Pro Hart has a good claim to be the best-known and most popular artist in Australia. His works, closely observed depictions of the scrubby bush landscape and the small-town life of rural New South Wales, painted in a richly coloured if slightly naive style, have a wide and ready appeal. It was an appeal enhanced by Hart’s generous, outgoing character and by the fact that he sold most of his work from his own gallery – the Pro Hart Family Gallery – in his native Broken Hill, New South Wales. His fame was only enhanced by his starring, between 1988 and 2003, in a series of television advertisements for a brand of easy-to-clean carpet.
Kevin Charles Hart was born in the mining town of Broken Hill in 1928. His first years were spent on the family sheep property nearby. He showed an early interest in drawing, painting and in making things, but – like most of his contemporaries – began his working life in the mines. Nevertheless he persevered with his art. Although largely self-taught, he made drawings of his work experiences and began to paint them. (His wife – whom he married in 1960 – touted them around stores in the town.)
He received some local encouragement, along with the nickname “Professor”, soon shortened to “Pro”. Having begun painting full-time in 1958, Pro Hart had his first one-man exhibition in 1962 at the innovative Kim Bonython gallery in Adelaide. It was an immediate success.
Despite a rapidly growing reputation across Australia, Hart preferred to spend his time and his energy at Broken Hill. He opened his own gallery there. The town and the surrounding bush country remained the abiding theme of his art. And it was his proud boast that he had won the Broken Hill Art Prize on five occasions. He drew other artists of a similar outlook to the area, and helped to foster something of an Australian Outback Painting Movement.
During the 1960s and 1970s he exhibited internationally – in London (where the Duke of Edinburgh acquired two of his works), France, Egypt and America. One of his pictures is in the White House collection, another was bought by Arnold Schwarzenegger. His exhibition in Tel Aviv in 1977 was the first show by an Australian artist in Israel.
His artistic energy was prodigious. He made large sculptures out of welded steel and (on the occasion of one of his Adelaide gallery openings) out of ice. He also illustrated numerous books, including a collection of poems by the popular Bush poet Henry Lawson, a venture that gave full range to both his love of the Australian landscape and his sense of humour. Amongst the
few images that he made not of the Australian scene was a series of large-scale paintings depicting the horrors of the Gallilpoli campaign.
He had no time for what he called the “art mafia” – the metropolitan critics and public gallery curators – and they had little time for him. Nevertheless his fame and success secured him a place in the history of Australian art, and examples of his work have now been acquired by the Australian state and
Hart was appointed MBE in 1976. It was only one of several accolades. He received an Australian Citizen of the Year award in 1983 and a Centenary Medal in 2003. Broken Hill town council honoured him by declaring 2004 the “Year of Pro Hart”. His studio-gallery by then had become a major tourist attraction, the home not only of an impressive collection of Australian and European art but also of a huge Rodgers Electric Pipe Organ.
Hart counted organ playing amongst his favourite pastimes, along with body-building, vintage cars and pistol shooting. He was a man of strong and sometimes colourful views. He had a great appetite for right-wing conspiracy theories. But this went hand in hand with his generous charity work and his strong Christian beliefs. He was a member of the Gideons, and often surprised acquaintances by presenting them with hand-decorated copies of the New Testament.
Such was Hart’s commercial success that, towards the end of his life, he became concerned about the growing market for forgeries of his work. To counter this danger he developed a method of tagging each of his pictures with a trace of his own DNA – taken with a swab from the inside of his cheek.