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Sir Ivor Henry Hele (1912–1993)

by Jane Hylton

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Self portrait, 1957

Self portrait, 1957

NSW Art Gallery

Sir Ivor Henry Thomas Hele (1912–1993), artist, was born on 13 June 1912 at Edwardstown, Adelaide, youngest of four children of South Australian-born parents Arthur Harold Hele, chaff-mill foreman, and his wife Ethel May, née Thomas. As a child Ivor initially studied art under James Ashton at Prince Alfred College and Ashton’s Academy of Arts, and then undertook night classes at the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts (SASAC) where he was taught by Margaret Walloscheck and, later, Marie Tuck. When he was thirteen Ashton sent his work to London, where it was awarded the Princess Louise Gold Star by the Royal Drawing Society. The following year the society awarded him a bronze and a silver star.

In 1926 Hele commenced exhibiting at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts (RSASA), and continued to have his work shown in the society’s spring and autumn exhibitions until 1930. By 1927 it was clear that he wanted to pursue a professional art career and he left school to study full time at the SASAC. The following year, after Tuck had helped win his parents’ consent, he travelled alone to Europe to study figure work in Paris under Louis Francois Biloul and then in Munich with Moritz Heymann.

Hele returned to Adelaide at the beginning of 1930, and set up a studio on the top floor of his parents’ house in Brown Street. From then on he was a committed studio artist, maintaining a disciplined working method and schedule that would underpin his practice for the rest of his life. Later that year he held his first solo exhibition at Argonaut Galleries; another solo exhibition at the same gallery followed the next year.

On 24 March 1932 Hele married Millicent Mary Jean Berry, a school teacher, at the Manse, Germein Street, Semaphore. The couple travelled to Europe so that Ivor could study again under his former masters, Biloul and Heymann. Returning to Adelaide, he taught life drawing part time at the SASAC. From 1933 he began again to exhibit at the RSASA, and showed his work there consistently until 1939.

By this time Hele was achieving success particularly as a portraitist and a painter of complex figure compositions, the genres for which he is best known. He was awarded the RSASA Melrose prize for portraiture in 1935, 1936 and 1939, cementing his reputation with Adelaide’s establishment. In 1936 he gained a commission to design two large relief panels for the Pioneers’ Memorial, Moseley Square, Glenelg, and also won the South Australian Centenary Art prize (for the best historical painting) for his The Reading of the Proclamation. His painting Sturt’s Reluctant Decision to Return was awarded the Sesquicentenary Commonwealth Art prize in 1938.

In 1937 Ivor and Jean moved to a former coaching inn at Aldinga on the Fleurieu Peninsula where he set up a studio that would be his workplace for the remainder of his life. Rather than travel to his subjects, those commissioning portraits came to him including Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, Robert Menzies, on two occasions. His skill at taking quick likenesses in pencil or chalk, coupled with his ability to work such drawings up into fine, expressive portraits, or descriptive figure compositions, enhanced his already growing reputation. Despite the apparent ease with which he painted commissioned portraits, Hele found them exhausting to undertake, working intensely, ‘obsessed with that one thing’ until completion (Hylton 2002, 32).

Some of Hele’s finest work was produced during his years as a war artist. He enlisted on 29 June 1940 in the Australian Imperial Force, in the expectation of being appointed an official war artist. He sailed for the Middle East where, on 9 January 1941, the appointment was made and he was commissioned as a lieutenant (later captain). Back in Australia from March 1942, he had two tours in New Guinea (1943-44), the second ending when he suffered severe injuries in a motor-vehicle accident. After convalescing at home, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 5 February 1947 but continued to produce war paintings for the next three years.  His works had been shown in touring Australian War Memorial (AWM) exhibitions in 1942, 1943, and 1945.  Paintings undertaken in New Guinea show a distinct change in palette from the high-keyed pastel pinks, oranges, and greys he had favoured in North Africa to deep greens, greys, and browns reflecting the oppressive nature of the climate and landscape.

Once discharged, Hele resumed part-time teaching at the SASAC and exhibiting at the RSASA. In 1951 he was awarded the Archibald prize for his portrait of Laurie Thomas. He would go on to win the prize four more times (1953, 1954, 1955, and 1957). During this decade of success, Hele again served as a war artist; with the army rank of major, he spent much of the spring and summer of 1952 in Korea. In 1954 he was appointed OBE, gaining further recognition with his appointment as a trustee to the board of the National Gallery of South Australia (1956–69). On 21 March 1957, having divorced Jean earlier that month, he married May Elizabeth (June) Weatherly, a book-keeper, at Brougham Place Congregational Church, North Adelaide. There were no children from either marriage.

Major commissions from the AWM allowed Hele to create some of his busiest and most dramatic figure compositions, and he completed major works in 1959, 1962, 1964, and 1967. The first monograph on the artist was published in 1966. In 1969 he was appointed CBE, and he was knighted in 1982. The AWM published another book on his life and art in 1984, and he completed his last portrait commission, that of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, in the same year.

Hele’s work was distinguished by an exceptional talent for figure work. He believed strong drafting abilities were the foundation of any form of artistic endeavour and that ‘only your own hard work teaches you anything of value in the end’ (Age 1962, 18). Never an artist to experiment widely, it suited his working methods to stay largely with portraiture, nudes, and figure compositions. The landscapes surrounding his Aldinga home were also the basis for many paintings, revealing a more personal side of the artist’s work, a counterpoint to the formal portraits and the confronting subject matter of his war output. His topographically accurate beach and cliff scenes often incorporate athletic figures on horseback dashing through the waves, women and healthy young children frolicking in the surf or fishermen hauling on nets, and reflect his almost daily visits to the beach. He admired strength, beauty, robustness, and vigour, and sought throughout his life to energise his works with these human characteristics.

Survived by his wife, Hele died on 1 December 1993 at Bedford Park and was cremated. The AWM recognised his work with a touring exhibition and book. In 2002 another monograph on the artist was published by Wakefield Press, Adelaide, to accompany an exhibition at Carrick Hill. In addition to his prodigious output of artworks, his legacy can be found in the South Australian artists that he trained in life drawing, including Jacqueline Hick, Jeffrey Smart, David Dallwitz, John Dowie, Marjorie Hann, Hugo Shaw, Mary Shedley, and Geoff Wilson.

Research edited by Kylie Carman-Brown

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne), 10 March 1962, 18
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales. ‘Archibald Prize’. Accessed 7 July 2016.
  • The Art of Ivor Hele. Adelaide: Rigby Limited, 1966
  • Fry, Gavin. Ivor Hele: The Soldier’s Artist. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1984
  • Hylton, Jane. Ivor Hele: The Productive Artist. Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2002
  • National Archives of Australia, 93, 50/4/2/66 Parts 1 and 2
  • National Archives of Australia, D1358, SX7174
  • Wilkins, Lola. Ivor Hele: The Heroic Figure. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1997

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jane Hylton, 'Hele, Sir Ivor Henry (1912–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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