Rolf Harris: the artist who divides a nation

The painter's new show, 'A Life in Art', opens Friday. But how do figures in the art world rate his talents?
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The Independent Culture

After wiggling his wobble board for the Glastonbury faithful, Rolf Harris is rolling out his easel this week for an exhibition celebrating his 65 years in art.

The indefatigable entertainer is unveiling an "eclectic mix of his new works" to the public at Clarendon Fine Art gallery, in London, on Friday. "A Life in Art" will then tour the nation. The 80-year-old didgeridoo player, whose paintings can attract six-figure sums, has also penned a tie-in retrospective book.

The popular Australian painted the Queen for her 80th birthday in 2005, which was the subject of a special episode of his hit TV show Rolf on Art, credited with making painting more accessible. But he has a Vettriano-like ability to divide the public.

We asked figures from the art world what they make of the Harris oeuvre.

Stuart Semple

Contemporary artist

"He's a staple of British culture, everyone knows him; he's the art guy. He's like Tony Hart, he's from that era for me. I used to draw along when he was on telly and I think he was an influence ... He's better at broadcasting and television and getting people engaged with the idea of looking at art than he is as a practitioner, in my opinion, but I think that is still important."

Brian Sewell

Art critic

"He paints the same picture all the time or paints the pictures in the same way... It's fine to be a Sunday painter. That is essentially what he is. It is good for him; it is therapeutic. I don't see why we should commend him for his private therapy. I thought [his portrait of the Queen] was frankly dreadful, as bad a portrait as there has ever been of anybody, the wrong shape among all other things."

Jody Craddock

Artist and captain of Wolverhampton Wanderers

"I really appreciate how difficult it is to paint and how easy he makes it look... I don't understand why he doesn't get praised by the critics because his work's fantastic... He paints what he wants to paint and it appeals to people like myself... I think he has a core style that has remained similar over the years, but he can adapt, which is why he has done so well."

Norman Lebrecht

Cultural commentator

"My objection was to his role on the BBC as the people's artist, the idiot savant who would teach the world about art. Harris is not an artist, and knows little about art history. He is an amateur dauber in the manner of Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales, taking his Sunday pleasure with brush in hand, yielding a reasonable likeness of no perceptual depth or creative vision, a fairground painter at best."

John Huddy

Managing partner at London gallery The Illustration Cupboard

"I'll be interested to see this show and I will definitely go along... I am certainly a fan... I don't think it matters [that the establishment doesn't like Rolf's work]. It's that old adage that is the same with everything in the art world: beauty is in the eye of the beholder and your own opinion is as valid as everybody else's. If it brings pleasure to millions, there's a lot to be said for that."

J J Charlesworth

Associate editor of 'Art Review'

"He's not really someone who is very active in the art world that I work in, but I am sure a lot of people like his work... [He is popular with the public because] he's a celebrity, his work is pleasingly figurative and has an impressionist twist to it. He does landscapes and pictures of animals and self-portraits and they are all good within their own terms, but I wouldn't say it's cutting edge by a long measure."

June Mendoza


"I painted Rolf about three years ago. He was at the point where he was starting to paint really seriously. He was doing his cartoons and things in the early years, but he really wanted to work seriously... it sounds patronising but he's improved hugely... he's had his chance, because he's Rolf, to be listened to, but he's really come up to scratch."

Kate Youde