22 May 2018

Harold Freedman - Melbourne's artist for the people

Harold Freedman (1915–99) was born in Melbourne and educated at Melbourne Technical Col­lege. Starting his long career in 1936, he worked in all public arts: port­raits, war propaganda, polit­ic­al car­toons, graphic design, ad­vertising, illust­ration, children’s books and large-scale murals.

In WW2, Freedman enlisted and became a war artist attached to the Royal Austral­ian Air Force Histor­ical War Records Sec­tion. He worked during 1944-5, in Bor­neo, Noemfoor and around Australia. Freedman and two other Austral­ian artists, Eric Thake and Max Newton, were all appointed to doc­ument the RAAF because the Army had previously dominated official art assignments. The more famous artist Sidney Nolan applied to be an official war artist, but was rejected. So he operated as an Unofficial War Artist instead. As did artist Albert Tucker.

Men of Service: The Welder, 
1947, 100 x 62 cm, 
National Gallery Aus, Canberra 

Men of Service: Signal Man, 
1947, 100 x 62 cm, 
National Gallery Aus, Canberra 

Freed­man honour­ed a group who felt under-valued by the public - he portrayed these men and women as noble and dignif­ied. Each image comprised of layers and layers of colour, as in magazines. His work was well represented in galleries, including The War Memorial in Canberra where his official portraits sustained the glamour surrounding the WW2 air force (handsome men in smart uniforms etc). His portraits were sometimes moody eg Wing Commander Clive Caldwall (1944) but always showed intel­lig­ent seriousness.

And see Freedman’s portrait of Victoria Cross winner, Pilot Of­ficer Raw­don Middleton. After his cock-pit was fired on over Italy, Middleton flew his damaged bomber over the Channel to allow his crew to safely bail out close to Britain. Middle­ton tragically died.

His portraits eg Alan Marshall (1943) and The Signal Man (1947) demon­strated great ability, works clearly influenced by Austral­ian black and white illustrators Norman and Lionel Lindsay. These qualities become even more apparent in painted portraits eg a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air For­ce, which was reproduced in the Royal Australian Air Force’s wartime pub­licat­ions.

Men and Women of Service was a post-war propaganda programme that emph­as­ised those who had worked in the Victorian Railways during the war. Because they had been required to remain working in essential services, these people had truly made an important con­tribution to the war effort! Freedman made large coloured litho­graphs that were displayed in Victorian railway stations. Once again each figure was designed as socialist real­ist type, to colour the lives of working people.. 

Post-war, Freedman taught at the Technical Coll­ege/RMIT, creating bold, colour-blocked pos­ters. In 1951 his work­shop for print­making was established at the College, but open for artists from the National Gallery School as well. Fred Williams, Charles Black­man, Kenneth Jack and Leonard French were the enthusiastic part­ic­ipants who began ex­hib­iting together in 1954. By 1960, Freedman arranged after-hours classes and brought the supplies. The Melbourne Print Group formed the found­ation for printmaking in the city’s art and technical colleges for many years.

Pilot Officer Rawdon Middleton, 
1946, 70 x 55 cm,
Aus War Memorial, Canberra

Harold Freedman: Artist for the People was at the Art Gallery of Ballarat in 2017. His designation as a people’s artist was seen in his democr­atic teaching style, his well-known murals, and his serv­ice as an Official War Artist in WW2. But whereas Christopher Allen (The Australian, May 2017) and blogger Black Mark thought the work was insensitive to modern art, Ballarat curator Julie McLaren believed the work was access­ible, democratic and full of honour for WW2 soldiers.

Murals The last third of the Ballarat exhibition was devoted to Freedman’s murals, beginning in the late 60s. His first large (4.5 x 60 ms) painted mural was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial. This metic­ul­ously researched work marked the 50th anniversary of the RAAF and formed a backdrop for the war memorial’s RAAF section.

An ABC docum­entary focused on the immense mural (10m x 40m) on Victoria's transport history. The painting studio was soon re­located to an old electricity sub-station where rail­way carpenters built a massive easel. The mural was plan­ned for a large wall at Spencer St Station, specifically left vacant, and was to illustrate all the modes of transport during Vict­oria’s boom time from 1834: horses, trains, trams, cars etc. It was unveiled in Jan 1978 with a gala parade of historic vehicles.

A large catalogue, written by Gavin Fry, David Freedman (art­ist’s son) and David Jack (another artist's son), noted Freedman enjoyed the chall­enge and made it central to his work, rather than seeing it as burdensome. 

Harold produced a series of paintings on the History of Flight for Tull­amarine’s new international terminal, opened in 1971. Freedman was the first and only person to ever serve as Victoria’s State Artist, appointed in 1972. Alas the History of Flight later ended up into storage.

Shop between 'off peak', 
1950s, railway lithograph, 97 x 60 cm 
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Harold’s aim was to create a very Australian ex­perience. The Cavalcade of Transport mural was commis­sioned by the government for Spencer St railway stat­ion concourse. It showed every type of trans­p­ort used during the first century of Victoria’s European settle­ment. This massive work was completed by a team in a giant Brunswick build­ing during 1973-7. The mural was later removed from Spencer St during the retail development of what is now Southern Cross Stat­ion, and only remains on display above shop-fronts in the Direct Factory Outlets :(

The Regional History of Geelong was the first major mosaic mural created in the state studio. Harold created the full-size, colour painted cartoon and his assistants finished the mosaics, in total taking 2.5 years to complete. It's now in the Geelong Art Gall­ery.

History of Transport, 1978
on the north wall of the Direct Factory Outlet building, Southern Cross Station
Victorian Heritage Data Base

The Legend of Fire mosaic, 1982
on the wall of the Eastern Hill Fire Brig­ade, Melbourne
Credit: Harold Freedman Tribute 

mosaic football mural
Waverley Park football ground, 1986
Credit: Harold Freedman Tribute

The Legend of Fire mosaic covers the wall of the Eastern Hill Fire Brig­ade’s headquarters and museum in Albert St East Melbourne. The colour cartoon was created in small and then manually enlarged to the installation size, five ambitious storeys high.

Harold next prepared vast murals for the Victorian Racing Club. The new Hill Stand at the Flemington Race-course was chosen to display the History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing. Midway into the project the newly elected conservative government changed arts policy and the studio suddenly became a priv­ate enterprise. It was completed in 1988.

Meanwhile Harold negotiated with the Victorian Football League to start a project celebrating the human form and football. His mural and the assistants’ mosaics were installed at the Waverley Park football ground in 1986. He was awarded the Order of Aust­ralia in 1989.


Anonymous said...

While I have taken them before, I recently took new photos of the fire station mural and I will show them soon. I love the mural hidden away in a shop at So Cross Station. How sad that the station mural has been treated so disdainfully, let alone the desecration of the Mirka mural at Flinders Street.

Joseph said...

Helen look what Heritage Council of Victoria presents:

The History of Transport mural is of historic, cultural and social significance to the State of Victoria. The mural is historically important as the first of a series of public art works commissioned by the State Government following the appointment of Harold Freedman as State Artist in 1972. The mural is the largest work (36.6m long and 7.32m high) painted by Freedman and the most ambitious narrative work of its kind in the state.

The History of Transport Mural is culturally and socially important as a graphic public record and celebration of the role transport played in the development of the state from a simple pastoral settlement to a modern progressive industrialised entity during its first century.

See an image of the mural http://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/6058

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Freedman's soldiers remind me of Norman Rockwell with a touch of hyper-realism added. His murals seem a little overwhelming, but that is probably because I am seeing them in such a small format instead of in real life and scope. His "Shopping" poster is perfect design, and my favorite of his artworks posted here--so much going on and to attract the eye, but shy of too much.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I know 'nothing' about Australian art - so this post along with the information was eye opening - and I should keep my eyes open for more work along these lines. War art - is absolutely amazing to see ... as we learn so much. Thanks for this great post - cheers Hilary

Hels said...


which Mirka Mora desecration? Her mural at Flinders St seems in good condition, but her mural in the old Balzac was protected in plastic then covered by a new wall. As far as I can see, it was perfectly restored a few years ago.

Good on you for capturing Freedman's fire station mural in detail.

Hels said...


I will try and add the History of Transport mural into the post. Many thanks for the link to the Heritage Council of Victoria.

Hels said...


Freedman's railway poster reminds me of the early 20th century and deco posters that stressed clean lines and bold colours, with a minimum of text blocking the image. And the family theme was always a winner.

Have a look at the "It's Quicker By Train" posters for 1930-35.

Hels said...


I didn't know anything about Freedman's art until I worked in the same office as one of the artist's relatives and we became very good friends throughout the 1980s.

I happened to mention to my father that I "discovered" amazing art work via the artist's relative, and my dad started laughing. He and Old Harold had been great mates when they were demobbed in WW2 and returned to Melbourne together.

Hels said...


Welcome aboard. I have written many posts on architectural history, but this wasn't really one of them. You will enjoy the next post, I promise :)

bazza said...

I thought the same as Jim (Parnassus), that the portraits reminded me of Norman Rockwell's art. That's no bad thing in my opinion. Freedman conveys great depth of character in those pictures and I like the almost 'caricature' look of them, especially the Signal Man picture.
I would like to feature him in a future Painting of the Month post; he is an artist that Australia can be proud of.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s novaturient Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Rockwell's art was very endearing but often considered a bit shallow, appealing to ordinary families rather than to art connoisseurs, and not aware of modern art movements.

Similarly I called Freedman an "artist for the people" because that is what the Art Gallery of Ballarat called his exhibition last year, but also because the modern art fans thought his art was not complex enough.

I will look forward to your Painting of the Month post that features Harold Freedman, and I will look forward to my analysis of Norman Rockwell in June.

Hels said...


Welcome aboard. And I agree... We don't often see murals as the main decoration on buildings.

Unknown said...

I am related to him

Hels said...


I hope you are proud of your uncle or cousin. I met Harold in the 1980s when his career was largely over, so I went on "tour" of his public works. Loved it.

Tasman said...

Dear Helen,

Thank you so much for your wonderful blog on Harold Freedman. I have been chasing the location of Harold Freedman’s History of Flight for some time now. The only mention I have found, with regard to the location of this Mural, is in your post at Melbourne Blogger, in which you mention this piece is in storage.

I was hoping you could tell me where and by whom it is stored. The NGA and NGV were of unable to provide me this information, so any information you may have would be most appreciated. Kindest regards,

Hels said...


many thanks. Even though this blog post was only published nearly 2 years ago, I actually wrote the material for lecture notes years earlier. So I have forgotten where I originally got the material from *blush*. However because he was the State Artist of Victoria, I would be contacting the Victorian Heritage Database in order to search their register.

Because it was a huge mural, it wouldn't have been easily stolen, sold or secreted in a cellar.

Ashlea said...


This is probably out there, but my mother had a Harold Freedman painting painted in 1945 of a war plane. I am sorting out her belongings because she has dementia and gone into a nursing home. Upon reviewing her paintings, it appears that Harold Freedman is a known painter and his painting might have some value. Can anyone advise about how to get the painting appraised and if there might be a market for it? I know nothing about the process in general.


Hels said...


that is wonderful. If you have Christie's or Sotheby's in Brisbane, I would take the painting in for them to assess. For a _less reliable_ but much faster assessment, try an on-line service like Artsy or Art Sales Digest. Remember to keep the painting covered and dust free, and if the value turns out to be worth it, consider insurance.

Ashlea said...

Thanks so much. We are in no rush so can take the time to get it seen to properly. I will look into Christie's and Sotheby's. Being a total non art person, I appreciate the help given it looks like we hold a little historic gem in our hands. Thanks for the heads up on keeping it covered - it has been hanging on their walls for so long. So will keep it covered now.


John Stephensen said...

Hi Helen, thanks for this info. I recently discovered some photos of my late father Mervyn when he was serving with the RAAF in Brisbane. He was working in intelligence making 3d terrain models. Of interest is an art studio attached to the modelling section. I’m trying to identify who may have painted the works in the images that can be found in the link below. I’m thinking that Harold is a contender. If you could shed some light on this mystery I’d be very grateful. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1028932

Hels said...


your dad was in an excellent site :)

I never met Harold Freedman, but in 2012-ish I did meet his son Dr David Freedman who was a surgeon and author in Swan Hill. David should be able to help you regarding Harold's work.