Harold the Kangaroo: A Preface

August 19, 2016
Harold Thornton in front of The Bulldog coffeeshop in Amsterdam. He painted the whole facade of the building, depicting the adventures of the owner’s Bulldog. The painted facade can still be seen today.
Harold Thornton in front of The Bulldog coffeeshop in Amsterdam. He painted the whole facade of the building, depicting the adventures of the owner’s Bulldog. The painted facade can still be seen today.

Lord Byron gave the name ‘Harold’ a Romantic association in his famous poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818), and Australian art had a true Romantic hero in Harold ‘The Kangaroo’ Thornton. Like many heroic figures Harold was largely unappreciated in his own country, although he became a Bohemian celebrity in Amsterdam.

This book is an important step in securing Harold’s reputation, not only as a unique Australian artist but as one of the country’s great characters. If Australians are slow to admire artists, they are always delighted to discover a “character”. In the local argot this word encompasses a multitude of virtues and vices. Lots of notorious criminals have been “characters”, and every pub seems to have one or two boozy regulars that fit the description.

We might define an Australian “character” as an extrovert, a non-conformist, a prankster, a rebellious spirit unafraid to speak his or her mind. Harold the Kangaroo was all of the above. As we can tell from his memoirs, Harold was never content to blend in with the crowd. He shocked the bourgeoisie of Griffith with his antics in the annual street parades, and he unsettled Sydney’s institutional avant-garde with his claim to be “a walking work of art”.

The 1960s arrived as a miraculous gift for Harold, allowing him to dress and act as outrageously as he pleased. The hippy era provided a license for pure showmanship. It was cool to be a freak and Harold was determined to be the freakiest of all. The painted suits emblazoned with slogans such as “The Greatest Genius That Ever Lived”, were bizarre enough, but he would also paint the frames of his glasses and even his teeth. The ensemble might be accessorised with a magic wand and a cape.

No matter where he was, Harold took it as a sacred duty to liven things up. He repeatedly describes himself as an “entertainer”, whether he was hosting a medicine show in Wagga Wagga, with signs imploring audiences to come see the Mad Artist at work, or running the most fashionable restaurant in Port Moresby.

He embraced the protest movements against urban renewal in Amsterdam and the environmental campaigns in Tasmania, enjoying the spectacle of people uniting to defeat the dictates of state and corporate power.

Money for Harold never seems to have been anything more than a means of warding off starvation. He thought of his paintings as his children and hated the idea of selling them. Much of his life was spent painting signs for a living, but his artworks were labours of love.

This greatest vice may have been a restlessness that prompted him to move around between naturalism and psychedelia on a whim. Harold was a victim of his own facility as a painter and an irrepressible sense of fun. Many of his late paintings are full of gags, with mermaids disporting themselves on Sydney Harbour, or multicoloured nudes posing on the beach, his own face popping up like a colossus from the waves.

In Sydney during the early 1980s, Harold was a ubiquitous presence, turning up at the Archibald Prize exhibitions and other events, with scene-stealing intent. At a time when many contemporary artists dressed only in black and tried to act like intellectuals, Harold was the rainbow in the corner of the room. He refused to be serious in an art scene that often took itself too seriously for comfort.

Although he had friends and supporters in fellow artists such as Martin Sharp and Ruark Lewis, Harold’s studied eccentricity was ahead of its time. He might have been celebrated in the post-everything, ‘anything goes’ decade that followed the turn of the millennium.

Despite his life-long hedonism Harold was a more talented artist than most people suspected. His two masterpieces are the massive portraits of Bob Brown and Al Grassby, each filled with as much squirming life as a painting by Bosch or Breugel. In terms of scale, imagination and ambition there is nothing quite like them in the history of Australian art. It’s fitting that the Brown portrait was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, where it ambushes unsuspecting visitors – the majority being surprised and delighted.

If Harold had left a few more paintings of this magnitude he might have made a bigger impression on his native land, but it is futile to speculate about what might have been. As a lifelong non-conformist, Harold could never be classified. He was too canny and self-aware to be an Outsider Artist, and too obstreperous to fit into any school of movement. He was a one-man band, a dynamic force that refused to dance to anyone else’s tune. In an art world increasingly dominated by commerce he still believed in magic.

John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, and film critic for the Australian Financial Review