Elizabeth Kelly Margaret c.1936. Oil on canvas. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, purchased 1951

Elizabeth Kelly Margaret c.1936. Oil on canvas. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, purchased 1951

Elizabeth Kelly's Margaret

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.

This is what draws me to art history – the excitement of finding long-forgotten facts, of joining  the dots and piecing together the past. And so it was that, later in 1997, I tracked Margaret Westgarth (née Hatherley) down. We sat in Margaret’s lounge at the Fitzroy Apartments, surrounded by paintings, including two portraits of her, and she told me of how Elizabeth and Cecil Kelly discovered her, in the art department at Beath & Co. The couple peered around the door and discussed her for some time; after a while, Cecil came in and asked if she would sit for Elizabeth. Because Elizabeth Kelly was a well-respected painter, Beath & Co. allowed Margaret an afternoon off each week for the task and over time she sat for four portraits, Blue and Silver followed by Margaret, a pastel and finally a portrait in a tennis outfit.

Margaret recalled how well she got on with the couple. Elizabeth talked to her about Russia and their travels overseas, and when Cecil arrived home from teaching at the Art School he would go out and get cream cakes and make afternoon tea for them. She was never paid for her time, instead Elizabeth gave her a small painting for each portrait completed. One of these paintings was a small oil painting of Margaret’s dog that was completed one hot nor’west afternoon with the panting collie tied to the leg of the Kellys’ chair.

Blue and Silver and Margaret were sent overseas to Elizabeth’s agent in London, intended for the Royal Academy and the Salon in Paris, and Margaret said that with the onset of the war, they were not returned for many years in case the ship returning them was bombed. Margaret remembered more – the room where she sat in the Montreal Street apartment with the view out of the south facing window to the river, the tent that Cecil tacked up as a background for this picture, the outfits she wore for the various portraits and the long hours of sitting. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to record her memories and this is what makes Margaret one of my favourites.

25 February 2019

Janet Abbott

Art historian and teacher

Janet Abbott is visitor host supervisor at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū and an art historian and teacher with a particular interest early Canterbury art.