Olivia Spencer Bower

England / Aotearoa New Zealand, b.1905, d.1982

The Dive

  • Watercolour
  • Donated from the Canterbury Public Library Collection, 2001
  • 600 x 920mm
  • 2002/193

Olivia Spencer Bower often stayed at Enys, a high country mountain hut located between the Craigieburn and Torlesse ranges. It was owned by her friend Minta Brittan, whose great-nieces visited her there in the summer, and this delicate watercolour depicts one of the girls preparing to dive into a mountain stream. “Olivia was always very coy about her paintings,” another of the grand-nieces, Jenny Abramson, recalled. “She never showed us what she was doing – although we probably didn't show much interest.” Spencer Bower relished the portability and immediacy of the watercolour medium, which enabled her to work directly in the landscape, and also enjoyed its fluidity and unpredictability. Born in England, Spencer Bower’s family came to New Zealand in 1920, and she studied at the Canterbury College School of Art before attending the Slade School of Art in London in 1929. She returned to New Zealand in 1931. She devoted her life to painting and, late in her life, established a Foundation which finances an annual scholarship enabling an artist to work full time for one year.

(Turn, Turn, Turn: A Year in Art, 27 July 2019 – 8 March 2020)

Exhibition History

earlier labels about this work
  • This work is from the Canterbury Public Library’s collection of original art works. This collection was started by Ron O’Reilly (1914-1982), who was appointed City Librarian in 1951. He had a keen interest in philosophy, literature and New Zealand art and developed personal friendships with many artists including Doris Lusk, Olivia Spencer Bower, Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston. During his time in Christchurch he was deeply involved in the local art scene. He arranged many exhibitions in the library one such being McCahon’s The Wake in 1959. He liaised with other galleries in arranging the loans of paintings for other exhibitions, and for a period was art critic for the Press and picture buyer for the CSA Gallery. In 1953 the Library started its hire service of framed art prints, a selection of 80 reproductions which was confined to works by artists of importance in the history of painting, both old and modern masters. Shortly afterwards the Library’s collection was augmented by two substantial gifts, one from the Redfern Gallery, London of 34 original lithographs by British artists and the other, 39 prints from French cultural funds. In 1955 the City Council approved extension of the picture loan service to include original art works by local artists. The maximum purchase price was to be 19 guineas and because of this limitation the artists were often persuaded to sell their work at reduced prices. The prospect of having one’s work on such public display was also an inducement to the artist to sell at a reasonable price. By 1960, 50 original works had been acquired. The paintings were selected by Ron O’Reilly at exhibitions, galleries and by visiting the artists in their homes.

    In 1981, when purchasing ceased, the collection consisted of 297 works. 155 of these were gifted to the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in 2001. Adapted from “Library Treasures: New Zealand art works from the collection of the Canterbury Public Library, exhibited at the CSA Gallery, 9 February to 5 March 1989”.