Pro Hart and the 'Brushmen of the Bush'

An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983

Silverton NSW

Pro Hart and the ‘Brushmen of the Bush’

A group of self-taught artists from Broken Hill, Pro Hart and the ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ took the world by storm in the 1960s and 1970s, the ‘capital of the outback’ and the ‘silver city’, Broken Hill, on the western edge of New South Wales, is an outback Mecca, packed with history, art, and culture. achieving an enduring place in Australian affection thanks to their character-filled portrayals of Australia’s outback.

Pro Hart:

‘Big Ant’ sculpture by Pro Hart. Wikimedia Commons.

Kevin Charles ‘Pro’ Hart was born in Broken Hill in 1928, and spent his early years on a sheep station, ‘Larloona’, around 130 kilometres away from town. Thanks to the remoteness of his home, Hart was educated by correspondence. From an early age, he was an enthusiastic artist, illustrating his school homework and drawing in his spare time.

As an adult, he moved to Broken Hill where he worked as a miner by day and painted by night. Here, he received the nickname ‘Pro’ or Professor, because he was known as an inventor. In the late 1950s, Hart took art classes to formalise his technique.

In 1960, Hart married Raylee June Tonkin, and together they had five children. Two years later, he was discovered by Kim Boynthon, a curator from Adelaide, and sold out his first exhibition. His work remained popular throughout the 1960s. His paintings depicted scenes from small-town life, the bush, and religious themes, showing a strong perception of character and a keen wit. Though he mainly worked with oil and acrylics, he experimented with ‘performance art’ before it became fashionable, and used a range of artistic techniques including layering, chiaroscuro, glazing, scumbling, scratching and alla prima. Hart was also a sculptor, working with welded steel, bronze and ceramics.

The ‘Brushmen of the Bush’:

In the early 1970s, Hart began to work alongside a group of self-taught artists from the Broken Hill region, including Eric Minchin, Jack Absalom, John Pickup, and Hugh Shulz. After their first exhibition in 1973, the artists received the label ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ from Lorraine Hickman, in a two-page spread for the Australian Women’s Weekly. The ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ would show their art around Australia and the world, with exhibitions in London (twice), Rome, Los Angeles, and New York. Over 50 exhibitions, they raised more than 640,000 dollars for charities, particularly the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Jack Absalom – a painter of bush scenes in a more conventional style than Hart’s – would become famous as a presenter of television programs for ABC TV and radio.

Though the ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ would prove hugely popular with the Australian people, they were never accepted by the Australian art establishment. Art critic Robert Hughes dismissed Hart’s work as ‘parish pump incompetence’, while for Barry Pearce, the head curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, hanging the ‘Brushmen’s’ works in the Art Gallery of NSW was rather like ‘Slim Dusty being compared to Mozart’. Hart in turn gave as good as he got, dismissing his critics as an ‘art mafia’.

Hart would nonetheless receive offical recognition. He was awarded an MBE in 1976, and in 1982 was awarded an Honorary Life Membership of the Society International Artistique for outstanding artistic achievement, an honour granted to only one artist per continent. His paintings were bought by Prince Philip, and US President Lyndon Johnson, who hung his purchase in the White House. Yet, though he received recognition around the world, and became very wealthy (he owned paintings by Monet, Picasso, and a collection of Rolls Royces), he remained in Broken Hill, his beloved hometown, for his entire life.

Hart passed away in 2006, after a long battle with motor neurone disease. He received a state funeral, the first in New South Wales to be held west of the Blue Mountains.

The paintings of Hart and the other ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ can be seen at various art galleries around Broken Hill. The Pro Hart Gallery continues to display and sell his works, while Jack Absalom’s Gallery attracts over 100, 000 visitors a year. The Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery contains several ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ works, as well as paintings by important Australian artists including Arthur Boyd, Clifton Pugh, and Arthur Streeton. Established in 1904 thanks to a donation of three paintings by George McCulloch, one of the founders of BHP, it is the oldest regional art gallery in New South Wales and the second-oldest after the Art Gallery of NSW. The gallery also contains a significant collection of Aboriginal art, and continues to support emerging artists from the outback.

Sculptures of the Living Desert Reserve, near Broken Hill.

The influence of the ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ can be felt in the vibrant arts scene of Broken Hill today. In addition to the above galleries, local art can be admired at the Silver City Mint and Art Centre and the White’s Mineral Art & Living Mining Museum.

The commitment of the city to the arts can also be seen at the Living Desert Sanctuary Sculpture Symposium, 12 km from the centre of Broken Hill, where striking sandstone sculptures, created by 12 international artists, loom large in the desert.

Odyssey Traveller gives you the opportunity to learn more about the ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ as part of our tour of Broken Hill and the outback. Having viewed the work of the Brushmen in the ‘silver city’, we will see the outback through their eyes. Beginning and ending in Broken Hill, our tour heads to Birdsville near the Queensland/Northern Territory border, via the opal mining town of White Cliff, and Menindee Lake National Park. On our way we pass through the ‘corner country’ of the NSW/Queensland/South Australia borders, possibly the most remote area in Australia. We then head south to outback South Australia, visiting Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary on the northern edge of the Flinders Range. From the Flinders we head back to Broken Hill, where our outback tour ends.

If you’re interested in exploring Australia’s outback, why not join an Odyssey Traveller tour? Our tours are designed especially for mature Australians, who seek an authentic and informed experience of their destination. We move in small groups of around 6 to 12 and are led by an experienced local guide, chosen for their knowledge of the history and culture of Australia’s outback.

Odyssey Traveller is now offering a number of tours of outback Australia, including:

  • An odyssey through the outback roads of the Kimberley, taking you on a scenic flight over the rock formations of Purnululu National Park and to the ancient landscape of the Mitchell Plateau, where the red dirt meets the west coast.
  • An outback adventure through rural Queensland, learning about the history of the cattle station in the outback town of Longreach and Aboriginal culture at the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Brewarrina Fish Traps.
  • A tour of the Flinders Ranges, South Australia, taking in ancient Aboriginal art and quintessential arid Australian landscape in one of the most accessible areas of the golden outback.

In addition to our Australian outback tours, we offer a number of other tours of Australia, including Adelaide and surrounds (including the Barossa Valley and Kangaroo Island), the Wildlife of Tasmania, and West Australian Wildflowers.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to ‘Broken Hill and Back’

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