Harold Williams: Artist behind community center’s Bob Hope portrait

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Katie Mullikin
  • 100th ARW

For Beryl Williams, who was born and raised in Mildenhall, England, there was nothing better than dancing. In the evenings, after she got out of work at the local auctioneers, she would ride her bicycle to Royal Air Force Mildenhall for their social dances.

On one fated night, at the age of 22, she met an amazing dancer named Harold Williams. The chemistry between them was destiny as Harold and Beryl stealing the show with their ballroom dancing. That was the night Beryl realized she’d met her future husband and the love of her life, who would also go on to paint a well-known painting at RAF Mildenhall.

“You should’ve seen us,” said Beryl, “We were really good and I’ve some medals back at home from our dancing days.”

As she sat on a blue leather coach, wrapped in a poofy black winter coat Beryl, now 97, recalled the moment they first met. Her green eyes gaze up to the portrait her late husband painted, hanging high up on the brick wall of the Bob Hope Community Center.

Harold was a previous trumpet player for the Royal Air Force band, but he left the armed services when World War II ended in 1945. Instead of returning to Liverpool after the war, he decided to work on Royal Air Force Mildenhall at the gym where Americans would host dances and events as a musician.

“Harold loved music, especially jazz music. Every Thursday evening, he would invite his friends over and they would play jazz music in his studio,” said Beryl. “He would work during the day and sometimes at nights, but during his free time he would paint.”

Harold was not only a passionate jazz player, but also a fan of art in painting and aesthetes. On their days off of work, Harold would take Beryl to the art galleries in Liverpool and introduce her to the works of Rembrandt and Michelangelo. He would point out the different strokes on the canvas and tell Beryl to look at the details of the hands.

Her husband had his own studio that he created from the shed that was embedded in the garden behind their home. The building lined with large glass windows on the north side and comprised a small log burner for when he painted on the cold winter nights. There he would work on his art pieces and keep his beloved music and art supplies. 

“Harold loved painting, but he had no training. He started painting as a hobby, but he had a natural talent for art,” said Beryl. “Later, I would lease out homes and our tenants would come over, see his work and ask for him to paint for them.”

Harold Williams was commissioned to paint a lot racehorses, but he also did personal portraits including one of his wife and her sister.

In the year 1970, RAF Mildenhall advertised an art competition for people to submit their best art pieces for a commission to paint the father of American stand-up comedy, Bob Hope. Harold, who enjoyed watching the comedian, hesitantly entered one of his art pieces.

“Harold was a quiet and shy person. He didn’t like the attention which is why he never advertised his painting skills and art work,” said Carol Jaggard, Harold’s niece.

The art competition prized the winning artist not only with the opportunity to paint the famed Bob Hope, but to present the portrait to him in person when he arrived at Royal Air Force Mildenhall for the opening of the Bob Hope Community Center in December 1970.

“We all were Bob Hope fans,” said Beryl. “We loved watching him on television and seeing his films for five pence in the theater. It was really an exciting time to know that Bob Hope was coming here, so when Harold won the commission, he truly was delighted.”

Given only a simply photograph of Bob Hope, Harold started work in his studio. After his job he would paint in the evenings or whenever he had time off. It took him almost two weeks to apply the first layer of paint and wait for it to dry. After that, the next layer of paint took him only a couple days to complete.

Harold was extremely nervous to meet Bob Hope in person, especially in front of all the photographers and journalist who came to cover the event.

“It was a real job to get him out there to meet Bob Hope because he was so nervous,” said Beryl. “But when Bob Hope saw the portrait he said, ‘Now that’s a good chap.’”

Harold was proud of his portrait of Bob Hope and often told Beryl to, “Look at the hands”.

Beryl shared how her husband loved all of his friends and family and in return they deeply loved him. He spent many days playing with his nieces and nephews who loved spending time with him.

“During summer holiday when Auntie Beryl would be at work, Uncle Harold would be in the studio playing instruments and painting and he would bring us in his studio and try to get us painting,” said Terrie Jaggard, Harold William’s great-niece. “We loved spending time in the studio with him.”

In the last years of his life, Harold developed Alzheimer’s and was moved into a home to receive the proper care. After being married 64 years to his loving wife, Harold passed away on Dec. 14, 2014, aged 85.

After searching for other paintings by her late husband, Beryl has been able to locate some of them as local as Mildenhall, across the English Channel to Paris and as far as the United States. She has been able to collect photos, prints of the paintings and some of the actual paintings themselves.

Though Harold is no longer here, Beryl can take comfort in knowing his portrait of Bob Hope is on display for people at RAF Mildenhall to enjoy for many years to come.