“The life rooms became heated cauldrons filled with the pungent smell of pure turps and linseed oil mingled with the cigarette smoke of the lecturers. In desperation the students suffering from painting fatigue would sneak off to the Students' Association or the nearest pub.”
I attended Art School from 1954 to 1957. I completed a Diploma in Fine Arts Majoring in painting, with a fourth-years honours in painting.
In some ways my time at the school was the end of an era in its long history. Many of the old staff were soon to retire and the outmoded Edwardian teaching style was beginning to look out of keeping with the times. As students of the soon-to-be rebellious rock'n'roll era, we were aware of this and tried to implement change. However we did respect tradition and by and large went along with the regime of landscape and life painting. The group of which I was a member was one of the last third-year classes to train in the old art school on the university city site. Halfway through the following year we moved to Ilam.
My main course was as a painting student but throughout my time at this school, one other student and I also attended modelling from life classes at night, which was unusual.
In the first year we had John Oakley for still life and art history, Florence Akins for design, technical drawing and perspective, Jack Knight for antique drawing, Eric Doudney for modelling, casting and architectural history and Bill Sutton for italic writing and figure drawing.
In the second year Bill Sutton took figure painting, landscape and anatomy, Ivy Fife took head, life and figure drawing and we began figure composition with a number of tutors.
In the third year we retained the same number of classes, with Russell Clark as our senior lecturer in painting. The course was similar in the fourth year honours painting where most lecturers were involved with the addition of special tutorials from Colin Lovell-Smith, the director of the art school.
When I arrived at art school almost all the male students were enlisted in compulsory military training, which I had already done, so I was confronted with a classroom of young women.
Apart from some gaps caused by the above, I went all the way through with the following: Hamish Keith, Murray Miller, Geoff Corser, Annette Stewart, Mary Roberts, Bev Hipkins, Pam Sheppard, Trixie McGowan, Ann Foulkes, Terry McFedries, Anna Thorpe, Monday Tua, Janet Stevens, Bev Worsnop and others whose names I can't remember.
Others at art school during some of these years were Bill Culbert, Bill Main, Pat Hanly, Gill Taverner, Nelson Kenny, Ted Bracey, John Coley, Nancy Finlayson, Peter Young, Tom Field, Alan Oliver, Gordon Brown, Jan Prain, Mike Clark, Trevor Moffitt and Ted Bullmore.
It was a relief for me to find myself among like-minded people. As artistic youngsters, most of us seemed to have felt almost like being in 'limbo' for the years up until then. Meeting young people like those at the art school and at our various lodgings meant that we felt part of a community with shared goals and aspirations. Lifelong friendships ensued from these years. Some married each other.
The social scene was complicated by the fact that most of the girls came from fairly privileged backgrounds – private school girls. As a result they tended to fraternise with law and engineering male students. Most of the boys shared working-class backgrounds from all over New Zealand and were driven to succeed at art school. While many of the girls did design diplomas, in the main, the men concentrated on painting and sculpture. There were a few adventurous girls who did choose one or other of these courses.
The move out to Ilam in 1957, with a subsequent modernisation of the courses, meant there was less social division apparent and more women started to appear in other areas. This was due also to the influences generally felt throughout New Zealand in the late 1950s.
Fun for the men consisted of attending the many public dances in the city and sneaking away to gloomy pubs such as the Shades, in the winter. Most of the girls skied, went to balls and ended up marrying professional men. Some, like Jan Prain, returned to painting in later life. We had rowdy parties but mostly held at 22 Armagh Street, with the music of the day being Dixie and jazz. Elvis was about to hit the scene but too late for us.
The annual Arts Ball was one of the few occasions when everybody in the university got together in the Great Hall. Decorating the hall and organising the function was a communal effort. Another popular social occasion was the Sketch Club, held about once a month where painting students displayed their work for criticism by invited guests from the arts community.
Before 1954 I greatly admired the Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera. Through family connections I had also had interests in contemporary American painting. I was surprised to find that the general art school thinking was concerned with Impressionism and some English Modernist landscapers such as John Nash and Ivon Hitchens.
Picasso became a strong influence for the Armagh Street group, while a small group of my friends who lived in Rugby Street favoured the Fauves and modern French lyrical painters like Raoul Dufy. A later personal influence was the European Tachiste painters and abstractionists like Vera da Silva.
We knew the work of McCahon, Russell Clark and Sutton in these early years but the overwhelming landscape tradition seemed predictable and tedious, as I remember it. Pat Hanly produced some beautiful works around this theme and was no doubt influenced by Bill Sutton, our youngest lecturer, who was in his late thirties.
It was a pretty lean period for keeping in touch with overseas developments in the art world. We devoured any new art publication, such as Skira and Studio magazine plus any of the scarce American publications then available. It is hard to understand now that even cubism was not well appreciated. It took McCahon to point the way in his Titirangi paintings.
Apart from The Group Show, exhibitions were few and far between.
We used to borrow original paintings, by, say, McCahon or Rudi Gopas, from the Canterbury Public Library, which we displayed in our flat! A McCahon 'Kauri series' could be rented for 2/6 a month! Ron O'Reilly, the City Librarian, a man passionate about New Zealand art, acquired hundreds of works, which lined the library walls. This was the only way of viewing recent painting – the Robert McDougall Art Gallery presented itself as an 'art tomb' – so for us, books and paintings could be borrowed and studied.
Ours was a traditional academic training at art school and most of us were already fairly technically skilled before we arrived there. For example, Bill Culbert and I had attended life classes at the Architectural Centre in Wellington during 1952 and 1953. The important skills we learned at art school were anatomy, life drawing and painting. From our tutors and peers we gained a more mature attitude towards studio behaviour, work ethic and self-discipline. By example, Bill Sutton and Russell Clark in their different ways taught us the value of living one's life as a professional artist. Although we were a competitive lot, we learned a great deal from each other.
In contrast to my fond memories of art school, a few students hated the outdated teaching styles and thought that some of the tutors, while friendly, seemed plain lazy. They were perhaps, but under the fading light of Colin Lovell-Smith, the school director, no changes from the regime of antique and figure drawing, and centred around figure composition, could be expected. The ghosts of Richard Wallwork, Archibald Nicholl and Cecil Kelly were ever present. Except for Eric Doudney and Russell Clark, all the lecturers had trained at the School of Fine Art and perpetuated the outdated Royal College of Art theme of the 1920s. Most of the work produced remained formal and figurative. Modernism just didn't get a look in, with the exception of some brilliant colourist work by Murray Miller and Mike Clark.
I think my generation helped to change that formality with the Rugby and Armagh Street communities experimenting and forcing changes. I exhibited the first non-representational painting from the art school in my honours submission in 1957, held at the Canterbury Society of Arts in Durham Street and somehow got away with it without any fuss, so times were changing. By then we had moved to Okeover at Ilam, far from the city!
I never imagined doing anything else than making paintings and teaching. John Coley, Ted Bracey and I began teaching and lived a kind of double life in a way, carrying on painting and exhibiting as though it was normal!
If I hadn't attended art school I would have missed out on many experiences: living with other like-minded people; expanding my horizons not only in the world of art but also in music – classical, jazz and opera; learning cooking through working in the expanding restaurant and coffee bar scene; the diverse fun of living in an environment such as existed at Armagh Street (for example, a quintet was formed of BA student residents which performed regularly); and finally in being part of a generation that challenged the art establishment's entrenched attitudes. And in a wider circle we met and socialised with people who were part of the Christchurch art scene and were always interesting to be with. This was especially true of The Group show artists who actively encouraged younger artists and included many of them in their exhibitions – Pat Hanly, Murray Miller, Bill Culbert – while they were still art students. At this time, at either Rugby Street or Armagh Street, you had instant companions all about your own age and this communual style of living was a very new experience in the mid-1950s.
When I arrived at Art School I was the only one to own a motorbike; everyone else rode pushbikes. On the main campus girl students looked like their mothers – twin-sets and pearls. Older male students wore suits and ties (and I'm not kidding!). Some male students wore corduroys with Harris tweed jackets, ties and brogue shoes. A few men who were members of the Radical Club (Socialists), were lucky enough to own imported duffel coats.Everyone wore the maroon and yellow university scarf. All of us had plywood paint boxes bought from the art school janitor. The two most popular colours in the school art shop were yellow ochre and light red, which made a sort of Canterbury gravy!
Life painting had its peculiar rituals. Banks of heaters were set up to try and heat the life room (not easy in winter) and the 'throne', a large wooden base on wheels, would be rolled into position. Bill Sutton seemed to be in charge of the drapes (calico dyed in various bright colours) and these were arranged sometimes over a low box and a folding wooden frame. At the same time as the model prepared to pose, the students set up the school easels and their prepared canvases or pieces of hardboard, large enough for a slightly less than life-size painting.
Positioning was a tribal ritual a little like fencing. Achieving a good view of the pose or a challenging angle sometimes rested on the whim of the lecturer but more often than not it was a free-for-all. A further complication was sometimes the introduction of a large gilt-framed mirror, which gave you two poses to paint. An initial drawing was made in charcoal and often amended and finished at morning tea time. After this, oil paint would be applied and generally the pose would last for two days. Both Russell Clark and Bill Sutton would criticise at various stages, in their own inimitable and individual ways. Bill, for example, would paint a lightning study on the side of your work that you could only marvel at for his immense dexterity.
The life rooms became heated cauldrons filled with the pungent smell of pure turps and linseed oil mingled with the cigarette smoke of the lecturers. In desperation the students suffering from painting fatigue would sneak off to the Students' Association or the nearest pub.
Although young men could find plenty of work in the holidays the girls for various reasons found this difficult so they often worked after school at the Coffee Pot restaurant in New Regent Street as waitresses. Other venues appeared, offering more employment for both the young men and women. This was the period of the coffee houses and many long hours were spent washing dishes or making coffee when the American Deep Freeze sailors and CB's (United States Army Engineers) were in town. Cleaning buildings before classes and late at night was popular with the young men but for low rates of pay. Holiday jobs could be pea packing, freezing works, postal delivery, general factory work and, in Pat Hanly's case, working behind the counter at Woolworths part time.
However trying to keep alert in a hot, stuffy life painting room after hours spent washing dishes took some effort. In this time student fees were very low and living expenses along with buying art supplies and travelling by pushbike meant everyone could manage reasonably well. Only very expensive LPs sometimes strained the budget.