Harold Septimus Power
Harold Septimus Power, artist, was born on 31 December 1877 at Dunedin, New Zealand, son of Peter Power, English-born hatter, and his Scottish wife Jane, née Amers. After some art training in Melbourne he exhibited in 1899 with the Melbourne Art Club, winning both animal and landscape sections. Soon after, he moved to Adelaide where he worked as an illustrator for the Observer, the Register, the Critic and other papers. In 1904 he was commissioned by the trustees of the Art Gallery of South Australia to paint an animal picture (‘After the day’s toil’) for 100 guineas. On 17 September he married Isabel Laura Butterworth (d.1935).
In 1905-07 Power studied at the Académie Julian, Paris, then settled in London, becoming a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils and the Society of Animal Painters, and exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts. His first one-man exhibition at the Guild Hall, Melbourne, in June 1913 displayed oils and watercolours of rural landscapes, used as backdrops for scenes of equine splendour and hunting which were to remain popular with both the local and international public and critics for the next thirty years.
In 1917 Power was appointed official war artist with the Australian Imperial Force, with the honorary rank of lieutenant. His skills as an animal painter were apparent in such paintings as ‘The First Divisional Artillery goes into action before Ypres July 31st 1917’ which was acclaimed at the Royal Academy in 1919.
Between the wars Power lived intermittently in Melbourne and overseas. His departures from and returns to Australia were marked by significant exhibitions, usually featuring a much-praised Royal Academy work as centrepiece. He maintained his selling appeal even through the Depression when prices of five hundred guineas remained not uncommon. In 1927 he was commissioned with W. B. McInnes to paint the ceremonial opening of the Federal parliament. He executed various other State and Federal commissions including a mural, ‘War’, for the Public Library of Victoria (1924).
Power’s list of overseas achievements reads as impressively as that of any other contemporary Australian or English artist. He exhibited at the Royal Academy, at the Royal Scottish Academy, the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the Royal Water Colour Association and the Paris Old Salon.
Apologists for traditional art in Australia between the wars lauded Power’s work for its nostalgic rural vision, reflecting the self-confidence, moral certainties and self-absorption of the Edwardian country-set. Arthur Streeton wrote of his rival’s work: ‘One is impressed first by a tremendous display of colour and a dauntless feeling of optimism … He displays remarkable knowledge and vigour in his paintings of animals’. Unlike Streeton, Power did not need to reorient his pictorial emphasis for differing markets in Australia and overseas. In 1934 his only one-man London exhibition was praised for its ‘healthy orthodoxy of treatment’. At the height of his fame he was seen in a line of artistic descent from Landseer to Munnings. After George Lambert’s death in 1930 Power was the acknowledged leader in Australia in equine subjects. By the mid-1940s however, his technical skill and subject matter were re-evaluated as unfashionable, as empty facility with the brush wasted on sentimental commonplaces and commercialism.
Power died at Richmond, Melbourne, on 3 January 1951 and was buried with Presbyterian forms in Brighton cemetery. He was survived by his second wife Margery Isabel, née Desmazures, whom he had married in Adelaide on 5 September 1936, and by a son from each marriage. He is widely represented in the main Australian galleries. A major exhibition in Sydney in 1985 affirmed a renewed interest in Power’s work.