Many of us have works of art that are favourites, and these are often works that resonate with us or speak to us in some way. Margaret is one of those works for me. The portrait spends most of its time safely in storage at the art gallery but, for the summer of 1996–7, it and twenty-two other portraits by Elizabeth Kelly were shown at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery – Margaret graced the cover of the catalogue. The show brought a small ﬂurry of excitement around Christchurch and, about sixty years after she had sat for her portrait, Margaret turned up to the show.
The most magical book I held in my hands as a child was called Ratsmagic, and it belonged to my sister. It was a dark, threatening masterpiece of a picture book, in which a bluebird is kidnapped by a witch, right when she is due to lay her egg. The animals in the valley where she lives whisper to one another “Bluebird is with egg, BLUEBIRD IS WITH EGG” with a fierce and mythological importance. A clever rat is sent to save her from her terrible fate.
I still fondly recall my initial exposure as a teen to Ian Curtis’s final and uncannily premonitory composition with Joy Division, In a Lonely Place. But with its violaceously autumnal palette, Robin Neate’s work of the same name feels far removed from the dismal granite grey of a Manchester morning, or even the stark monochrome of the 1950 Nicholas Ray film that both of these pieces appropriate their title from.
Underworld 2 is a must-see. I know, I know. Everything is a must-see or a must-read or a must-do in this society of superlatives and imperatives. But you really do need to be in the same room as this work. Underworld 2 is immense. You need to be in front of it—to be immersed, to be overwhelmed, to be confronted. I start at the left-hand side and plot my journey as if I am planning a road trip and this is my map; first south around the mountains, turn left, then keep going until you pass a lion on the right-hand side. Stop and take in the scenery, go down a dead-end road or two. There’s no rush. You’ll know when you’re there.
This work of art paints connections for me – to people, to this landscape and this place. My great-great-grandparents John Henry Menzies and Francis Elizabeth Menzies settled here in the 1870s. I was intrigued to discover that, way back then, the Christchurch parochial attitude was already well established. When he purchased the land John Henry encountered difficulty at the land office; he wrote, ‘A map was the first step. I was a stranger. You must not, even now be a stranger in Canterbury. Not one of the clerks would take any notice of me. It was entirely a case of favouritism.’
I never met Joanna Paul, but I believe that she and my late father, Michael King, were good friends. After my father died in 2004, I found a large diptych frame with a photo of Joanna on one side, and Irihapeti Ramsden on the other; both black and white and young and charismatic—two women he admired greatly who had both died in the preceding year. The frame was folded shut, on top of a bookcase in his study, as if in hiding. I took it down and set it open on his desk overlooking the estuary at Opoutere.
I’ve chosen this because it’s probably Tony’s best-known painting (it’s the one that the Gallery chose to upsize onto an inner-city wall) and because it’s emblematic of his art, which was confrontational and definitely not user-friendly. In a long profile I wrote of him in the 1970s he said of his middle-class patrons: ‘I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about them. They’re the swine I rely on to buy my paintings. I hope these paintings fester on their walls and they have to take them down and put them behind the piano. I hope the paintings get up and chase them round the house.’
I have chosen Don Binney’s Canterbury Garden Bird (1970) as my favourite painting in the Christchurch collection. This painting was a major work that my husband, Brian Muir, bought for the Robert McDougall Art Gallery when he was director in the 1970s. Don came down to Christchurch in an old Kombi van specifically to paint the work. The painting shows a very solid black bird in the foreground, a fantail, resting on large green leaves. In the background are the Cashmere hills.
I hit browse and there it was. The collection. I had slowly built up both a resistance and a feeling of attachment to this collection. Stuffy musty rooms from 1986. Quiet and fresh white walls when it was raining outside. Sunshine on a book through the window on a late-winter afternoon. Christchurch. This collection I recognised instantly, and I felt the repulsion as well as the comfortable feeling.