For an artist who has dedicated a lifetime to his art, quietly amassing a remarkable body of work, receiving numerous important commissions and awards, and making the Archibald Prize finalist list each year for the past 25 years but never having won, the Robert Hannaford exhibition which opens at the Art Gallery of South Australia this weekend is a triumph.
“Part of being an artist is being able to communicate what you see to the public and because this exhibition is at a major gallery, my work will be seen by a lot of people,” says Hannaford. “The Archibald has also been a very good venue for that.”
But for Hannaford, the greater part of being an artist is the personal and creative journey on which his work has taken him – from his teenage years to the present day.
“From the time I was very young I wanted to draw to understand what I was seeing,” he says.
“I search for the inner life of my subject matter through visual representation; I search for the truth.”
Hannaford was born in 1944 and grew up on a farm at Riverton in the Mid-North of South Australia.
“For me, drawing was a natural progression of the contemplation of nature.
“When I was growing up, there was no such thing as smart phones, so I had plenty of time to look and draw.
“My older brothers were given most of the chores and I was given lots of freedom, which I am very grateful for.”
With the encouragement of his mother, Hannaford spent years drawing, teaching himself the principles of perspective, dimension, form and tone.
After leaving school, he went to work in the Clem Taylor Advertising Agency, alongside artists Hugo Shaw, Des Hurcombe and Fraser Hay. In those days, advertising agencies employed artists who created artwork for advertising material by hand.
Then, at 19, Hannaford got a job as a cartoonist at The Advertiser, continuing to earn a living from his drawings.
“I grew up with hard-edge or pop art,” he says, “but I was fascinated by the inner life of my subject matter so I sought out mentors in Ivor Hele and Hans Heysen because I knew I wanted to paint and draw truthfully from nature.”
However, Hannaford didn’t start painting seriously until he was 22 years old, when he attended an art school in Ballarat under the tutelage of Geoffrey Mainwaring.
I was fascinated by the inner life of my subject matter
In the 50 years that has followed, Hannaford has continued to paint and draw from life, creating a remarkable body of work that includes portraits, self-portraits, still life, landscapes and sculptures.
“I love painting from life – not photographs – because over time you see deeper and deeper into your subject matter. The subject becomes far more interesting and the painting becomes an exploration into nature over time.”
The Art Gallery of South Australia exhibition features 180 Robert Hannaford drawings, 40 paintings and two bronze sculptures – including many works from the artist’s personal collection. They are shown among works by his South Australian mentors, Hele and Heysen, and paintings by some of the European masters he admired.
“It’s an experience to see the way someone else has decided to hang my works, juxtaposed with other works throughout the gallery,” says Hannaford.
Among his own works, there is one painting of which he is most proud: Bill and Ochre.
“Bill was a very close friend of mine who lived at Riverton, where I live and paint. It’s hard to say why this one stands out for me in particular, because every painting is the most meaningful as I’m working on it, but I spent so long on this one – 100 sittings and almost a year of painting – and it won the Doug Moran (National Portrait Prize) in 1990.”
Art Gallery director Nick Mitzevich says the exhibition reveals the extent to which drawing underpins Hannaford’s work.
“I was struck by his extraordinary ability to capture not only a subject’s likeness but the essence of their personality, often in just a few quickly drawn lines,” he says.
“Robert Hannaford deepens our understanding of a life devoted to the quest for knowledge through art. It is my hope this exhibition will inspire a new generation.”
Robert Hannaford runs from July 2 to October 9, 2016, and is part of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s South Australian Living Artists Festival season. Admission is free. Hannaford will take part in a conversation with broadcaster and portrait subject Philip Adams at the gallery’s Radford Auditorium tomorrow (July 2) at 11am.
A contemporaneous Robert Hannaford exhibition is running at the Hill Smith Gallery from July 9 to 23.