Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Herbert, Harold Brocklebank (1891–1945)

by Richard Haese

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Harold Brocklebank Herbert (1891-1945), artist, was born on 16 September 1891 at Ballarat, Victoria, son of locally born George Herbert, organist and music teacher, and his wife Jane Brocklebank, née Coward, from Lancashire, England. He attended Ballarat College and studied architecture and applied design at the Technical School of Design attached to the Fine Art Gallery. He later transferred with the school to the Ballarat School of Mines. Herbert's talents were early recognized by Ponsonby Carew-Smyth, art inspector with the Victorian Education Department, and he moved to Melbourne in 1912 to become Carew-Smyth's assistant. Three years later he became art master at his old school but abandoned teaching in 1919.

Herbert exhibited first in 1915 at the Centreway Gallery in Melbourne with four fellow Ballarat students. At this time he also worked as a designer of jewellery and craft work, but he was already noted for his skill in the demanding techniques of water-colour wash. He participated in exhibitions with M. J. McNally and began painting and sketching tours with like-minded friends such as McNally, Penleigh Boyd, G. C. Benson and Charles Wheeler. He corresponded with and twice visited Hans Heysen for instruction.

In 1922-23 Herbert travelled for eighteen months in England, France, Spain and Morocco. On his return his first major exhibition in Melbourne was a huge success with every work being sold. The appeal of his skilled naturalism combined with the art boom of the 1920s brought him great status and financial reward. He was an esteemed member of the principal art societies and had work acquired by every public collection. Beyond art, his easy companionability won influential friends; he was especially popular in the Savage Club. From 1926 until his death he was a member of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board. At Surry Hills, Sydney, on 19 October 1928 he married a divorcee Doris Mary Donaghy, née Rodda; she divorced him in 1934 for desertion. He married Dorothea Agnes O'Leary at Fitzroy, Melbourne, on 9 October 1935.

Stories abound of Herbert's pranks, biting repartee, and prodigal taste for the good life. That life was maintained by regular exhibitions in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as by art criticism for the Argus and Australasian and continued commercial illustration and poster design.

Herbert's career corresponded with the rise and decline of a strong school of water-colour painting in Australia. Herbert, however, eschewed the romantic directions of Penleigh Boyd, Jesse Hilder and Blamire Young in favour of an imitative naturalism that followed the British tradition of Tom Collier. This emphasized a view of art as a craft with the artist working wholly in the open air, drawing direct inspiration from picturesque aspects of the natural scene. To this end he travelled to Tumut and the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales and the Kiewa Valley in north-eastern Victoria where his trout-fishing skills were as renowned as his speed and ambidextrous abilities with a brush. His work was little troubled by introspection, just as his writings reveal a deep distrust of intellectualism. Such was his disregard of art history that when abroad he ignored completely the great collections of Europe. Not surprisingly, in later life he was an intemperate opponent of a developing Australian modernism.

Herbert's friendship with Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Blamey resulted in his appointment early in 1941 as an official war artist. He resigned after six months in the Middle East and until 1944 was an accredited war correspondent for the Australasian. Inevitably, for a man who claimed to breakfast on whisky and milk, the demands of military life contributed to the collapse of his health and he died in Melbourne of cirrhosis of the liver on 11 February 1945. Herbert was cremated: he had left a cheque and a request that members of the Savage Club drink to his memory at his expense. His wife survived him; there were no children.

Select Bibliography

  • D. M. Dow, Melbourne Savages (Melb, 1947)
  • R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors in Australian Art 1930-1950 (Melb, 1981)
  • Art in Australia, Sept 1928
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Oct 1959.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Richard Haese, 'Herbert, Harold Brocklebank (1891–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/herbert-harold-brocklebank-6647/text11453, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 8 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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