Nor'western Sky by Petrus van der Velden


This article first appeared as 'New landscape for Dutch artist' in The Press on 16 May 2014.

Public art galleries often rely on the generosity of benefactors who wish to gift or leave their artworks to a public institution for others to enjoy. This has certainly been the case at the Christchurch Art Gallery over the past three years with several significant gifts and bequests received since the Gallery was forced to close in February 2011. These include paintings by Doris Lusk and Colin McCahon as well as sculptures by Julia Morison, Sarah Lucas and Michael Parekowhai to name a few. One of the most recent gifts to be received by the Gallery is this stunning charcoal drawing, Nor'western Sky, by the Dutch artist Petrus van der Velden (1837-1913).

Nor'western Sky was completed shortly after van der Velden's arrival in Christchurch in 1890. The artist focuses on the atmospheric effects of Canterbury's hot, dry nor'west winds and the backlight of the setting sun on the clouds. The figure bent over on the river's edge is not dissimilar to the figures of peasant workers found in van der Velden's earlier Dutch paintings. The artist has simply transported them to the Canterbury landscape. Van der Velden was a very successful painter during his lifetime and his works are still highly regarded by contemporary audiences. Although better known as a painter he was however an incredibly talented draughtsman and charcoal was the ideal medium for him to explore the contrasts in light and dark tonalities, a strong feature in Nor'western Sky with the light in the sky contrasting strongly with the shadowed landscape.

The drawing was presented to the Gallery by Jenny Wandl, Tricia Wood and Tim Lindley whose great-grandfather was John Bradley, a Christchurch merchant who ran a home decorating business on Colombo Street during the 1890s. Bradley family lore has it that van der Velden swapped this drawing as part payment for art supplies from John Bradley. Bradley's sons went on to establish Bradley Bros. in the early 20th century, a well known Christchurch firm that specialised in stained glass windows.

An amateur photographer John Bradley was one of a party that accompanied van der Velden on a camping trip to the Otira Gorge in June 1893. Why they decided to travel to such a mountainous region in the middle of winter remains a mystery. A southerly storm hit the South Island shortly after their departure from Christchurch and the trip became miserable as they dealt with deep snow drifts and bitter cold. Conditions became so dire that one of the party, the Rangiora photographer Alpheus Aldersley, eventually succumbed to the cold catching a chill that deteriorated rapidly into pneumonia and he died at the George Dyre Hotel at the foot of the Gorge.

This drawing is a stunning example of van der Velden's work in charcoal, ambitious in scale and completed shortly after his arrival in Christchurch it makes an important addition to the collection of the Christchurch Art Gallery. Perhaps more importantly however is the fact that this drawing relates directly to the major oil painting of the same title by van der Velden that was also presented to the gallery as a gift by Miss van Asch back in 1938.