Ngarita Johnstone (b. 1928, Christchurch)

Diploma of Fine Arts (Design), 1946–50

Interviewed by Ken Hall
September 2007

“In actual fact, we learnt an awful lot, but it wasn't particularly imaginative, except in things like writing and illuminating, or calligraphy as they call it now. We had a chance there to use our imagination, and some used it more than others. That was probably the best area.”


Ngarita Johnstone, 1947.


The Birth of Oisin, A Celtic Legend, 1950, illuminated writing


Jacobean Panel embroidery design, watercolour, 1950


Embroidery, hardanger design, c.1948–49


Embroidery, Assissi design, c.1948–49


Embroidery sampler, 1947

I attended the School of Fine Arts from 1946 to 1950. I had an extra year because, when my mother was ill, I had to stay home quite a lot so didn't sit any exams that year. There was no one else to look after her.

I graduated with a Diploma of Fine Arts in Design, majoring in embroidery. But only because in design we had a choice of metalwork and embroidery. Dad [James Johnstone] taught metalwork and I had him for everything else, so I went to embroidery. It wasn't really my love, I think. If they'd had printmaking or something like that, I probably would have gone for it. They were the only choices for the diploma for majors – major and minor crafts. There was the painting section, then there was the sculpture section, and the design section, which is where I was.

I studied under my father for four years. It was a bit difficult because, well, the rest of the students wondered how I ever did anything, because he was so critical of my work. He wanted me to be perfect, and everything I did, he said 'Ah, yes, dear, but...' He never once said anything was any good. He apparently thought they were, but he never said. I'd been brought up like that – an only child. I wasn't to be spoilt, believe you me!

My other lecturers were Francis Shurrock, and Bill Sutton for life drawing. I had Ivy Fife for embroidery. I did weaving with Florence Akins, and might have done some life drawing with her too. It was so long ago – sixty years ago! My memory has always been very good, but it's fading a little now.

Among the students we had the returned servicemen – people like Dick Seelye, and Frank Forster and Bruce Crawford. They came in 1946. Some of the younger ones did the three-year course, but some of them had done quite a bit before and they'd actually been teaching, and they did the course in two years.

My friends were all at one of the hostels, and they seemed to have a pretty reasonable social time, but I wasn't into that, for whatever reason. Not really my scene at that stage. I was a bit shy. They had an arts ball and things like that, and there was [another event] that I went to, but I went and helped my friend with the supper. Well, nobody danced with me – I wasn't the sort. I was terrified they might!

We didn't really feel in touch with international developments in art at the end of the war. Before that we had people around like Rita Angus (Rita Cook she was) – she was exhibiting. Bill Sutton was also teaching by then. Ivy Fife was around – she trained here. But New Zealand art wasn't the fashion then.

We did historic ornament, for instance, and we had to prepare a book full of stuff from one that actually Dad had done at the College of Art [in Edinburgh], and that's all he had practically to give us, and we had to copy them. There was historic ornament, and history of craft, and heraldry, and what they called natural forms, which sort of came into design, but it was really what Dad had done at the College of Art in Edinburgh.

He started apparently in 1908 in an apprenticeship with Moxon & Carfrae, and he actually was teaching there, as well as at the art school in that area – interior decoration and all that sort of thing, which covered the history of design craft work. When he came to New Zealand he was more or less involved in the forming of the course, which began in 1928, I think.

In actual fact, we learned an awful lot, but it wasn't particularly imaginative, except in things like writing and illuminating, or calligraphy as they call it now. We had a chance there to use our imagination, and some used it more than others. That was probably the best area. And of course in our pattern design for screenprinting and block-printing and that sort of thing. We did a lot of 'all over' designs – great big designs – six feet by four feet. In prelim, we also did 'space-filling', using various shapes for designs.

I had no choice in what I would do. From the moment I was born, I was going to go to high school and get University Entrance, or matriculation as it was called in those days. Then I was going to go to art school, then I was going to do a postgraduate year at Edinburgh College of Art, then I was going to teach. I didn't do the year at the Edinburgh College of Art, because my mother was ill, and because it wasn't very practical then. And that's what I did, because that's what Dad said I was doing. I really didn't have any choice.

I actually wanted to do music rather than art, although art was obviously the thing that I should have done, and that was right. I didn't have the confidence in music in a way, but I suppose I had wanted to be different from the family in my work, and it was just unfortunate that I had to study design under Dad, but there you are. I did get resentful, because I didn't want to change my work, and we had awful arguments at the dining room table, about which my father said I always wanted the last word – but who got it? It wasn't me!

After art school we had the choice of going to teachers' college that year. They'd just brought it in. But a friend of mine who was one of my teachers at Girls' High, Clarissa Tyndall, said, 'Oh, go and get yourself a job.' As it turned out, those who went up there to Auckland (it was in Auckland) apparently just wandered around the campus, because there wasn't anything organised for the art students. They didn't until about 1954, and this was '51.

I became an art teacher. I started off in Dunedin. We were required to do Education One, and 100 hours of teaching and observation in a high school, which I did locally. I taught in Dunedin for three years, then I went to the UK for a year. I then came back and went to Napier Girls' High School. After that I went to the Waikato to do my three years' country service, because at that stage you had to do it within seven years of starting to teach, and I was up to my seventh. I stayed in the Waikato for seven years, became senior mistress there, then I thought it was time to come back to Christchurch.

I taught at Riccarton High School for seven years, and then I went up to Papanui High School, because the headmaster at Riccarton didn't believe in giving women positions of responsibility. He said so, and everyone in Christchurch knew, even the inspector. She said, 'You won't get one here.' I asked him straight out, and he said no. He only had one woman on the staff who had a position of responsibility, and she'd got it before he came, and so I went to Papanui to that position. I was there for fourteen years. That was my last position before I retired.

I retired early, after teaching for thirty-eight years. I wanted to get out and do something else, so I did. [Since then] I've done a fair bit of printmaking, and I've done a lot of pencil drawing and photography.

Art school was certainly a good time. I was pretty happy there. Apart from my strict father. The others thought he was wonderful, because he was very kind to them. Ann Calhoun interviewed quite a lot of his students, even many quite a lot older than me, and it was interesting what came out of that, and I knew that. But he just didn't want to look like he was favouring me. I got the passes, but fortunately in my last year – I think it was my last year – I was finishing my minor craft of writing and illuminating, and because Dad was acting director then, he gave his writing and illumination class to Bill Sutton, and I got the prize that year!

At the beginning of that year, which was my last year for writing and illuminating, I just sat there for six weeks. I couldn't do anything. I just couldn't. And that was the point at which Dad handed the class over to Bill. I don't know whether Dad realised why I was like that, but I just couldn't come up with anything. [Then] I made a book with Bill. I had actually passed the examination, but I still wanted to do writing and illuminating, and so I did my book. And that was when I got a prize. Except that... I got £60 or so for it, and I had to even ask for a piece of paper that said officially that I had won!

[The book was included in Ann Calhoun's Simplicity and Splendour exhibition at Christchurch Art Gallery.]