulking.

Hugo Weaving and Slim, 2016 by Nicholas Harding

Nicholas Harding and Hugo Weaving, the very famous actor, made friends through their children years ago. While Harding was in Paris, Weaving saw some of his Instagrammed theatre drawings and portraits. He was down to act in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Waiting for Godot in late 2013, and asked the artist if he’d care to come and do some drawing at rehearsals. Harding became a kind of Phantom of the Wharf, drawing from the moment the actors were up on their feet in rehearsal, keeping it up until he’d seen five public performances of the play and the season closed. Refined in the Camperdown studio, the extensive Godot suite turned into an exhibition in itself. On fire, Harding went on to draw productions of Macbeth, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Present, King Lear and Endgame. Meanwhile, he invited some of the actors to come to his studio in Camperdown to sit for gouaches he’d create in the same way as the Paris series of 2013 – no drawing, just straight onto the paper, gouache with panache. He made lively pictures of the out-of-character Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, Philip Quast and others in this way, entering an oil painting of Roxburgh, too, into the Moran Prize. At the same time, he kept working on huge ink drawings of pandanuses and other vegetation, and the big, luscious oil landscapes, beachscapes and flower pieces for which he’s renowned (the painting Beach life – depicting a challenging Rhodesian ridgeback, a ‘character’ the Hardings looked after for what seemed like quite a long time in 2006 – typifies his method of rendering water in oils).

Anna Volska and Georgia, 2015 by Nicholas Harding

As he was drawing the Belvoir production Seventeen in 2015, Harding invited the actor Anna Volska to sit for a gouache portrait in his studio. She asked if she could bring her dog and he said yes, although the thought of a long-haired white dog amongst the incredible accretion of wet and sticky paint flecks in his plastic-lined studio must have given him pause. (In the end, it was Lucian the whippet who had a run-in with some dioxin violet, and needed a thorough wipe-down after the studio visit.) Initially, Georgia was excited to be there, but as Anna sat looking at the artist the dog got bored and had a poke around. Harding had completed a good head of the actor when Georgia sprang into her lap and went to sleep. There isn’t much to see of a somnolent fluffy Shihtzmaltese; so in the second panel, Harding turned to visualising her shape in relation to Anna’s, leaving bare paper where the snowy animal blocked his view of the woman’s shirt and trousers. As far as paint goes, Georgia’s really just a nose, ear edges and a centre parting, but there’s a warm drape to her. Completed in October 2015, Anna Volska with Georgia turned out to be the first of the twelve vigorous three-sheet pictures Harding made for the exhibition The Popular Pet Show

Harding’s mother-in-law, Edie Watkins, who’s grown a lot of the flowers he’s painted over the past fifteen years, was the catalyst for the third sheet of paper in his watercolour portraits. He’d painted Edie on two sheets, but she was truncated at the ankles, and that’s not a good place for a portrait to cut off. He added a third sheet, but all he had to put on it were Edie’s slippers. Compositionally, that was disagreeable, so he put some cut roses on the floor beside her and painted them for balance. He found he liked the scale and proportions of the piece.

In the Pet Show series, the strap of the camera bag beside the bare feet of photographer Cam Bloom, and the glasses, phone, lead and coffee cup beside the bare foot of singer Megan Washington are the equivalent of Edie’s roses. They’re there to offset the mass of the sitter (Megan’s left wrist, left big toe, the foremost corner of her phone and the bottom left corner of the paper fall along a dead straight line at 60 degrees – not that Harding would have used a protractor, of course). At the same time, the scattered objects evoke the respective sitters’ personalities, and call attention to the process of studio portraiture. There’s a strong sense that each person’s just arrived at Harding’s studio, he’s pointed them to the chair, they’ve dumped their stuff and they’re keeping still while he looks at them. There’s simply no other situation in which one human being looks steadfastly at a conscious other for several hours; there’s no precedent or excuse for it unless one of you holds a pencil or brush. The twelve portraits convey the formality and artificiality of the portrait sitting. Yet the simple objects in the pictures serve to express spontaneity, as if Harding was so keen to get going he couldn’t be bothered moving them aside.

Harding’s used to portrait sittings being about the relationship between him and his subject, and hadn’t anticipated the extent to which this connection would be affected by the presence of the animal. A person who loves a creature reacts to it constantly; that’s why you can’t just add a pet to an existing portrait of a person alone, and expect it to work. Charmian Gradwell, who’s the voice coach for the Sydney Theatre Company, gazed so devotedly at her pet bat Grazia that Nicholas felt a little snubbed, although he was consoled by the flexing of Grazia’s leathern wings as she snoozed. The beautiful singer Megan Washington’s often on tour, and she leaves her dachshund Artie with her parents in Brisbane. Having agreed to Nicholas to sit in Sydney, she asked her dad to fly down with Artie for a few hours. As he painted their intense temporary reunion, Harding felt like the third wheel again. He felt more himself with Hugo. He’s painted the actor many times, often in a reflective mood; but laughing at the difficulty of keeping an increasingly irascible Slim still, in this portrait Hugo looks much more like the man Harding sees socially than he does in the others. Gratifyingly, the flamboyant barrister Charles Waterstreet paid as much attention to Nicholas as he did to Lucian. With five skinny legs, a whip of a tail, a long snout and Waterstreet’s narrow heels slithering round in his slip-ons, it’s a funny picture that could plausibly be described as ‘animated’.

Anyone who thinks that being an artist’s a matter of waiting for inspiration, and painting when it comes, should spend a week with Nicholas Harding. He’s in the studio whether he’s inspired or not; there’s always a bit of a painting he can be building, even on the dullest days. And anyway, he says, inspiration’s no use to you if you’re not in position with materials to hand. There can’t be many successful contemporary Australian artists who set such store by rising to self-imposed difficulties; perhaps it’s got something to do with being an autodidact who doesn’t believe in an afterlife. He’s a kind of optimistic existentialist, who’s described his development as a portraitist, memorably, as a process of finding out how ‘we occupy a mortal sack of blood, muscle and bone’.

Harding’s put himself in a position where he can ring pretty much anyone he’s interested in painting, now, and often – though not always – they’ll agree to it. It may be, though, that having made the appointment, he’ll start painting something else. When the sitting day comes, he might just have had a revelation about the way sunlight hits a flowering gum, say, and he’ll want to be surging forward; but professional that he is, he’ll pack that in, and turn his attention to his visitor. Maybe that visitor will wear glasses, and stand on his doorstep with a black dog with soft, shaggy fur, a dark bluish tongue and black eyes. Then, the artist will have to shove and hack through a whole new thicket of difficulties on the way to making another picture look lightly-won, achieving an oil painting that’s as loose as a gouache, getting an image to look like it just turned up: insouciant, like he didn’t have to learn how to do it.

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