Friday, 25 February 2011

Toss Woollaston

I have been a fan of Toss Woollaston’s art since I first encountered his watercolours at the Eric Scholes Gallery in Rotorua when I was a child. These 1960s drawings were luminous with bright, clear colour. I have never forgotten how impressed I was with them and I did not have an understanding then how exceptional Toss was as an artist. The hues were not the cuspy colours of his oil paintings, but pure pigment with an undercurrent of earthy tones.

Toss’s paintings from 1937 to 1940 have a tonality that I like to describe as masculine colour. The colour feels smudged with work and the earth. The portraits and the landscapes, both. One of Toss’s finest early landscapes is underknown. Unlike his postwar watercolours, this is a smudgy scene. All the watery tones are closely related and play about with ochre, umber, taupe green and tawny yellow.

This painting was a gift to the Gallery from Colin McCahon in 1961. Colin had met the older artist during 1936 when Toss held his first one-person show at Dunedin. Colin was 16, and Toss 26 years old. They instantly became close mates. Colin admired Toss’s art and said later that they were ‘wonderful and magnificent interpretations of a New Zealand landscape; clean, bright with New Zealand light, and full of air.’ As always, Colin hit the nail squarely. You can feel the air in The Artist’s house at Mapua. That title is not ironic it is strategic. He is laying claim to the land as his subject. This is the nationalist spirit, incarnate.

Colin went to stay at Mapua in 1937 for the fruit-picking season. In 1934, Toss had built a house out of mud brick and his cottage is the subject of this charcoal and watercolour landscape. Toss’s painting was made in 1939, it clearly shows how the shapes were first laid down using charcoal and then watercolour drawn over to fill each separate zones. Much care has been taken with the direction of the paint hatching within each zone, so that when colour accents are overlaid they increase our perception of depth. This quick and assured application of paint counterpoints his careful methods which appear to an untutored eye to be random but which are, in fact, carefully predetermined.

In The Far-away Hills, the memoir which the Friends of the Gallery commissioned in 1962, Toss wrote one of his clearest manifests ‘After a time the strident angularity of both the colours and shapes I had been using…began to seem inappropriate to the feeling I had for the landscape... I wished to paint the colour of sunlight – but after it had been absorbed into the earth.’

Toss Woollaston
The Artist’s house at Mapua, 1939
Charcoal and watercolour on paper
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki,
gift of Colin McCahon, 1961

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Happy birthday!

Exactly 123 years ago today, on February 17 1888, the Auckland Art Gallery was opened in the building which also housed Auckland City's free library and municipal offices.
You can find out more about the history of the buildings on our website... and check our webcam to see how the Gallery has been transformed as work continues for this year's grand reopening!

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Are the Terraces destroyed?

Charles Blomfield’s question ‘Are the Terraces Destroyed?’, which he posed around a sketch showing the devastation caused by the eruption of Mt Tarawera, can finally be answered.

A team of scientists led by GNS Science have discovered remnants of the Pink Terraces submerged in Lake Rotomahana. For details of this fascinating find, see yesterday's newspaper and television reports.

The eruption of Mt Tarawera in June 1886 was one of this country's most deadly natural disasters (second only to the Napier earthquake). It utterly transformed the landscape near Rotorua. A big question for many was – ‘Are the Terraces destroyed?’ Newspaper reporters and artists were dispatched from Auckland to discover the answer. The Pink and White Terraces had become world famous landmarks and there was a burgeoning tourist industry around them.

Charles Blomfield is famed for his depictions of the Pink and White Terraces, which he painted throughout his career. He visited the site of the eruption four months after the event, making drawings and paintings of the destruction, which he worked up on his return to Auckland. The oil sketch (illustrated at top), looking towards the still smoking volcano, records the ‘mud-covered hills’ over which he tramped.

His shock at what he saw is palpable. In a letter to his wife, in which he reassures her he is in no danger, he writes the ‘Scenes you must see to understand, for surely never before was there anything like this except perhaps in the Moon.’

Charles Blomfield
The mud covered country
oil on paper on card
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, on loan from a private collection

Charles Blomfield
Pink Terrace, Rotomahana
oil on canvas
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Sir Henry Brett, 1894

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

'It was a tight squeeze'

Following on from my blog If these walls could talk..., I came across this fantastic image from 1940 in the Auckland Star in one of the Gallery's newspaper clippings books.

It shows the coronation picture of George VI, being carried into the Gallery through what was then the main Gallery entrance - in the middle of the Kitchener St facade.

The painting obviously made it in, as it is pictured below on display - the person standing in front of it gives you a sense of just how large it is.

Painted by Frank O Sailsbury, RA, it records the 1937 coronation in Westminster Abbey. The accompanying caption notes that 'It was presented to the King as a token of loyalty and affection by the Dominions of Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.' A timely find given the renewed prominence of 'Bertie' or George VI, as he became, in The King's Speech.

Jane Davidson-Ladd, Associate Curator