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 Rolf Harris  (1930 - )

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Lived/Active: England/Canada/Australia      Known for: humorous character and portrait painting, musician, composer

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Ad Code: 4
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from Auction House Records.
Portrait sketch of Sir Jimmy smoking a cigar
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Rolf Harris,  (born 30 March 1930) is an Australian musician, singer-songwriter, composer, painter and television personality.  Born in Perth, Western Australia, Harris was a champion swimmer before studying art.  He moved to England in 1952, where he started to appear on television programs on which he drew the characters.  He also began a musical career initially with the piano accordion.  He wrote the famous song Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport, and when performing in Canada he introduced his popular routine Jake the Peg.  He often uses unusual instruments in his performances: he plays the didgeridoo, has been credited with the invention of the wobble board, a rhythmic percussion instrument, and was associated with the Stylophone, a small electronic keyboard instrument.

From the 1960s he has become a popular television personality, presenting shows including Rolf's Cartoon Club, Animal Hospital and various programmes about serious art. In late 2005 he painted an official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, which was the subject of a special episode of Rolf on Art.

Named after Rolf Boldrewood, an Australian writer his mother admired, he was born in Bassendean, a suburb of Perth, Western Australia, to Cromwell ("Crom") Harris and Agnes Margaret Harris (née Robbins) who had both emigrated from Cardiff, Wales. He is the nephew of Australian artist Pixie O'Harris (1903–1991). As a child he owned a dog called Buster Fleabags.  A book of the same name was written for Quick Reads in 2010.

As an adolescent and young adult Harris was a champion swimmer. In 1946 he was the Australian Junior 110 yards Backstroke Champion. He was also the Western Australian state champion over a variety of distances and strokes during the period from 1948 to 1952.

Harris attended Perth Modern School in Subiaco, and the University of Western Australia.
Whilst just 16, and still a student at Perth Modern School, his self-portrait in oils was one of the 80 works (out of 200 submitted) accepted to be hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales as an entry in the 1947 Archibald Prize.

He met his wife, the Welsh sculptress and jeweler Alwen Hughes, while they were both art students, and they married on 1 March 1958. They have one daughter, Bindi Harris (born 10 March 1964), who studied art at Bristol Polytechnic and is now a painter.

Harris moved to England as an art student at City and Guilds Art School, Kennington, South London at the age of 22, getting into television with the BBC in 1953, performing a regular ten-minute cartoon drawing section with a puppet called "Fuzz", made and operated on the show by magician Robert Harbin.  He illustrated Robert Harbin's Paper Magic (1956). He also had a few acting roles in British television programmes and films as Harry in The Vise and as Pte Proudfoot in the 1955 Tommy Trinder film You Lucky People.

When commercial television started in 1956 Harris was the only entertainer to work on both BBC and ITV, performing on BBC with his own creation, Willoughby, a specially made board on which he drew Willoughby, (voiced and operated by Peter Hawkins). The character would then come to life and hold a comedic dialogue with Harris as he drew cartoons of Willoughby's antics.

He had drifted away from art school as a slightly disillusioned student and had luckily met his longtime hero, Australian impressionist painter Hayward Veal, who took Harris under his wing and became his mentor, teaching him the rudiments of impressionism and showing him how it could help with his portrait painting.

At the same time Harris was entertaining with his piano accordion every Thursday night at a club called the Down Under, a haunt for homesick Australians and New Zealanders. Here, over the next several years, he honed his entertainment skills, eventually writing the song which was later to become his theme song, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport' He also appeared regularly at Clement Freud's "Royal Court Theatre Club" in Sloane Square, where he sat at the piano and entertained débutantes and their escorts.

Harris was headhunted to return to Perth when television was introduced there in 1960. There he produced and starred in five half-hour children's shows a week, as well as starring in his own weekly evening variety show. During that year he recorded in the TVW studios the song he had written for the Down Under Club in London, 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport'. It was released by EMI and became his first recording and his first number one. At the end of 1960 he toured Australia for Dulux paints, singing his hit song and doing huge paintings on stage with Dulux emulsion paint. While painting on stage, one of his catchphrases was, "Can you tell what it is yet?"

He and his wife Alwen went to Vancouver in Canada by mistake, and had a huge success there, working two shows a night at the Arctic Club, where he was held over for 31 weeks until the club accidentally burnt down on Christmas Eve, 1961. He was immediately transferred to the huge "Cave" theatre restaurant to great critical acclaim.

He returned to the United Kingdom early in 1962 and was introduced to George Martin, who re-recorded all Harris's songs including Sun Arise, an Aboriginal-type song Harris had written with Perth naturalist Harry Butler.  The song went to number 2 in the UK charts, losing the number 1 spot to Elvis Presley.  He met and worked with the Beatles when they started recording with George Martin, and compèred their Christmas show in Finsbury Park Empire in 1963.

He and his wife have lived permanently in the United Kingdom since 1962, and he has regularly returned to Vancouver to entertain ever since. He has also regularly returned to Perth over the years for family visits and to the rest of Australia where he has spent as much as four months every year touring with his band.

Since the late 1960s Harris had been performing top-rated variety television shows on the BBC in London, shows which were also shown in Australia and New Zealand, creating great support for his many tours in both countries as well as in South Africa.

Harris has been credited with inventing a simple homemade instrument called the wobble board. This discovery was accidentally made in the course of his work when he attempted to dry a freshly painted hardboard with added heat, from hearing the sound made by the board as he shook it by the short edges to cool it off. He suggests the effect can best be obtained through faint bouncing of a tempered hardboard or a thinner MDF board between the palms of one's hands.

Harris also performed this song in 2000 with Australia's children's super group, The Wiggles.

As well as his trademark beatboxing, similar to eefing, Harris went on to use an array of unusual instruments in his music, including the didgeridoo (the sound of which was imitated on Sun Arise by four double basses), Jew's harp and, later, the stylophone (for which he also lent his name and likeness for advertising).

In November and December 2002, under Charles Saumarez Smith's direction, London's National Gallery exhibited a collection of Harris's art. He was also commissioned to paint a portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II for her 80th birthday, which was unveiled by Rolf Harris on 19 December 2005 at Buckingham Palace.  In his words, it is an impressionistic rather than photographic depiction.  Some commentators found it to be offensive and unbecoming of the Queen, but the Queen herself expressed her approval at the painting after her final sitting, particularly with the way in which Harris had painted her smile. The story of the painting featured as a special edition of Rolf on Art.  The special, called The Queen by Rolf, was broadcast on BBC One on 1 January 2006. In his painting of the portrait of the Queen, Harris was following a family tradition  — Harris's grandfather painted a portrait of the Queen's grandfather, King George V (in which the King was inspecting the troops).[17] The portrait was exhibited in the Australian National Portrait Gallery in Canberra for six months, after Harris gave the prestigious annual lecture there in 2008.

Although he chiefly appeared on the BBC, he was also on ITV with his 'Oliver Polip the Octopus' character on Small Time on Associated Rediffusion.[24] He was the presenter of Hi There and Hey Presto it’s Rolf in 1964. Consequently he was already well-known face on television when The Rolf Harris Show was broadcast from 1967-1974 on BBC1. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s this series in various formats remained a popular light-entertainment staple, latterly being broadcast on Saturday evenings as Rolf on Saturday OK? Harris was also the commentator for the United Kingdom in the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest.  On 31 December 1976, Harris performed his hit song Two Little Boys on BBC1's A Jubilee Of Music, celebrating British pop music for Queen Elizabeth II's impending Silver Jubilee.

On many of his television appearances he painted pictures on large boards in an apparently slapdash manner, with the odd nonsense song thrown in, but with detailed results. This was often accompanied by the phrase "Can you tell what is it yet?" just before the painting became recognisable. These appearances led to a string of television series based on his artistic ability, notably Rolf Harris's Cartoon Time on BBC1 in the 1980s and Rolf's Cartoon Club on ITV between 1989-1993. On the children's show he also gave out tips to children on how to draw and create easy animation techniques, like flickbooks. The latter programme witnessed another Harris catchphrase, "See you on Ro-o-o-o-o-o-lf's Cartoon Club, next week!" He also hosted a successful variety television series in Canada, which was a second home to Harris during the 1960s.

From 1994-2004 he was the host of the reality television program Animal Hospital, which chronicled the real-life activity of a British veterinary practice. Harris then adopted a greyhound that had been abandoned at the vet's, named Rocky. Harris presented 19 series of Animal Hospital for BBC One. It was five times winner in the Most Popular Factual Entertainment Show category of The National TV Awards. In an Australian Times article, journalist Kris Griffiths wrote of Animal Hospital: “One scene of Rolf’s tearful breakdown as a dog is euthanised became forever ingrained in fans’ memories, a spontaneous display that boosted the next episode’s ratings to a zenith of 10m.” 

The story of Harris's 80th birthday portrait painting of Queen Elizabeth II featured as a special edition of Rolf on Art, broadcast on BBC One on 1 January 2006.  Harris's portrait of The Queen was voted by readers of the Radio Times the third favorite portrait of Her Majesty. The royal portrait was exhibited at Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, and was exhibited on a tour of public galleries in the UK.

In September 2006 the Royal Australian Mint launched the first of the new 2007 Silver Kangaroo Collector's Coin series. Harris was commissioned to design the first coin in the series. For the third year running, Harris designed and painted the official Children In Need Christmas card. Harris has presented three series of the BBC art programme Star Portraits with Rolf Harris. In 2007, a documentary A Lifetime in Paint about Harris's work as an artist - from the early years in Australia to the present day - was screened on BBC One, followed by a Rolf On Art special titled Rolf on Lowry.

In November 2007 at exhibition of Harris's new paintings was held at Portland Gallery, London. In December 2007 a new DVD titled Rolf Live! was released through his website.
Rolf on Art: Beatrix Potter was screened on BBC One in December 2007.

In September 2010 - October 2010, Rolf Harris took part in 'Jamies Dream School' teaching Art to a class of 20 students. His personality inspired many of the students, and set a creative spark alight in the classroom. Widely respected by the students, he was seen as one of the favourite teachers at the school in Mill Hill. One of his most memorable scenes on the Channel 4 programme was when Rolf and one of the students called Ronnie sat together in a one to one Art session, when everyone else had left the class and created a masterpiece together.

Harris was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) on 17 June 2006, having previously been created a Member (MBE) in 1968 and an Officer (OBE) in 1977.

On 26 January 1989 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM)
In 1975 he was appointed King of Moomba.

On 8 November 2007 Rolf Harris was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of East London.

On 1 July 2008 Harris was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. He was joined onstage by The Seekers to perform "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" and his Jake the Peg routine.

On 26 January 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate at Liverpool Hope University.


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