Hal Missingham

H a l   M i s s i n g h a m

AWI President 1952-1955

Judy Cassab (1920-2015), Portrait of Hal Missingham 1970, Oil & Synthetic Polymer, Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales

Watercolour painting requires in the artist a clear mind and a controlled purpose. It is no medium for muddlers. Hal Missingham, Foreword, AWI exhibition catalogue, 1953

Icon and iconoclast, Hal Missingham had assured his place in the annals of Australian art history in his own lifetime. A protean artist who made his mark in a myriad of media – printmaking, watercolour, oils, photography and graphic design — his twenty-six year tenure as director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales was equally illustrious for his transformative influence on that institution. Moreover, Missingham’s presidency of the Australian Watercolour Institute, concurrent with his directorship of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, elevated both the status of the medium and public profile of the Institute.

Relatively tall, well-built, fit and perennially tanned, the broad perception of Missingham as a large man was driven by his robust personality. Yet, his effusive public persona, larrkinistic wit and skill as a raconteur belied a finely honed intellect and poetic sensibility. Perhaps the most revelatory picture of the man, graphically and psychologically, is his self-portrait of the 1930s. Physiognomically, Missingham’s resolute jaw, pugnaciously jutting chin and intense gaze characteristically suggest the staunch adherence to his aesthetic and political convictions that was defining of his character even in his youth. An indefatigable defender of modernism, he had little patience for retardataire trustees or pandering to bureaucrats, politicians and ‘social dames,’ preferring the company of artists, towards whom he was unsparing in his generosity. His vigorous support, promotion, exhibition and acquisition of the work of Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan and William Dobell was instrumental in bringing them to recognition as among Australia’s most important painters. Throughout his art administrative career, he was energetic in pursuit of funding from corporations for the establishment of travelling art scholarships and prizes. As eminent curator Daniel Thomas noted in a tribute to Missingham, ‘All on his own, he was a mini-Visual Arts Board before the Australia Council existed.’1

The seventh of eight children, Harold (Hal) Missingham was born in Claremont, Western Australia, on 8 December 1906, to David Alexander Missingham, a mining engineer, and Annie Florence Summers. He attended Perth Boys’ School but, as a financial consequence of the accidental death of his father in October 1920 due to a fall from scaffolding, he left school at age fourteen to undertake a five-year apprenticeship as a process engraver at J. Gibney & Son. Through his close friendship with Jamie Linton (James Alexander Barrow Linton, who would gain renown as a master silversmith and jeweller), he began a formal study of art at Perth Technical School under the tutelage of Jamie’s father, art master, James Walter Robert Linton (son of Sir James Dromgole Linton, President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour, 1884-1898), and assistant art master, Archibald Bertram Webb.2

When Jamie Linton apprised Missingham of his intention to leave Perth, in 1926, to study at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, he resolved to do the same. Upon completion of his apprenticeship in 1926, but lacking sufficient funds for a fare, Missingham regularly went down to the Fremantle docks to solicit ships’ masters for a job in order to secure passage to England. Eventually, he was employed both to crew and attend a lunatic being transported back to Blighty who, throughout the seven-week duration of the sea voyage, determinedly attempted to jump ship. Working a roster of four hours on and fours hours off around the clock as a crew member was physically debilitating, although a salutary experience about which Missingham later averred, ‘I left Australia as a boy of 19 but by the time I arrived, I was a mature man.”3

However, prior to sailing for Europe that year, Missingham had painted his first plein air watercolour at Rottnest Island, aptly titled First Watercolour Outdoors, Rottnest W.A., currently in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. As a medium, watercolour would loom large in his oeuvre throughout his life.

In London, Missingham rejoined Jamie Linton and together they travelled to Paris where the two expatriates shared a sybaritic six-month sojourn immersed in the local café culture, while studying briefly at Académie Colarossi and Académie Julian, before crossing the Channel to enrol at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

Two years later, on 14 April 1928, Missingham embarked on the Canadian Pacific Line steamship Montroyal for Canada, working in that country as a freelance commercial artist and teacher until returning to London to reprise his studies in graphic media, life drawing and painting at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.4 He was awarded a three-year London County Council Senior Art Scholarship of 144 guineas per annum in 1929, as reported in Lismore’s Northern Star newspaper,5 and the following year married, on 24 July in Holborn, Middlesex, Esther Mary Long (born 1911, Lambeth, Central London), whom he had met through Esther’s sister, Olive, a fellow student at the Central School.6 Already known for her commercial work in England, Missingham’s sister-in-law, Olive Long (with whom he exhibited), would subsequently establish a reputation as an artist in Australia following her emigration here with her second husband, Bill Courcier, in 1937.

Realising the inadequacy of his scholarship to support the couple, Missingham took a position in an advertising agency at a salary of £4.10s per week. Later, from 1934 until 1940, he taught at the Central School for Arts and Crafts, while simultaneously continuing his activities as an artist, illustrator and book designer, having gained qualification as a member of the Society of National Registered Art Designers. In his capacity as a freelance commercial artist, Missingham achieved considerable success. The Orient Steam Navigation Company commissioned him, in 1935, to design posters, as well as to create two decorative panels in the company’s waiting rooms at Southampton Dock, while the General Post Office and London Underground similarly secured his services to produce posters in 1936, three of which are retained in the collection of the London Transport Museum.

Having decided to return to Australia following the outbreak of World War II, Missingham and his wife boarded at Southampton, on 21 May 1940, the vessel Orontes bound for Fremantle, arriving at that port on 30 June 1940, his occupation on the ship manifest being recorded as advertising artist.7 Shortly afterwards, an exhibition of ‘bright and interesting landscapes in the modern manner’ was opened on 24 July 1940 by Mr. Frank Joseph Scott Wise, Minister for Lands and Agriculture, at Boans Gallery, Perth. The art critic of the West Australian extolled Missingham’s vision and skill, adding that, ‘Students, particularly those interested in watercolour and in modern styles of painting, would do well to study carefully the objectives and achievements of this artist, whose teaching experience has forced him to crystallise the underling principles of art into a system which he has tested in

the field of actual practice.’ Also noting ‘a distinctly French verve and gaiety’ demonstrated in the artist’s pastels, the writer concluded, ‘Such an interesting collection as this is so rare in our art world that it is sure to command much attention, both in this and other States.’8

He relocated to Sydney in 1941 and, the following year, enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force as a radio operator in Signals, stationed in Australia.9 In 1943, Missingham was seconded to Victoria Barracks to mount a national exhibition of art by members of the forces, Australia at War, which toured to State and regional galleries nationally in 1944-45 attracting large audiences. During his three and a half years of AIF service, Missingham produced covers and illustrations for Art in Australia and the Australia National Journal, forging a firm friendship with Sydney Ure Smith, influential publisher of those magazines and Trustee of the National Gallery of New South Wales (subsequently the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in accordance with the New South Wales Act, 1958).

It was Sydney Ure Smith who induced Missingham to apply for the position of Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales following the departure of Will Ashton in 1944. Initially, he had balked at the prospect but afterwards acquiesced, jaundicely recalling, ‘I was none too keen then and, if I’d known what I later knew of the frustrations, government apathy and Public Service Board antagonism, I’d have run a mile in the opposite direction. But, after three years and more in the army, it seemed not to matter too much what one did, one way or another.’10 

From the four candidates on the shortlist (the other three being artist and arts administrator, Erik Langker, artist Douglas Dundas and art historian Bernard Smith, later first Chair of the Power Institute of Fine Arts, University of Sydney), Missingham was appointed. When he assumed the directorship on 3 September 1945, at an annual salary of £900, the Art Gallery of New South Wales was dusty, dismal and in disrepair, with no electric lighting in the exhibition areas, a roof that leaked like a sieve and mould-covered walls. His 26-year tenure would be turbulent in his unabating battle against the institutionalised obduracy of Public Service Board bureaucrats and entrenched conservatism of the majority of Trustees, whose acquisition policy was both anti-Modernist and anti-Semitic. Particularly daunting was his adversarial relationship with Trustee J.W. Maund, solicitor, former footballer, watercolourist and AWI President from 1938 to 1945, who had taken an immediate dislike to Missingham (in addition to the antipathy he harboured towards Missingham’s advocate, Sydney Ure Smith) and, at monthly trustees’ meetings, deigned to address him only through the intermediary of the President. Missingham’s earliest acquisitions as Director, paintings by Russel Drysdale and Sidney Nolan, elicited outrage, as Maund, like most of the trustees, was adamant that no ‘modern art rubbish’ would adulterate the ‘pure art of Australia.’11  Fortunately, he would find an ally in Mary Alice Evatt (née Sheffer), American wife of Herbert Vere Evatt, who was appointed a trustee in 1943. Missingham cites Evatt as being the only trustee thoroughly conversant with modern art and who was persistently vociferous in her support of the acquisition of modernist works against the conservative cabal of trustees such as Sir Lionel Lindsay, J.W. Maund, Sydney Long, William Herbert Ifould and Sir Marcus Clarke.

Amid the post-war fear of communist infiltration within the echelons of Australian society, Missingham also came under scrutiny for his Leftist political orientation as one of the foundation members (with James Cant, Dora Chapman, Roy Dalgarno, Roderick Shaw, John Oldham, Adrian Galjaard, Bernard Smith and Herbert McClintock, many of them Communist Party members) of the Studio of Realist Art, which was established at 171 Sussex Street, Sydney, on 2 March 1945 and operated (with another venue at 214 George Street) until 1949. At the height of the ‘reds under the beds’ scaremongering, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article, in 1948, under the header, ‘How Communism is Infiltrating Cultural Organisations,’ in which it was reported that SORA had auctioned paintings in aid of a communist-sponsored strike of ironworkers at Port Kembla and that Mr Hal Missingham, Director of the National Art Gallery, gave weekly lessons there to SORA students. Missingham was then quoted as saying, ‘I am not a Communist. Although I have often been accused of associating with Communists, I have the confidence of the Gallery trustees. I belong to a number of cultural organisations in my official capacity.’12  However, this did not deter the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) from compiling a dossier on Missingham, released by the National Archives of Australia in 2007.13

Although Missingham disparagingly remarked in retrospect that his 26-year tenure as Director had made him ‘a bloody good clerk,’ his legacy is an enduring one. Among his major museological achievements was the creation of a professional in-house conservation department; supervision of the cleaning and cataloguing of every work in the Gallery’s collection; the establishment of the Art Gallery Society of NSW; the appointments of abstract expressionist artist Tony Tuckson as assistant director in 1950 (afterwards deputy director in 1957) and the Gallery’s first curator, Daniel Thomas (in 1958); the fostering of relations with interstate galleries for cooperation on major travelling exhibitions; the promotion of travelling art scholarships through corporate liaisons; facilitating general accessibility to the Gallery via the introduction of new bus routes and overseeing the extension of the Gallery. One of Missingham’s first undertakings as director was to liaise with journalists, many of whom he knew from his army years, to attract media attention to the Art Gallery.

Missingham’s pioneering collection policies revitalised a moribund institution, which then possessed a mediocre collection in comparison to more affluent State galleries with substantial endowments for acquisitions, such as those in Melbourne and Adelaide, and made a ponderable contribution to Australian contemporary art. Moreover, the numerous influential exhibitions Missingham brought here mitigated against Australia’s cultural isolation and insular view of art, a condition he so deplored. Among these was the provocative French Painting Today, in 1953, which drew 370,000 visitors to the Art Gallery of New South Wales; Italian Art of the 20th century (1956); Recent German Graphic Art (1956); Contemporary Japanese Art (1958); the Russell Drysdale, William Dobell and Sidney Nolan retrospectives (in 1960, 1964 and 1967 respectively) and the logistically onerous Design in Scandinavia (1968-69).

Indisputably, the most important exhibition to travel to this country, however, was Two Decades of American Painting, which toured to the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, in 1967. Curated by Waldo Rasmussen under the aegis of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, it surveyed the work of abstract expressionists as well as the major exponents of post-painterly abstraction. Besides being extremely well-attended by the public, that show assumed the nature of an epiphany for two successive generations of Australian artists and contributed to the cultivation of an audience, and ultimately a market, for contemporary art in Australia.

In 1933, as an aid to his graphic design work, Missingham had acquired his first camera, an early rangefinder Leica, with which he recorded events of the Civil War that he and his wife, Esther, had become embroiled in during a trip to Spain in 1936, his visual dispatches being published in London. The profound interest he developed in photography would endure as a lifelong passion, serving him in good stead in his position at the Gallery, where he undertook most of the photography, as well as designing and editing all of that institution’s publications, including a quarterly bulletin. His layout skills and knowledge of typography rendered these publications exemplary for the era. Equally adept at portraiture, Missingham produced a collection of 56 photographs of artists, taken from 1944 to 1975, housed in the National Library of Australia.

Despite the administrative Sturm und Drang, Missingham retained his position as Director (in the sanguine expectation that his antagonists would either retire or pre-decease him) until his retirement in 1971, just months before the opening, in May 1972, of the Gallery’s new Captain Cook Wing for which he had so virulently fought.

Concurrent with his directorial role at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Missingham pursued his own art practice and maintained an impressive exhibition profile throughout Australia, notably at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, and Greenhill Galleries, Perth. He was a frequent exhibitor, along with Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker and Fred Williams, at the prominent Rose Skinner Galleries in Mount Street, Perth, from 1958 until its closure in 1976.

In addition to the introductions he contributed to exhibition catalogues and monographs about his artist peers, Missingham was a prolific author whose titles include Australian Alphabet (1942), A Student’s Guide to Commercial Art (1948), An Animal Anthology (1948), Good Fishing: A Handy Guide for Australia (1953), My Australia (1969), Close Focus: the Colour and Texture of a Continent (1970), Hal Missingham Sketchbook (1970), They Kill You in the End (1973), Design Focus (1978) and Grass Trees of Western Australia: blackboys & black gins (1978). As a printmaker, his Bush Images: 16 Original Lithographs, printed by the internationally renowned master lithographer, Fred Genis, was published in 1982 as a limited edition under the imprint of The Beagle Press.

At the age of sixty-seven, in 1973, he retired to Darlington, in the hills east of Perth, making annual photographic and painting expeditions to the West Australian outback, as well as abroad, with a view to consolidating his own career as an artist. Yet, fate would treacherously intervene. In June 1986, a catastrophic fire destroyed his studio and its contents – over 50 paintings, 60,000 black-and-white negatives, 10,000 colour transparencies and a carefully catalogued collection of correspondence dating back to 1926. Also reduced to ashes was his extensive art library with the exception of a priceless, hand-bound manuscript presented to him on his retirement, Fully Bound: Over to Hal Missingham A Tribute with Love and Affection, to which 200 eminent artists and friends had contributed a page each — a national treasure, being a veritable graphic compendium of Australian and international art. Fearing the book might be fragmented for the sale of its valuable individual pages, he had fortuitously earlier gifted Fully Bound to the National Library in Canberra, which is also the repository of his personal papers. Before that conflagration, Missingham had been working towards an exhibition of watercolours and planning a trip to Broome, his favourite place.14 It was an incalculable loss that took its toll on Missingham’s health, which steadily deteriorated, culminating in a series of strokes that began in 1988 and left him totally blind.

A survey exhibition of the work Missingham produced since his return to his native Western Australia, spanning the years 1973 to 1984, was mounted at Fremantle Arts Centre from 19 December 1985 to 19 January 1986. In his essay in the catalogue of that exhibition, Lou Klepac poignantly wrote in tribute to Missingham, ‘It is fitting that he should be ending his life as he began it, as a painter. No one could ask for more.’15 The following year, Missingham held his final exhibition at the Greenhill Galleries in Perth.

Elected a member of the AWI in 1949, Missingham exhibited consistently in its annual exhibitions and, in 1978, the Institute conferred on him Life Membership. Of Missingham’s watercolours, Jean Campbell noted, ‘The direct observation and personal slant towards the unusual or unexpected that gave character to his swift and witty pen and lens appear also at times in his watercolours; and his landscapes, which have found a place in most public collections, are always painted with fresh, simplified, lucid wash.’16 In Campbell’s assessment, the artist’s later watercolours were stronger in colour, design and feeling for nature than his earlier work.17

Missingham was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia on 26 January 1978 for service to art, particularly as Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He was invested as Cavaliere Ufficiale dell’Ordine al Merito della Republica Italiana in 1957 (in connection with the 1956 exhibition, Italian Art of the 20th Century) and was awarded the Cross of the French Légion d’Honneur in 1954 (in relation to the 1953 exhibition, French Art Today) and the Norwegian Knight Cross, First Class, of the Order of Saint Olav in 1971 (for his part in arranging the Australian tour of the 1968 Design in Scandinavia exhibition). He was also a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal in 1953.

Hal Missingham diedon 7 April 1994, survived by his wife Esther, to whom he was married for over sixty years, and their two sons, David and Peter.Missingham’s widow, Esther, passed away on 16 October 2013 at the venerable age of 102.

His work is held in the National Gallery of Australia, most state and regional galleries, the London Transport Museum, the Print Room at the British Museum, the Queen Mother’s Collection and Auckland City Gallery.


  1. Thomas, Daniel, ‘Hal Missingham,’ Art & Australia, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer 1994, p. 204.
  2. Hal Missingham interviewed by Hazel de Berg in 1962. Hazel de Berg Collection, DeB 31-32, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
  3. Jones, Margaret, ‘Love to Hal,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October 1971.
  4. UK, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960, Canadian Pacific Railway Shipping Line Vessel Montroyal Ship Manifest, 14 April 1928.
  5. Northern Star, 20 September 1929, p. 6.
  6. England & Wales Marriage Index, 1916-2005, Vol. 1b, p. 1435.
  7. UK, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960, Orient Line Vessel Orontes Ship Manifest, 21 May 1940, and Fremantle, Western Australia, Passenger Lists, 1897-1963, Orient Line vessel Orontes Ship Manifest, 30 June 1940.
  8. ‘Hal Missingham’s Pictures,’ West Australian, 24 July 1940.
  9. Missingham, Hal, They Kill You in the End, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1973, p. 1.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., p. 27.
  12. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 August 1948.
  13. Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Harold Missingham ASIO File, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, 2007. File released by the National Archives of Australia, Series A619, Item 1491. Includes Press clippings and reports by ASIO operatives on Communist Party of Australia cultural activities.
  14. McGeough, Paul, ‘Hal Missingham Mourns an Incalculable Loss,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July 1986.
  15. Klepac, Lou, ‘Hal Missingham – a tribute’, exhibition catalogue, Fremantle Arts Centre, 1985.
  16. Campbell, Jean, Australian Watercolour Painters 1780-1980, Rigby, 1983, pp. 175-176.
  17. Ibid.

Copyright © Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen

Extract from Brushes with History: Masters of Watercolour by Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen (The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2015)

Copyright © Australian Watercolour Institute