Harold Freedman: Official RAAF war artist

16 April 2024 Written by Andrew Lemon

Visitors to Flemington may be familiar with the huge ‘History of Racing’ mural by artist Harold Freedman in the Hill Stand. Where Freedman first made his mark, however, was with his work as an official war artist with the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War.

Flemington’s largest artwork, unique on Australian racecourses, is the seven-panel mural in the public Hill Stand. ‘The History of Racing’ was devised and painted by Harold Freedman OAM (1915–1999) and his Melbourne Mural Studio. The densely detailed series, on panels attached to the long, sloping interior ceilings, was installed progressively from the mid 1980s, completed to mark the Australian Bicentenary in 1988. 

Men and Women of Service images courtesy of Art Gallery of Ballarat. War sketches courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

Together, the panels create a visual chronicle of the origins of racing, and then follow the story across Australia since the first horses reached this continent in 1788. Equine and human heroes, famous races and racecourses, historic moments, triumphs and disasters, international references are covered. The saga of Flemington and the Melbourne Cup runs centrally across the panels. 

When the VRC commissioned these works, Freedman was nearing the end of his professional career, having been Victoria’s official State Artist from 1972 to 1983. In that decade he had created massive murals and mosaics for public spaces, the best known being the History of Transport at the former Spencer Street Railway Station terminus and the Legend of Fire mosaic mural at Eastern Hill Fire Station.

Lesser known today, but where Freedman first made his mark, was his work as an official war artist with the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War. Leaving school at 14 after the death of his father, Freedman won a night scholarship in art to the Working Men’s College (RMIT) while making his living as a commercial artist. In July 1941 at 26 he enlisted as an Aircraftman with the RAAF. His technical skill soon had him producing brilliant practical drawings for training purposes, while in his own time he sketched, cartooned and painted. The RAAF Engineering School at the Melbourne Showgrounds used a whimsical drawing of fellow trainees at work for its 1941 Christmas card. 

In his major published study of Harold Freedman, The Big Picture (2017), art historian Gavan Fry explains the complicated path that took the young artist from technical illustrator to an officer’s role with the RAAF Directorate of Public Relations as art director of the periodical Wings (and regular humourist and illustrator). By 1944 he was Senior Artist in the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff’s Historical Section. He selected and supervised RAAF war artists Eric Thake and Max Newton, and personally completed a four-month tour of duty to New Guinea. 

The stated objective was to capture, in ways the camera never could, 'the war record, life and personalities of the RAAF in northern operational areas, recorded by artists who are members of the Air Force, and their work will be the property of the RAAF'. Soon after the war this collection by Freedman, Thake and Newton toured the major galleries of every state capital city. 

Much of this work is now in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. So too – sadly boarded up and obscured from public appreciation – is Freedman’s first huge mural, for the Aircraft Hall, depicting like a vast flock of birds ‘every aircraft used in the defence of the country’. This detailed project was undertaken years later, in 1969–70, the artist’s knowledge of planes and aviators still shining through. 

Freedman’s war art is strong, varied, authentic, sometimes romantic, human.

The post-war art world lurched to modernism and the abstract, some say as a response to the horrors of war. Freedman’s artistic preference was for realism and form. He consciously turned to the general public as his audience while always embracing the label ‘artist’ himself. In his long, multi-faceted post-war career he was conspicuous as book illustrator, innovative printmaker, influential art teacher, large-scale muralist and enthusiastic communicator. 

Among Harold Freedman’s most popular works, and displayed for years at railway stations around the state – the art gallery he loved best – were his vivid sequence of portrait posters commissioned in 1947 by Victoria Railways: ‘Men of Service’ including ‘Women of Service: The Porter’. There was a direct wartime link, as the Railways sought to celebrate its workers, too often unsung heroes, who had kept the train network running in difficult times. War service and heroism, as Harold Freedman had learned, took many forms. 

Andrew Lemon was writer and researcher for Harold Freedman and the Melbourne Mural Studio for ‘The History of Racing’ Mural from 1983 to 1989. Scenes from the mural are key illustrations for his three volume The History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing (1987, 1990, 2008) which grew from the mural project.