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Harold Blair
, 1948

by Ernest Buckmaster

oil on canvas (support: 101.6 cm x 78.7 cm, frame: 109.0 cm x 85.5 cm)

Harold Blair AO (1924–1976), singer and Indigenous advocate, spent his youth on the Purga Mission, and began singing in local concerts on the canefields in the Childers area. When Marjorie Lawrence visited Brisbane on a concert tour in 1944, she urged him to take his singing further. In March 1945 he sang on Australia’s Amateur Hour and gained a record number of votes. Rejected elsewhere, he was finally accepted by the Melbourne (Melba) Conservatorium of Music, gaining his diploma in 1949. Having scraped up the means to study in New York, he performed in a benefit concert in the New York Town Hall in early 1951; some months later, he appeared as a guest artist for the ABC’s Jubilee Tour of Australia. Returning to Melbourne, he worked in a department store and in 1956 began to teach part-time at the conservatorium. After spending 1959 in Europe, he became the proprietor of a service station and later of a milk bar. A member of the Aborigines’ Welfare Board in Victoria in the late 1950s, Blair was also involved in the Aborigines Advancement League, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and the Commonwealth Aboriginal Arts Board and initiated the successful Aboriginal Children’s Holiday Project. In 1964 he stood to no avail as Labor candidate for Mentone; three years later he began work as a school music teacher. In 1973, three years before he died, he won praise for his performance in the opera Dalgerie, at the Sydney Opera House.

Ernest Buckmaster (1897–1968) grew up in country Victoria, where his facility for art was recognised early on. He served an apprenticeship as a signwriter and later, from 1918 to 1924, studied under Bernard Hall and WB McInnes at the National Gallery School in Melbourne. He exhibited regularly with the Victorian Artists Society from 1919, and from the time of his first Sydney exhibition at the Macquarie Galleries in 1927 he was commissioned as a portraitist. With a remarkable seventy-two portraits hung in the Archibald Prize between 1924 and 1966, he won the Prize in 1932 with a portrait of Sir William Irvine, the lieutenant-governor of Victoria. In August 1945, he was appointed an official war artist and sent to Singapore, where, for the Military History Section, he documented the repatriation of POWs and other activities subsequent to the Japanese surrender.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased 2010
Accession number: 2010.133