painter, cartoonist, lithographer, architect and surveyor, was born in London, son of the artist and architect Samuel Charles Brees and his wife Ann Taylor, née Jones. After living in New Zealand and revisiting London, Brees came to Sydney in 1858. There, according to the architect J.J. Davey, he was employed for a time in the NSW Public Works and Lands Departments as an architectural draughtsman, simultaneously managing 'a little private work as they all did’ – and a considerable amount of watercolour painting. Harold Brees was advertising his willingness to execute a wide range of work, including lithographic billheads, plans and drawings, in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 January 1859, his address being 125 Prince Street, Church Hill. Within twelve months he had moved to Cook’s River Road and was advertising 'Artistic Drawings of Residences and Views, taken for England’ for 5 guineas. On 28 August 1861, he advertised 'truly reasonable’ architectural drawing classes at his rooms in the Commercial Chambers, New Pitt Street, opposite the Sydney Exchange.
Harold Brees was practicing as an independent professional architect and surveyor in the Commercial Chambers at least by 26 November 1862 when he invited the public to inspect a villa he had just completed in Ocean Street, Woollahra, opposite Mr Mort’s. On 27 December he promised a saving of 50 per cent if clients employed him when building his (or his father’s?) designs, then on display in the Architectural Gallery he had opened in his rooms. By March 1862 he was displaying 100 new model plans for houses, churches and public buildings, all apparently designed by S.C. Brees. Nevertheless, Harold was clearly the active, resident architect of the firm; he took over both the promotion and authorship of the model plans when his father reverted to travelling and painting.
Harold was calling tenders for Villa Tuscana at Hunter’s Hill on 25 April 1863. By April 1865 his office was at Mort’s Passage in George Street; in July he was again offering savings of 50 per cent in building costs and was still advertising his large collection of varied designs for villas in all styles in November. Late in 1866 Harold published Rural Architecture , a portfolio of thirteen 'Modern Designs for Villas and residences complete, for gentlemen building without the assistance of an architect’, which cost 2 guineas. He separately offered designs for market buildings.
Having thus relieved the gentleman-builder of the necessity of his presence, Brees appears to have spent some time travelling. A review in the Sydney Morning Herald on 20 April 1868 noted:
A very spirited representation, in watercolours, of the town of Rockhampton is on view at Messrs F. & E. Cole’s book warehouse in George Street. We are informed that it is from the pencil of Mr Harold Brees, a gentleman favourably known in professional circles as an architect and artist of no mean skill. The present example of his aptitude for drawing shows that he has a keen eye for all the peculiarities of our scenery, as well as a happy method of committing his impressions to canvas or paper. The Messrs Cole have several other sketches by Mr Brees, including a clever cartoon of Rushcutter’s Bay.
A panoramic watercolour view of Rockhampton bearing his initials (James Cook University) may be a souvenir of this visit.
At the 1870 Sydney Intercolonial Exhibition Brees – as both a painter and architect of Hunter Street – showed a collection of architectural drawings and three watercolours: Bondi Bay (7 guineas), Botany Bay and Port Jackson (both 6 guineas). The jury commended the third and his architectural designs were awarded a bronze medal. Although primarily listed as an architect in Sydney between 1865 and 1900, Brees retained a great interest in painting, exhibiting with the NSW Academy of Art from 1871. In 1872 he showed an oil painting, Near the Araluen , 'a pretty bit of light and shade’ which was awarded an honourable mention. The Sydney Mail stated that this 'dashing little picture’ was 'in curious contrast to the style of the same artist in water-colours’ and added, 'most people think it is greatly superior’. Sponge Valley, Bondi , another oil, was also shown, along with several watercolours. His oil Sugarloaf, Middle Harbour was lent by E. Stack to the Academy’s 1874 exhibition. The three watercolours he showed in 1876 were for sale at prices ranging from 2 to 6 guineas. He showed Inward Bound (w/c, 3 guineas) in 1877.
Brees was actively involved with the Art Society of NSW from its foundation in 1880. He showed work at its annual exhibitions until 1886 and was honorary auditor from August 1881 until 1892. The paintings he showed at the society’s first exhibition were not, however, well received: 'Mr H. Brees has a number of pictures, of which those representing Mount Alexander and its vicinity are at least like the scenes they were painted from’, drily commented the Sydney Morning Herald (23 December 1880). The following year’s offerings fared somewhat better. Narrabeen Heads was damned with faint praise, only the ship being considered 'well painted’; Blackwall Cave, Lane Cove River had merit, 'but the group of campers which the artist has shown is short of its fair allowance of legs’. Rounding the Point , however, was judged a good yachting picture, one of the artist’s best: 'he evidently knows his subject thoroughly, and his boats really look as if they were going’. At the third exhibition Brees’s three landscapes, including one of Pitcairn Island, were considered 'a decided advance in his style’ and two paintings shown the following year, Unexpected Visitors (a party of troopers at an Aboriginal camp) and another view of Mount Alexander, Victoria , were judged Brees 'at his best’.
As well as designing and supervising the erection of buildings such as St Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons in Clarence Street (1874), Brees did the sort of commercial work that helped keep artists alive in Sydney. In 1880 a pamphlet promoting 'the beauties and attractions of Newport, Pittwater and the celebrated Hawkesbury lakes’ was published as a real estate promotional venture with nine lithographs by S.T. Leigh & Co. after watercolours by Brees. The 'plan and local sketch of the new marine township of Newport’ appended was presumably also his work.
Brees won seventh prize (£5) in a competition held by the printers and stationers Gibbs, Shallard & Co. in 1882 for a set of three paintings: Hiding from Pursuit , Boundary Rider and Cattle Drovers . Again they were not popular with the critics. According to the Daily Telegraph (29 April 1882), the former was 'not a success, being forced both in conception and execution’, while the other two were 'of equal merit’. Brees disposed of a large collection of his paintings by art union about this time 'together with those of other well-known artists’. Nevertheless, he was still producing watercolours in 1895 – the date on a pair of sketches of a shepherd and his sheep (p.c.).
Harold Brees died at his home, 7 Ormond Street, Paddington, on 28 April 1904, aged sixty-six. He was survived by his wife Rosanna Mary née Connor whom he had married in Sydney and three of his seven sons. A daughter also predeceased him. He was buried in the Church of England Cemetery at Waverley. In 1909 his widow presented one of his watercolours, Old Entrance to the Botanical Gardens and Site of the First Art Gallery Building , to the Art Gallery of NSW. In 1911 it was transferred to the Mitchell Library, which holds other of his sketches. He is also represented in the National Library of Australia. Yet he is largely forgotten both as a painter and an architect and his work rarely appears at auction (one of his watercolour views of Sydney Harbour was sold by Deutscher Fine Art in 1985). The unsigned drawing of a 'Proposed Captain Cook Statue’ on Sow & Pigs Island published in Colonial Society in 1869 is attributed to him.