For many years, the piercing whistle of the railway workshops off Blenheim Road was Addington's alarm clock.
At 8am, a great battalion of working men biked in through the Clarence or the Lowe Street gates: at 4.30pm, the gates opened and they cycled home again across the city. At its height, this heavy industrial complex employed more than 1000 people, and built locomotives, wagons, and carriages for New Zealand Railways as well as steel girders for bridges. When Christchurch artist Louise Henderson painted the workshops in 1930, they had recently been overhauled and expanded as part of a nationwide initiative to modernise the railways.
Louise Henderson arrived in Christchurch in 1925. A Parisienne, she met her future husband Hubert Henderson, a New Zealander, at the Louvre. Shortly after they were engaged Hubert returned to take up a position as head of mathematics at Christchurch Boys' High School: Louise went through a proxy marriage at the Embassy in Paris and sailed off to join him in Christchurch, where they lived for many years on Papanui Road (the house is still standing). "Arriving in New Zealand," she later commented, "was like opening a door for me. I discovered things I never knew existed. It was a new world."
Born Louise Etienette Sidonie Sauze in 1902, Henderson grew up in a cultured environment. Her grandfather had been an academic painter who became under-secretary to the French Minister of Culture: her father, Daniel Sauze, was secretary to the French sculptor Rodin. As a child, Henderson played with marble chips from Rodin's studio. As a young woman she studied at the School of Industrial Arts in Paris and then worked as a designer of embroidery and interiors for the weekly journal Madame. A year after arriving in Christchurch ("A cultured place, dull but sound", as she noted), Henderson was employed to teach design and embroidery at Canterbury College School of Art. Her students knew her as 'Madame': she represented a direct link for them with one of the world's centres of art.
What did the railway workers at Addington make of the stylish Frenchwoman in the beret who stood sketching them amid the noise and grease of the machine shop? There is not a great tradition of social realism in New Zealand art. Henderson's painting is among a handful of significant paintings depicting New Zealand workers and industry from the interwar years, including Christopher Perkins's Silverstream Brickworks (1930) and Rita Angus's Gas Works (1933). Henderson depicts the workshop as a bright, clean, industrious place: men stand at their lathes and machines, engrossed in their work. In the foreground two men examine a blueprint; another worker glides above the scene in a bucket attached to a gantry crane.
Like Perkins, and Angus, with whom she was close friends, Henderson has simplified and flattened forms and washed the composition with a clear and even light. The emphasis is on the geometric design afforded by the scene, where straight lines are painted with the aid of a ruler and incidental details are left out. This distinctive style, associated with the Canterbury School of the 1930s, nods both towards international modernism and to contemporary commercial art.
As road freight overtook rail, the Addington Workshops declined until they were finally closed in 1990 and gradually demolished. But sixty years earlier, when Henderson painted them, the workshops were not just a major employer in the city – they represented a distinct culture of their own, fielding choirs and sports teams and holding gigantic annual picnics to which workers' families were invited. The long-demolished shed in which Henderson sketched the men at work stood adjacent to the site of the current railway station at Addington and behind the heritage water tower. All that's left of the workshops today is the water tower, built in concrete and steel in 1883, which now stands isolated in the car park at Tower Junction.
This article first appeared in The Press, 14 October 2014.
Arriving in Christchurch from Paris in 1925, having recently married a New Zealander, the young Louise Henderson (née Sauze) began teaching embroidery design at the Canterbury College School of Art in the following year. Painting was one way in which she began familiarising herself with a new environment. Befriending local artists, she also began to exhibit her work.
This painting proves Henderson’s innate ability with colour and ongoing interest in structural form. Picturing the vast railway carriage construction workshops in the suburb of Addington in Christchurch, this is one of very few New Zealand modernist paintings dealing with urban industry in this period.
(Above ground, 2015)
I go into the Gallery. Haven’t been there in a while. Building closed. It was open to begin with. Civil Defence HQ in the weeks following the shock that laid the city low and who knew glass could be so strong, so resilient? Then the Gallery closed. It was cordoned off, behind wire netting. Something was going on in there. Someone said something had cracked in the basement. Someone said they needed to insert a layer of bouncy forgiving rubber beneath glass and concrete, ready for any future slapdown.
City of Shadows and Stories
If cities are the ground into which we plant stories, the soil of Ōtautahi – later Christchurch – is undergoing a protracted tilling season. Five years is a long unsettlement in human terms; on a geological (or indeed narratological) scale, time moves more gradually. Christchurch exists today as a rich aggregation of narratives, propping up physical edifices of crumbling stone and cardboard.
It's where we live: the encrusted surface of a molten planet, rotating on its own axis, circling round the star that gives our daylight. Geographically, it's a mapped-out city at the edge of a plain, bordered by sea and rising, broken geological features. Zooming in further, it's a neighbourhood, a street, a shelter – all things existing at first as outlines, drawings, plans. And it's a body: portable abode of mind, spirit, psyche (however we choose to view these things); the breathing physical location of unique identity and passage.
For many passers-by, Christchurch art Gallery is identified by its dramatic glass façade—the public face it presents to the world. but De-Building is an exhibition that offers a very different view. bringing together the work of fourteen artists from new Zealand and farther afield, this group exhibition draws inspiration from the working spaces gallery-goers seldom see: the workshops, loading bays and back corridors; the scruffy, half-defined zones.
Many artists have depicted this city’s urban spaces, including Ivy Fife, who studied at the Canterbury College School of Art from 1920 to 1931 and taught there from 1936 until 1959. Fife’s studio apartment was in the nearby St. Elmo Courts, from where the bird’s-eye view was painted.
Fife also captured the clamour of Christchurch’s railway station on Moorhouse Avenue during the new Queen’s royal visit. Opened in 1877, the station had been a handsome structure, but by 1954 its Venetian gothic arches were under lean-to additions and its brick warmth covered in paint. Demolition came five years later; its replacement, a landmark modernist building, was itself demolished after the Christchurch earthquakes.
(Above ground, 2015)
James Fitzgerald moved from England to Auckland in 1903, and then twenty years later to Christchurch, where he established his own commercial art studio. His watercolour view captures Christchurch’s Cathedral Square at its most architecturally cohesive and complete. Many will remember the United Service Hotel at left, built in 1884–85, demolished 1990; fewer will recall the neoclassical Bank of New Zealand building at right, designed in 1866, demolished 1963. While it is possible to lament our general cultural attitude to architectural heritage, it is also difficult to imagine anything here, even if it had been protected, as capable of surviving the 2010-11 earthquakes that hit the city.
(Above ground, 2015)