The jury at Southwark Crown Court took eight days to find Rolf Harris guilty, but the court of public opinion has been far swifter in dismantling his artistic legacy.
There was a time when a section of Britain took a rather gruesome delight in criminals, even collecting memorabilia. No longer, especially when it comes to those convicted of crimes against children. Everything with a Rolf Harris signature or name, from large-scale oil paintings and music albums to manhole covers in a council car park, are now being cast in a new light.
One collector who has a limited edition print of Uluru at sunset by Harris, which he bought more than 10 years ago for about £750, is planning a bonfire. ‘‘My preparedness to have Rolf Harris’ daubs on my wall is affected by my views of the man.’’
It mirrors what is happening in the town where Harris grew up in Western Australia. Bassendean town council decided last month to remove a framed portrait of the 84-year-old from its chambers, where it has hung for decades, and the community centre quietly took down two photographs of him from its entrance wall.
Nearly all the galleries that sell Harris’ work have removed references to the artist from their websites and, when contacted, said they were not selling his pictures. No one was willing to own up to having his 2006 portrait of the Queen in their collections. One charity, Fight for Sight, where Harris has been a patron since 2005, has cut all ties with the man, while the University of East London has stripped him of an honorary doctorate, an act without precedent. Liverpool Hope University, another institution to garland Harris, is considering its position.
The desire to wipe away all traces of Harris has even led to one small village in Nottinghamshire, East Drayton, removing a drainage cover designed by him in 1979. On the day he came to open a village hall, a lorry drove over the cover and broke it. Harris promised to make a new one, and on the spot drew a design featuring a cartoon self-portrait, which was later cast in iron. Neil Stanley, chairman of the parish council, says: ‘‘We’ve had quite a few people in the village saying it was inappropriate. And a few elderly residents, who were there in 1979, are quite upset.’’
But the manhole cover has not been destroyed. And its fate mirrors what may happen to the larger body of Harris’s work. ‘‘We removed it, but kept it in store,’’ explains Mr Stanley. ‘‘I’ve actually had two emails from people who want to buy it, after reading about it in the local paper.’’
Indeed, for every person keen to burn a Harris artwork, there is someone else willing to hold on to it - either because they are able to divorce the art from the artist, or for purely commercial reasons.
James McGregor, an art collector who bought a set of eight limited edition Rolf Harris canvas prints in 2004 for £5500, says: ‘‘I’m not bothered about owning them, I’m only bothered financially. I bought them as an investment, but who wants to be associated with it now? I can’t see myself being able to sell them.’’
Art experts are divided, with some suggesting there will still be a market for Harris’ work. There is a useful precedent. Last year, Graham Ovenden, an artist whose work has made it into a Tate collection, was jailed for two years and three months for sexual offences against children. He specialised in painting ethereal landscapes, as well as pictures of young girls, which in the light of his conviction are deeply disturbing.
According to Peter Nahum, an art dealer, his landscapes have fallen ‘‘substantially in value’’, to below half the price they once fetched, but there are still buyers interested in his work. ‘‘We are happy to sell them. People we know are happy to buy his landscapes.’’ No one, understandably, wants to touch his pictures of girls.
‘‘Rolf Harris’ paintings sold on his celebrity status, Graham Ovenden’s sold on his quality,’’ says Nahum. ‘‘And celebrity status comes and goes. I would say Rolf Harris’ values will be hit pretty hard.’’
Oliver Power, at Winchester Valuations, adds: ‘‘He was an entertainer first, an artist second. We don’t think he has any value now. When you see the signature and you see a convicted paedophile, do you want that artwork on the wall?’’
Rolf Harris, at his peak, fetched surprisingly high prices. An early portrait of Bonnie Tyler in oils turned up an Antiques Roadshow in 2011. At the time Philip Mould, the art dealer and presenter, put a value of ‘‘up to £50,000’’ on the picture, explaining that after Harris had painted the Queen, his values had increased substantially.
Auctioneer Barry Hawkins says that in due course, Harris pictures will become sought after. ‘‘There are certain number of people who like buying something from a notorious artist.’’
While Harris is likely to spend many years behind bars, there is one area where he will continue to exist: online. The website HMV is still selling his albums and singles. The only time it has removed music in recent memory was to prevent further sales of records by the Lost Prophets, following the conviction of its lead singer Ian Watkins for the attempted rape of a baby.
While his reputation may take only a matter of days to dismantle, a body of work that stretches back all the way to the '50s may take far longer to unpick.
The Daily Telegraph