The artist H. Linley Richardson is best known for his vivid realist portraits of notable New Zealanders posed against their local environments. Born Harry Linley Richardson on 19 October 1878 at Peckham Rye, Surrey, England, he was the son of George Richardson, an artist, and his wife, Mary Linley. Harry attended Alleyn's College of God's Gift at Dulwich, before pursuing a thorough art training in London. Initially he studied black-and-white illustration at Henry Blackburn's School for Drawing for the Press, then went to Goldsmith's School of Art. From 1896 to 1899 he attended the Westminster School of Art where he excelled in drawing, winning a Queen's prize for excellence in life drawing in 1899. His training culminated in study in Paris at the informal Académie Julian during 1900.
On returning to London, Richardson worked professionally as a painter, a book and magazine illustrator and a teacher. He exhibited widely in England and in 1905 was elected a member of the Royal Society of British Artists. In 1907 he was appointed art instructor at the Wellington Technical College in New Zealand. Just prior to leaving England, Richardson married Constance Verrier Cooper at St Barnabas Parish Church, Dulwich, on 11 December 1907. The couple sailed on the Corinthic, arriving in Wellington during February 1908. The first of their five children was born on 9 December but died the same day.
Richardson was elected to the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts' council in 1909, and became a vice president in 1911. In 1915 he became art master at the technical college, with responsibility for art classes at Wellington College and Wellington Girls' College. In England he had studied museum collections extensively and he pursued this interest in New Zealand. Early on in Wellington he had a studio at the Dominion Museum, where he came under the influence of scholars such as the director Augustus Hamilton and ethnologist Elsdon Best, and where he developed his interest in Maori culture and design.
Between 1908 and 1930 Richardson became well known as a printmaker and stamp designer. His most notable stamps were of King George V in 1915 and 1926, and the arms-type duty stamp of 1931. These stamps were distinguished by the Maori designs in the borders, a motif Richardson introduced into New Zealand stamp design.
Around 1924 he painted the artist D. K. Richmond and in 1925 drew Sir Ernest Rutherford. In 1926 Richardson accepted a major commission to paint the Maori leader Sir James Carroll. In an innovative painting Richardson reversed the typical outdoor portrait composition of a figure dominating the landscape and instead placed a tiny standing figure of Carroll against a soaring landscape of his native Wairoa. In 1932 Richardson painted another unconventional portrait, 'Mrs Thornley, Titahi Bay'. The sitter, the proprietress of a well-known hotel at the bay, is depicted in her apron, against a brightly lit Titahi Bay landscape.
Richardson also painted many highly colourful and realistic portraits of eminent Maori of the lower North Island, Rotorua and King Country regions. While critics agree that the quality of the portraits is uneven, stylistically they are representative of the regionalist movement in Western art that emphasised local themes and ordinary people. The portraits are comparable with the contemporary work of Emily Carr in Canada and Dame Laura Knight in England. Richardson's reputation as an accurate recorder of Maori also makes his portraits important as historical documents. Sir Apirana Ngata reportedly considered that the portraits had achieved a new and striking interpretation of the spirit of the Maori people.
In 1925 Harry Richardson failed to gain the newly created position of art director at the Wellington Technical College; the successful applicant was, ironically, one of his former students, Nelson Isaac. In 1928 Richardson moved his family to Palmerston North, where he became art instructor at Palmerston North Boys' High School. He also took classes at the local technical school. In 1938–39 he travelled overseas on a year's leave to visit art galleries and to study art education in England and Australia. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1939 and retired from teaching in 1946.
Aside from frequent sketching trips, Richardson usually painted in studios based at his various homes. His wife, Constance, and their children were a major source of subject matter. He also painted a number of self-portraits, which leave a strong impression that his career in New Zealand was unhappy and unfulfilled. Students and colleagues remember Harry Richardson as a disappointed man who threw himself into painting; his descendants remember the strain of his demands on the children to pose and the cost of his painting to the household purse. Harry Richardson died in Palmerston North on 22 January 1947. Constance Richardson survived him by only seven months. Both are buried at Karori cemetery, Wellington. Major holdings of Richardson's work are at the Manawatu Art Gallery and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.