Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Missingham, Harold (Hal) (1906–1994)

by Lou Klepac

This article was published online in 2018

Hal Missingham, by Richard Woldendorp, 1987

Hal Missingham, by Richard Woldendorp, 1987

State Library of Western Australia, 47862956

Harold (Hal) Missingham (1906–1994), artist and gallery director, was born on 8 December 1906 at Claremont, Western Australia, seventh of eight children of New South Wales-born parents David Missingham, engineer, and his wife Anne Florence, née Summers. In 1920 his father was killed in a mining accident. As the family were hardly well off, Hal left Perth Boys’ School and in 1922 became apprenticed to J. Gibbney & Son Pty Ltd, a firm of process engravers, to use his talent in drawing and painting. He studied part time at the Perth Technical College under James W. R. Linton and A. B. Webb (1922–26).

In 1926 Missingham travelled to England, following his friend Jamie Linton (son of James), who had gone ahead in 1925. He worked as a hospital steward during his passage and an uncle’s gift of forty pounds provided him with a start: he studied at the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi in Paris (1926), and then at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London (1926–32). There he studied under Bernard Meninsky and A. S. Hartrick. On 24 July 1930 at the register office, Holborn, London, he married Esther Mary Long, a draper’s saleswoman and the sister of a colleague at art school. That year he was awarded a London County Council senior art scholarship.  Relinquishing the grant in 1932, he worked as a commercial artist and taught at the Central School (1933-39).

Returning to Western Australia in 1940, Missingham worked as an artist and photographer for J. Gibbney & Son. The next year he moved to Sydney. In World War II he enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces and from 27 November 1942 performed full-time duty as a wireless operator at Volunteer Defence Corps headquarters, Sydney. Having transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 14 September 1943, he served with the Signals Training Battalion, Bonegilla, Victoria (1943–44), and then with the Military History Section, New South Wales, until his discharge from the army on 3 July 1945. Earlier that year, together with Rod Shaw, Bernard Smith, James Cant, Roy Dalgarno, and Dora Chapman, he had established the Studio of Realist Art (SORA) in Sydney.

Encouraged by Sydney Ure Smith, with whom he had worked as an illustrator for Ure Smith Pty Ltd publications, Missingham applied for the position of director of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales (later Art Gallery of New South Wales). He was appointed in September 1945, and would hold the post until he retired in 1971. In spite of early opposition from the board of trustees, he instigated more progressive attitudes to contemporary art, including the acquisition of modern Australian works. He arranged major retrospectives on (Sir) Russell Drysdale (1960), (Sir) William Dobell (1964), and (Sir) Sidney Nolan (1967), and organised several international exhibitions, the two most influential being French Painting Today (1953) and Italian Art of the 20th Century (1956), both of which travelled to all State galleries. During his tenure the gallery became a popular institution supported by a professional staff. From 1968 he oversaw the construction of the Captain Cook wing. This extension would help to transform the gallery into a modern art museum. A gregarious and generous person, he was always ready to lecture, teach, open exhibitions, and help and advise artists.

Although unable to maintain his own painting career, Missingham drew when he could, and pursued his passion for photography. From 1952 to 1955 he was president of the Australian Watercolour Institute. He produced eleven books: Australian Alphabet (1942); An Animal Anthology (1948); A Student’s Guide in Commercial Art (1948); Good Fishing: A Handy Guide for Australia (1953); Hal Missingham Sketch Book (1954); My Australia (1969); Australia Close Focus: The Colour and Texture of a Continent (1970); Like a Bower Bird (1977); Design Focus (1978); and Grass Trees of Western Australia: Blackboys & Blackgins (1978). After his retirement he published They Kill You in the End (1973), which recounts some of his frustrations while director, and his aversion to those bureaucrats whom he perceived to be short-sighted.

Moving back to Western Australia following his retirement, Missingham resumed painting watercolours. He held numerous exhibitions, particularly at the Greenhill Galleries, Perth. In 1978 he was appointed AO; he had been awarded Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation medal (1953), and had been appointed chevalier of the French Legion d’honneur (1953), ufficiale ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana (1957), and knight first class in the Norwegian Order of St Olav (1971). From 1947 to 1971 he was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London.

A disastrous fire in 1986 destroyed Missingham’s studio in Darlington, including many of his works, negatives, cameras, and private papers. A book that had been presented to him on his retirement—containing drawings, etchings, and photographs, as well as poems and tributes by his many famous friends and colleagues in Australia and overseas—survived because he had donated it to the National Library of Australia. His health declined after the fire, and a series of strokes eventually robbed him of his sight. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died on 7 April 1994 at Midland, and was cremated. His work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia and all State galleries, the British Museum, and many private collections. William Dobell, Judy Cassab, and Vladas Meskenas painted his portrait.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Hal Missingham Review Exhibition 1973–1984. Curated by Barbara Chapman. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre, 1985–86. Exhibition catalogue

  • Klepac, Lou. Hal Missingham, Artist, Author, Photographer. Roseville, NSW: Beagle Press, 2017

  • Missingham, Hal. Interview by Diane Dunbar, 1981–86. National Library of Australia

  • Missingham, Hal. Interview by Hazel de Berg, July 1962. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia

  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX202304

  • National Archives of Australia. B884, N444421

  • National Library of Australia. MS 3940, Papers of Hal Missingham, 1899-1989

  • Van Nunen, Linda, and David Van Nunen. Brushes with History: Masters of Watercolour: Ninety Years of the Australian Watercolour Institute. [Roseville, NSW]: Australian Watercolour Institute, 2015

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lou Klepac, 'Missingham, Harold (Hal) (1906–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/missingham-harold-hal-19237/text30754, published online 2018, accessed online 16 November 2018.

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