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The war in colour: Honorary Lieutenant Harold Septimus Power

(AWM ART03327)

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Posted on July 23 2018

Harold Septimus Power was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1877. After gold was discovered near the town in 1861 its population quickly grew, attracting immigrants from Britain, Europe and Asia. Harold’s parents, Englishmen Peter Power and his Scottish wife, Jane, settled in Dunedin as a young couple.

The family moved to Victoria when Harold was a small boy, and he and his seven brothers and sisters grew up there. Suffering from an unusual form of deafness, Harold did not excel at school; instead he spent hours illustrating his books. Though his father was a painter and art teacher himself, he discouraged Harold from pursuing a career in art. But Harold ignored his father’s advice, and at the age of 14 he ran away to the bush to paint the Australian countryside and animals.

After moving to Melbourne, Harold took a job painting animals on the sides of butchers vans. He also worked as a veterinarian’s assistant. Harold did some formal art training and exhibited his work with the Melbourne Art Club, where he won the animal and landscape sections and drew the attention of his peers. Well-known artist Walter Withers convinced Harold’s father that his son had the talent needed to become a successful artist.

In 1900 Harold moved to Adelaide. There he worked as a political cartoonist for various newspapers, including the Observer, the Register, and the Critic, producing amusing sketches of politicians, local people and events. Four years later Harold married Isabel Butterworth and the young couple move to Europe. Their first stop was Paris – the art centre of the world – where Harold attended the Acad`emie Julian, a modern school which taught the newest developments and techniques in art. In London he continued his art studies and exhibited at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts.

Between 1913 and 1914 Harold travelled between England and Australia, and was living in London when the First World War began. For the next three years he followed news of the Australians on Gallipoli and on the Western Front battlefields. On 3 September 1917 Harold, now 40 years old and an established artist, was appointed an official war artist. He was attached to the 1st division, AIF, given the honorary rank of lieutenant, and provided with the necessary art supplies. His role was to capture the Australian experience of war.

Harold made the first two trips to France at the end of September 1917 alongside fellow artist Fred Leist and Australia’s official war correspondent, Charles Bean. Their first night in France was a memorable one – the three men were forced to shelter together in the cellar of a house in Hazebrouck while the town was being shelled by German artillery.

For three months Harold closely observed the daily life of the Australian soldiers in France. Some of his sketches captured Australians in the midst of battle, struggling to cope with the freezing winter conditions, while others showed them resting and sharing stories with their mates. These works of art were considered so impressive that Harold was invited to produce some large-scale paintings for Australia’s planned national museum and memorial.

Studio portrait of Honorary Lieutenant Harold Septimus Power (AWM P09558.001)

These paintings were to depict significant military personalities and events that had occurred during the First World War. Harold returned to France between August 1918 and March 1920 to conduct research. This along with Charles Bean’s guidance, provided Harold with an understanding of the environment and enough historical knowledge to recreate the battle scenes. Many of these paintings still hang in the galleries of the Australian War Memorial.

(AWM ART03334)

Harold returned to Australia after his wife passed away in May 1935. After remarrying he settled in Melbourne and continued to paint in his later life. By the time of his death in 1951, Harold was one of Australia’s most well-known and popular artists. Fellow Australian artist Louis McCubbin said:

His abilities particularly fitted him to be a painter of war subjects such as charging horses… He was outstanding as an animal painter – the most important Australia has produced in this field.

Did you know?

Official war artists are employed under the Australian Official War Art Scheme, which was introduced in 1916 and still runs today. Under this scheme, artists accompany military units on conflict or peacekeeping missions to record their impressions of the mission and the experiences of those serving within it.

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