THE phrase “national treasure” is frequently overused but when it comes to someone like Rolf Harris it’s an apt description – even if he is an Australian.
Later this month, the 82-year-old musician, artist and broadcaster is to be honoured by Bafta (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts) with a fellowship, its highest award, in recognition of his “outstanding and exceptional contribution to television.”
It’s a fitting tribute to a man whose career spans almost 60 years, during which time he has popularised and pioneered all sorts of instruments from the wobble board to the stylophone and the digeridoo, had his own TV show and painted a portrait of the Queen.
The veteran entertainer will be presented with his fellowship at the awards ceremony at London’s Royal Festival Hall on May 27. Previous recipients have included Lord Bragg, Sir David Jason and Sir Bruce Forsyth. Harris says he is “hugely honoured and very thrilled” to be joining such illustrious company.
Bafta chairman Tim Corrie feels it is an award that is fully deserved. “Rolf Harris is one of the world’s most iconic entertainers. He has huge audience appeal across multiple generations, and we are delighted to honour his contribution to television and the arts.”
Before then, a major retrospective of Harris’s paintings will go on display at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, whose collection includes works by Picasso, Turner and Cezanne. The exhibition, Can You Tell What It Is Yet?, runs until August and will include pieces from his TV shows as well as his portrait of the Queen.
Over the years Harris has had paintings shown the National Gallery as well as the Australian National Portrait Gallery, and the latest exhibition will also feature memorabilia from his life and career, including his didgeridoos, wobble boards and paint-splashed jeans.
Harris moved to England from Australia in 1952 to study art in London. The following year signed his first deal with the BBC and has been a regular fixture on our TV screens ever since. Successive generations of youngsters have grown up watching his programmes which have included Rolf’s Cartoon Club, Rolf On Art and Animal Hospital.
His music career is pretty impressive too. He met and worked with The Beatles and has enjoyed a string of chart hits including Two Little Boys, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport, and Sun Arise.Harris is also one of the few living artists that people can actually name and in 2005 he was commissioned by the BBC to paint a portrait of the Queen to celebrate her 80th birthday. The accompanying TV programme, The Queen by Rolf, was watched by an audience of nearly seven million which is proof, if any was ever needed, of his enduring popularity.
For many of us, he is woven into the fabric of our childhood. For some he was the person who first inspired us to pick up a pen, a paint brush or a musical instrument. His TV persona is a wonderful mixture of kindness and curiosity, and he has the knack of explaining things clearly and simply without ever being patronizing – which is why children have always warmed to him.
By rights we ought to be calling him a “Renaissance Man” but despite his popularity there’s a feeling Rolf Harris hasn’t always received the recognition he deserves, particularly from the art world.
However, watercolour artist Ashley Jackson is in no doubt about his worth. “He’s the artist of the people. His portrait of the Queen is brilliant, and in my opinion hasn’t been matched. But the art world is full of snobs and because of his popularity he’s seen by some as a slapdash artist. He isn’t at all. He’s done more good for the Arts than many people perhaps realise. Great art is about skill and he has plenty of that; he doesn’t need to have an interpreter standing next to him to explain his works. ”
We all have our own abiding memory of Rolf Harris, but mine dates back to his appearance at a sun-kissed Glastonbury Festival in 1993. The likes of Lenny Kravitz, Robert Plant and The Kinks were among the headline acts, but nobody drew a bigger crowd than Harris and his didgeridoo.
By time he finished his set, which included a memorable cover version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven on a wobble board, he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. When he finally left the stage he did so to a cacophony of cheers and an avalanche of affection, the likes of which I’ve rarely seen. I doubt Glastonbury has either.