Neil Roberts (b.1946, Christchurch)

Neil Roberts was Curator at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery and the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu for 27 years, his roles including Senior Curator from 1995 to 2006 and Manager of Collections from 1997 to 2006.

Diploma of Fine Arts (Painting), 1965–68

Interviewed by Ken Hall
September 2007

“The thing that I remember most about Gopas was his teaching methods. He was a person who polarised people immediately, and if a student didn't fall in line with what he wanted them to do, he would ignore them – for the whole term.”


Neil Roberts, 1967.

I started at the school in 1965. I had a year off in 1966 – actually, I had trouble with sculpture, so I had to go back and repeat it and I decided to spend a year away from the art school working, then I went back and was there until 1968.

Painting was my major for two years. My lecturers were really just [Rudi] Gopas. Bill Sutton for drawing, life drawing and life painting, but Gopas was stage two and three painting.

The thing that I remember most about Gopas was his teaching methods. He was a person who polarised people immediately, and if a student didn't fall in line with what he wanted them to do, he would ignore them – for the whole term. Most of us conformed, because we wanted to get through. We knew that if we didn't conform to his methods then we'd be in trouble – and some who didn't conform, of course, failed. But the thing is that he would come to whatever you were doing and he was regularly very attentive, and he would criticise everything. There was very little praise, but that was deliberate, because he would then make you redo something, or he would get lots of books, and explain each problem as you went along, so that really, over time, you actually accumulated a lot of knowledge about looking at art. What he was teaching was really looking. And understanding – about abstraction in particular.

We were all doing clones of Gopas – we had a whole studio who were all painting the same. He got the key of all the paintings down to his level. This was 1967, and he was painting still in a fairly subdued key. So the palettes were restricted in terms of colour. We could expand the colour, but it was in small amounts – largely the paintings were subdued.

Some [broke out], and some suffered as a result of it, and didn't benefit really in the end. But it wasn't good, because it actually froze you into a particular way of painting. But I must admit it was necessary to a degree, because most of us, who were quite young, were really unacquainted with any form of abstraction whatsoever, and stage one painting had basically been still life painting, with John Oakley.

Russell Clark was there in 1965. He died in '66. I remember him around the school, but I didn't have him as a tutor – he was taking senior painting classes.

Among students in that time there was Bronwyn Davies (who became an art dealer), Gaylene Preston (who became a film-maker), there was Jonathan Mané (Jonathan Mané-Wheoki as he is now), Tony Geddes (who became a theatre set designer), Cliff McPherson (who is now an art dealer in Auckland), Steve Ratcliffe (who didn't continue painting later on and became a successful clothing manufacturer). There was Shirley McGregor (later Shirley Grace), Alison Mitchell (Allie Eagle, who is still a practising artist). It wasn't a very big painting class… Jennifer Tolmey – she became an art teacher later on.

The social scene wasn't a strong issue with me, because I was desperately trying to improve my artwork and I worked a lot. I worked hard, a lot, to try and maintain that, so it wasn't a big deal. I wasn't at the art school for the social scene. Some were – and that's all they were there for, and you never saw them much in the studio. They were out and about, they were late at night, they were coming in late. I wasn't part of that.

New Zealand art was hardly talked about. It was a closed door. There were some exhibitions coming through of New Zealand art, but it wasn't the way it is now. The profile of artists only started to emerge in the late 1960s and really started to shoot off in the 1970s. I knew nothing about New Zealand art. Nothing was taught in the school about New Zealand artists.

Nothing was published, but there wasn't even a lecture at the school in New Zealand artists, so I emerged from the art school knowing virtually nothing about them, and when I became an art teacher I had to do my own research to bring myself up to the level for the syllabus, because I knew nothing. Everything was focused outside – and Gopas, of course, eschewed most New Zealand artists.

He was getting us to look at all the expressionists, from early moderns – post-impressionists, early moderns, abstract painters, particularly Kandinsky, Paul Klee and artists like that. They were the people he was talking about. McCahon – he would talk about McCahon. But other New Zealand artists, he would criticise them as being nothing – in terms of art. They were nothing. So you got this negativity from him about New Zealand art and artists.

And that was his own personal view, but there wasn't a lot talked about New Zealand art. It was low down in the scheme of things. And it was strange for that period, because it was all starting to emerge then. There were exhibitions, and I would go to exhibitions – I'd been going to exhibitions since I was eleven or twelve, attending The Group shows in the old Durham Street Art Gallery – and I remember seeing the first travelling show of New Zealand painters at the McDougall in 1959, when I was still very young. I'd go to the old Durham Street gallery there on my own, as a child virtually, and I got to know the feel of art. But I didn't get to know much about individuals at all. They didn't sort of rank.

Publications about New Zealand art? Nothing to speak of until the late 1960s. With regards international developments, we had pretty good access to published material and information by the 1960s – and the magazines were good, the overseas magazines that you could borrow from the libraries. They were good, keeping you in touch with what was happening in British art.

In the 1960s, there were one or two international shows – you know the Duchamp show came... and some contemporary painting exhibitions came. But the exhibitions that I remember mostly were the ones at the Durham Street Art Gallery.

I learned very little, in the earlier stages. I found the basic studies course varied. The painting class in stage one (I'm talking about the base, the beginning of the course), with John Oakley, we did no landscape painting. We just did still life, with some drapery, and we'd paint these over and over for the whole year. One day a week we would do still life painting, and that would be it for painting. Drawing classes were done in stage one with Jack Knight and again the problem I found was there wasn't enough instruction. Instruction was withdrawn, to let the student just do what they wanted to do, and probably have some guidance along the way.

On the other hand, Tom Taylor was pretty good. He set assignments. He worked hard at encouraging students and trying to help. He expanded the use of materials and things like that, so practically, it was very good.

In stage one in 1965, we were [also] still doing antique drawing – still drawing from the cast. That was part of the drawing class, but that ended in the year following. And Flo Akins was teaching some drawing classes as well. She was doing the instrumental drawing class. On a Friday we would alternate with lettering and geometrical drawing.

It was just on the cusp of that all just going away. The syllabus changed after that, and they wiped out the lettering; they just eliminated geometrical drawing completely. I think some design students might have done some. Then when you specialised you did nothing but painting – in my case, nothing but drawing and painting.

Dick Lovell-Smith, I can remember in stage two, who took the life drawing class, would come and set the model up, and would then disappear. We'd see him at four o'clock again. He'd come back, look around the room at who was left… didn't say anything at all... would clean up the cushions and what have you, and put everything in the cupboard, and go away again.

It was very relaxed. At least with Bill Sutton, in stage three, we had the studio that had the platform in it, and Bill Sutton would sit on the edge of the platform there and he'd roll himself a cigarette, and he'd smoke away there and chatter away, sort of throwing out homilies and what have you. And he'd walk round the class, and at least he'd correct parts of the anatomy. And he'd do little drawings on the side to encourage.

There was some helpful input, but I just felt there was a void – when you'd come from a high school, as most of us did, and some would want different things. I wanted to expand what I'd already learnt in the years that I'd been doing art, or painting, in my own time. I just wanted to expand it and have something – be stretched in some way... You know, even the basic thing of stretching a canvas. I knew that well before I'd got to the art school, but if I'd not known, I'd never have done that, because we were working mostly on board, although we did methods and materials with Jack Knight in stage two. He taught us little things, like how to make your own pastels, and he taught us about how you made a fresco – that sort of thing. We didn't actually do it. We didn't go through the practice of it, but it was sort of discussed. There were not enough projects which actually engaged you with the practicalities. Acrylics were just on the scene, and so we threw oil paints out the door, so that we could go into acrylics. Of course Gopas wouldn't have anything but acrylics. Sutton wouldn't have anything but oil paints. So you had differing viewpoints.

Total friction. Total friction. And you sensed that that was going on. I never knew the extent of it until I read some of Bill Sutton's archived anecdotes, then I realised how much he was being harassed by Gopas and was putting up with it, because he knew that Gopas had real problems, and he was his minder, as it were. And so he sort of tolerated it, for a long, long time. But he was being criticised by him to the other students, which was really not good. He could've actually taken action against Gopas quite easily.

I've told the story many times, of when one afternoon when there was a life class, and the model was Alan Franks, who appears in quite a few of Sutton's paintings. And it was toward the end of the afternoon – it was probably about three o'clock, and it was a winter afternoon, so I remember the light being quite subdued, and there were about four or five students left. I was over in one corner of the room, and there was an easel – one of the students was working on something. And we were actually concentrating on the head. And so Sutton was actually instructing the students on something to do with the head, and Gopas had walked into the room with his hands behind his back – he always wore a garage coat – a grey garage coat, like a smock – and he walked in, and he had his pipe in his mouth and he walked around the room looking at what students had been doing. And then he walked over and stood behind Sutton, who was talking to a student, and listened.

I wasn't concentrating on what they were talking about too much, and I don't know to this day what the problem was, but I heard Gopas say to Sutton that what he was telling the student wasn't correct. That there was a better way. And rather than Sutton – to his credit, I suppose – reacting and telling Gopas to get out of it, and overreacting, as some people would do, he said, 'Rudi, you have your views and I have mine. Let's put it to the test.' So they both got butchers' paper. (We actually went to the butcher's shop and got this, which was used usually for the charcoal drawings and brush and ink. We'd use this over a board, attached to the boards, and you'd do another drawing and flick it over, and dispose of them.) I remember them both sitting – there was an easel either side, and were both concentrating on the head. They both did a drawing of the head. I didn't know what they were doing, because I was concentrating on what I was doing. They were drawing away for about fifteen minutes or more and then they stopped, and Gopas walked around to see what Sutton was doing, and then walked away.

It was very strange. But it was this rivalry, and it wasn't good, because it was only the painters he ever criticised. He didn't criticise any of the other staff at all. I never heard any.

In 1967 I went into hospital briefly at the end of the year – I had a collapsed lung. So I had a little bit of time off, and I remember it was right on the exam time, and I had to get my father to go to talk to [the school] – there was an assignment that hadn't been done, or something. And anyway he went and talked to them, and he came back and he said the feeling is that you'd probably be better at doing art history.

Apparently Sutton had said – [John] Simpson was away, and Sutton was standing in, and [my father] had talked to him – and he'd said, 'Well, he's never going to set the world on fire with his painting. He should be pursuing art history.'

I left the school and I thought, I don't think I'll ever make money as an artist. I'll do what a number were doing. A number of students had gone there on a studentship, which meant that they would then have to become teachers, to go to training college. So I decided to enrol in Division C, and spent a year at Christchurch Teachers' College under Mike Eaton there, to get a college diploma and then go into teaching. So I did that, and I went into teaching, and I did it for six years. And it was while I was teaching that I intensified my painting and went through all kinds of phases. [Neil shows several paintings, starting with a very strong abstract minimalist painting titled Night Doors, painted in 1972.]

When I left teaching and came back to Christchurch, and wanted to do art history [at university]. Because I felt there was just a void there and because I felt that I had an interest in history, and didn't feel that I was adequately prepared in art history, I decided to do that. They'd started new courses in art history at the university, and the art history department had opened, I think, about 1973 or 1974. And as soon as I started doing that, I thought, Well, I won't be painting any more, and I gave up painting then.

I started part time in 1975, because I was teaching at that stage, and the next year I did a few more courses, and a few more the next – and so I stretched it out for a few years. And then I went full time in 1977–78. I hadn't quite finished when I started at the McDougall in 1979. But I did everything that I could, in all the courses going in art history. In fact, I did all the courses that were there, even though it wasn't necessary to do as much. [Neil studied under Rodney Wilson (Dutch art), Julie King (French Impressionism), Regina Haggo (Byzantine art), Jonathan Mané-Wheoki (Victorian art), and Bruce Duncan (philosophy of art).] Nobody was teaching New Zealand or Australasian art in any form at that time. Once at the McDougall, I had to start coming to grips with New Zealand and Canterbury art a bit more.

It was never a firm thing that I'd go into a curatorial position. It was Rodney [Wilson] who took me into that, and I'd not done curatorial work before so it was sort of in at the deep end. But I think it was a good way, because it actually acquainted me with a lot of things that I probably wouldn't have [known about] if I'd had some sort of formal course direction. I may have done things a bit differently, but I don't know. It's hard to say.