Harry Holland paintings on show in Cardiff exhibition

By Huw Thomas
BBC Wales arts and media correspondent

  • Published
Harry Holland
Image caption,
Harry Holland is one of Wales's most successful living artists

For over 50 years the Cardiff-based artist Harry Holland has been painting people, and the everyday objects that decorate his studio.

While his output is prolific, so too is the praise for his work.

His reputation is confirmed by the popularity of his shows and the prices his paintings command.

And while his elegant works often tease and provoke, the artist's opinions on the art world are also barbed.

A new exhibition that opens at the Martin Tinney gallery in Cardiff this week includes new work with prices reaching almost £10,000.

If he was a football manager he would be one of the special ones, and he knows it.

"An awful lot of people now believe that they are an artist," he remarks as we sit in his Cardiff studio.

"There is an awful lot of promotion of the idea that in everybody there is an artist. Well, there bloody well isn't."

Image source, Harry Holland/Martin Tinney Gallery"
Image caption,
Dancing Dandies by Harry Holland

As he opens his show in Cardiff, Mr Holland's works also hang in galleries in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Athens, Brussels and Marbella.

He is best known for painting female nudes, taking inspiration from history's idealist artists.

"I'm a great fan of 19th Century painting, which was the great era of the idealised human form," he said.

"In the 20th Century artists like William Bouguereau made absolutely wonderful depictions of the human figure, and put them in compositions which I think are glorious. There's a phrase they used to use in the pop industry - I 'pay homage' to that spirit!"

Born in Glasgow in 1941, he has lived in Cardiff since the 1970s and would hardly want to live anywhere else.

Media caption,
Harry Holland said Cardiff has been "very generous" to him

"I think Cardiff is wonderful," he said.

"It doesn't treat its artists particularly well, but it is a great place to be an artist. Brutally, because it's much cheaper than a lot of other places, and there are areas close to Cardiff which are even cheaper. And there is an artistic community which is very supportive.

"There are the usual politics, of course, and there are the usual vituperations. But generally speaking artists in Cardiff support one another, and help when they can."

Mr Holland is a commercial artist, and takes pride in never having relied on grants or public funds to sustain his career. In fact, he is quite scathing of the government and the art establishment for implementing policies that he feels have been detrimental to Welsh artists.

"The emphasis of the museums on 'bums on seats' to get the crowds in is so wrong-headed," he said.

"People should be allowed to be interested - or not - in art. The emphasis on the numbers of people has driven a dumbing down, and a lack of the need to make judgements of quality on behalf of the audience."

The issue of quality clearly concerns him, as does his perception that international artists and contemporary art installations are favoured by curators but not by the general public.

He tells me how he feels that a lack of critical voices in planning how to spend public money on art means nobody challenges "boring" art.

"They are frightened witless of making value judgements themselves, and of saying, 'This thing is better than that thing.' Because there would be a political storm if they said 'sorry, we don't like this sort of art, it's crap. Boring video art, forget it.' If someone said that, there would be a fuss.

"The system has become one in which curatorship is more important than the arts, and one in which careers are made in relation to what international artists you can show rather than what local artists you can discover."

The public galleries and art institutions who he has in mind would doubtless argue that contemporary art, and challenging pieces, deserve a place alongside treasured works from Welsh painters which also hang on their walls.

But if there is something Mr Holland is determined to encourage, it is a more open culture of criticism that would lead to an honest discussion about the quality of art that is produced and promoted in Wales.

"People are desperate not to say that one thing is better than another, when it patently is.

"I'm not claiming this for myself particularly, but there are some people who, by their dedication to whatever skills they need, and their ability to observe the world and their desire to say something about those observations, have something special to say. And those people should be sought out. But they're not."

While Mr Holland has just opened his new show in Cardiff, he reminds me that the paintings that are freshly hung on the gallery walls were completed months ago.

He may be 75 but age does not seem to limit his productivity or his passion, and he is already sketching the paintings that will eventually hang in a gallery in Wales or abroad in his next exhibition.