Olivia Spencer Bower

New Zealander, b.1905, d.1982

Kaikoura Country

  • Purchased 2013
  • Watercolour
  • 602 x 775mm
  • 2013/082
  • 1941

'The Māori name for Kaikōura is Te Ahi Kaikōura o Tama Ki Te Raki, the place where Tama Ki Te Raki [a mythical exploring ancestor] cooked his crayfish. What’s significant is the Kaikōura Ranges. The south Seaward Kaikōuras were named The Lookers On Mountains by Captain James Cook, so called because when Cook was coming down the coast some twelve miles offshore he encountered several double canoes out fishing. He kept trying to induce them to come alongside the ship, but every time the ship came towards them they paddled away and just sat watching – so he called the mountains behind them The Lookers On.

'Another interesting thing about the mountains of the Kaikōura territory: you’ve got Te Parinui o Whiti [the White Bluffs], one of Kāi Tahu’s marker boundaries, and the highest peak, Tapuae o Uenuku. Tapuae means footsteps, the sacred footsteps of Uenuku [a prominent Māori ancestor]. Uenuku is said to have been put ashore from the Uruao or Uruaokapuarangi canoe [said to have come from Hawaiki, led by Rākaihautū], and he climbed the mountain and named it Te Tapuae o Uenuku. The mountains behind have many different names; most of the Seaward Kaikōuras have Māori names. Behind them is the Awatere valley, inland; Tapuae o Uenuku is at the head of those valleys.' —Sir Tipene O’Regan

(He Rau Maharataka Whenua: A Memory of Land, 17 September 2016 – 18 February 2017)

earlier labels about this work
  • In the vast emptiness, 8 January - 21 August 2016

    In 1977 Olivia Spencer Bower spoke about visiting and painting at a friend’s farm, Steepdown, the location of this painting, in Kaikōura during the early 1940s:

    'You’re aware of the shifts of the hills and how they go into terraces. You can’t help but be aware of it. ‘Steepdown’ is rough country to walk in; when the floods are in you’ve got to get on horses and swim across the river to get out of the place. […] The farm is well named. I used to climb as far as I could to get the view over this country. We used to go for picnics to the top of the hills with the horses.'


Exquisite Treasure Revealed

Exquisite Treasure Revealed

Canterbury Museum holds two albums compiled by Diamond Harbour artist Margaret Stoddart. The older of the two, containing images featured in this Bulletin, and itself currently exhibited in the Gallery, covers the period 1886–96. The album is handsomely bound in maroon, and stamped M.O.S. in gold. It contains a sort of travelogue by way of black and white photographs set amongst decorative painting, mostly of native flora, with some locality and date information. 


In the Vast Emptiness

In the Vast Emptiness

The Canterbury landscape as captured by twentieth century painters.

Talking Bensemann

Talking Bensemann

Leo Bensemann was one of the most respected figures in the Christchurch arts scene, and played a pivotal role in influential arts collective The Group. Always something of an odd-man-out, he produced a large body of work across several different disciplines before his death in 1986. In an attempt to get a fuller picture of the man himself, Gallery director Jenny Harper spoke to two artists who knew him well, John Coley and Quentin MacFarlane.

Artist Profile
Leo Bensemann: an art venture

Leo Bensemann: an art venture

Leo Bensemann (1912–1986) was a pivotal figure bridging the worlds of literature and visual arts – a go-between like no other. Peter Simpson is an authority on this distinctive artist.

Bridge, Mt Cook Road
Rata Lovell-Smith Bridge, Mt Cook Road

'This is the Mount Cook Road, and there are many bridges on that road. The people of Ngāi Tūāhuriri would go inland into the McKenzie [just below where this location is painted] for hunting high country weka [native woodhen] with dogs. They'd carry their empty packs of pōhā [kelp bags to hold preserved birds] with them to the hunting area, catch the weka and process the birds up there. They’d carry the pōhā out, and meet people coming from the south also going up to those high country plains. It was a summer exercise. Towards the end of summer the birds are fat. You preserve them like tītī [muttonbirds] in their own fat.' —Sir Tipene O’Regan

(He Rau Maharataka Whenua: A Memory of Land, 17 September 2016 – 18 February 2017)

Rakaia Series No. 37
Trevor Moffitt Rakaia Series No. 37

Trevor Moffitt had a deep love for inland Canterbury that was in part fostered by his obsession with fishing. In the mid 1970s he purchased a bach at Lake Clearwater, inland from the Canterbury town of Ashburton. This became his favourite spot to retreat from city life and experience the outdoors. In 1982, after the death of his wife, Alison, Moffitt began the series that this work is from. He said in an interview:

'After Alison died I’d had enough of people, so I went out and painted the Rakaia River series. I had just been emotionally drained. […] The best thing I could do was go off on the weekend and paint the river. I poured all my grief and tears into depicting the waters of the Rakaia.'

In the vast emptiness, 8 January - 21 August 2016

Hills and Plains, Waikari
William Sutton Hills and Plains, Waikari

William (Bill) Sutton spent most of his life in Christchurch, apart from two years from 1947–49 studying and painting in Britain and Europe. This time away helped attune his eyes to the distinctive qualities of the local regional landscape. Teaching full-time at the Canterbury College School of Art from that time, Sutton lived in a rented studio flat overlooking Victoria Square and became the owner of a Matchless motorbike – upgraded to a 500cc BSA Golden Flash in 1956 – on which he’d leave the city on his weekends in pursuit of countryside to paint.

Human presence has reshaped this landscape, with its bending macrocarpa windbreaks, simple corrugated iron structures and undulating patchwork fields. A palette of subtle ochres, greys and gold presents a characteristically Canterbury scene and typifies the work for which Sutton became appreciated and known.

(Beneath the ranges 18 February – 23 October 2017)

Te Tihi o Kahukura and Sky, I
William Sutton Te Tihi o Kahukura and Sky, I

This painting by Bill Sutton expands our view of a familiar site on Christchurch’s Port Hills, encouraging the viewer to consider what mysteries may have been present before the arrival of Māori tangata whenua, the people of the land. Te Tihi o Kahukura, or the Citadel of Kahukura, is the first name of Castle Rock, the foregrounded point at the left of the painting. The extended Māori name translates as ‘the Citadel of the Rainbow God (and a) sky full of boiling clouds roaring around all over the place’. According to Kāi Tahu tradition, Kahukura is the atua, or god, who clothed the land; Kahukura later transformed to become the atua of rainbows. Here, Sutton’s interest in landscape, light and colour is applied to a location of significance for Māori. There is an intimacy in the site for Sutton, as he was able to see it “from my upstairs back-landing window”. Sutton’s house remains in what is now known as ‘the red zone’, an earthquake-battered place of an undetermined future.

(Te Tihi o Kahukura: The Citadel of Kahukura, 18 Februay 2017 - 18 May 2018)

Sunset, Craigieburn
Colin S. Lovell-Smith Sunset, Craigieburn

Colin Lovell-Smith often went on painting trips to this area with his wife Rata, who was also a landscape painter. Craigieburn is in the Southern Alps, about 100 kilometres northwest of Christchurch. Although set beside a small riverbed close to the main road, the painting focuses on the steep eroded slopes of the Craigieburn Range. Lovell-Smith has paid close attention to the landform details, capturing the distinctive qualities of the Canterbury mountain region. Shades of ochre are subtly orchestrated with the soft grey of the predominant greywacke rocks. Born in Christchurch, Lovell-Smith studied at the Canterbury College School of Art then worked for his father’s printing business. During World War I Lovell-Smith was with the Royal Engineers on the Balkan Front and was subsequently awarded the Serbian Gold Medal of Merit for his work. On his return to Christchurch in 1919 he taught, first at St Andrew’s College, then at the School of Art, of which he was Director from 1947 until his death.

Canterbury Plains From Cashmere Hills
Doris Lusk Canterbury Plains From Cashmere Hills

Bill Sutton once commented that “on the Canterbury Plains you don’t look up and down but from side to side”, which seems entirely appropriate for this vast landscape painting of the plains by his friend Doris Lusk.

In the vast emptiness, 8 January - 21 August 2016

Juliet Peter Nor’west

According to Kāi Tahu, within the story of the creation of Te Waipounamu (the South Island), Aoraki was an atua, or demi-god, who left the home of his father, Raki, in the heavens and voyaged with his brothers to visit Raki’s first wife Poharora o Te Po. They set out to return to his father, but there was a fault in the karakia (prayer) for their return. Aoraki’s canoe – Te Waka o Aoraki – was stranded, and Aoraki and his brothers turned to stone, becoming the mountains of Kā Tiritiri o Te Moana, the Southern Alps.

'This work is interesting because it offers an unusual perspective on Aoraki [Mount Cook] – but Aoraki is full of different perspectives in Kāi Tahu culture. The mountain is, above all, a symbol of our tribal and regional identity. That’s got nothing much to do with its location – although that obviously commands cultural attention – but mainly because of its centrality in the Te Waipounamu creation story. And it is a distinctive creation story, part of a creation myth which has survived here in the remote outskirts of Polynesia while it has been lost at the centre where it came from. Aoraki made us distinctive, and it makes all people distinctive that live under its span. Juliet Peter’s depiction of it is unusual, but every way you look at Aoraki you’ve got a different perspective.' —Sir Tipene O’Regan

(He Rau Maharataka Whenua: A Memory of Land, 17 September 2016 – 18 February 2017)

Mackenzie Country
Esther Studholme Hope Mackenzie Country

The viewpoint Esther Hope chose for this work allowed her to show the vast expanse of the Mackenzie Country, which stretches out before the viewer towards the Southern Alps. This region was a favourite subject of Hope’s, one that she returned to throughout her career.

She said that “this land is a part of me … I have never regretted my choice of environment [and] have always felt a strong feeling of primitiveness [here].” Hope’s mature style is seen here, with broad wet washes of colour confidently used.

Hope was born near Geraldine, South Canterbury. She was first introduced to painting through her mother, Emily Studholme, an accomplished amateur artist. She also took lessons from Edwyn Temple and Margaret Stoddart. In 1912 Hope left New Zealand for England where she enrolled at the Slade School of Art, London. In 1919 she returned to New Zealand, married Henry Norman Hope and settled at the Grampians Station in the Mackenzie Country.

Dry September
William Sutton Dry September

'The Bruce is a route, it’s a river; it’s a place my grandfather, a West Coast MP, used to walk, east and west. If there was no coach, he’d go up the Bruce and down the whatever. His diary is always taking about up the Bruce or down the Bruce.' —Sir Tipene O’Regan

(He Rau Maharataka Whenua: A Memory of Land, 17 September 2016 – 18 February 2017)

Canterbury Spring
Leo Bensemann Canterbury Spring

Exhibited at The Group show in 1961, this work by Leo Bensemann was part of a ‘Four Seasons’ suite which also included Autumn, Winter and Summer. It marked a change in his work in that landscapes came to dominate his paintings from this period on. Bensemann has given the landscape a structured composition, with objects outlined in a strong, clean and definite manner. This has similarities with work by other Canterbury landscape painters who shared a concern for painting the unique regional imagery of the Canterbury landscape in a formal simplified manner.

Born in Takaka, Bensemann shifted to Nelson with his family in 1920. He moved to Christchurch in 1929 and he worked for an advertising agency. He attended evening classes at the Canterbury College School of Art between 1932 and 1936. It was in 1934 that Bensemann met poet Denis Glover and became involved with the Caxton Press as a typographer, an association he maintained until his retirement in 1978. He was a regular exhibitor with The Group from 1938.

Camp in the Kowai
Austen A Deans Camp in the Kowai

'The Kowai would, in standard Māori, be pronounced Kōwhai – it's named after the kōwhai tree [native tree with yellow flowers].' —Sir Tipene O’Regan

(He Rau Maharataka Whenua: A Memory of Land, 17 September 2016 – 18 February 2017)

The Long Lookout
Ivy G Fife The Long Lookout

'Tu-Te-Raki-Whanoa, the son of Aoraki, is the atua [demi-god] who shapes the wrecked waka to ready it for people. His first great task is to defeat the south-easterly winds roaring along the side of the wreck. He invents peninsulas. He rakes all the rubbish of the wreckage and piles it up like a gigantic break water. Thus you have the Canterbury Plains and a sheltered place for his next invention, Whakaraupō [Lyttelton Harbour] and Akaroa Harbour. He then depresses his heel and creates Waihora [Lake Ellesmere], later claimed by the exploring ancestor, Rākaihautū, as Te Kete ika o Te Rākaihautū [the fish basket of Rākaihautū].' —Sir Tipene O’Regan

(He Rau Maharataka Whenua: A Memory of Land, 17 September 2016 – 18 February 2017)

Colin S. Lovell-Smith Evening

'Well, this is Haumuri Point south of Kaikōura. Pākehā called it Amuri – you’ve got Amuri Motors, Amuri buildings, Amuri district or whatever. It is called Haumuri, and it was always explained to me that the name was given because the wind there is always behind you.

'In the Te Waipounamu creation story, Tu-Te-Raki-Whanoa had two assistant atua [demi-gods], Marokura and Kahukura. We could say that Kahukura was in charge of all parks and reserves, and Marokura was in charge of 
the Ministry of Fisheries. The whole coast is inhabited by the work of those atua. The land is clothed and beautified by Kahukura. Marokura goes off to make his own peninsula at Kaikōura. He was a fishing atua – he wasn’t much of a civil engineer – so it’s only a small peninsula. He puts the great riches of the sea into the coast, which was his skill. The coast is called Te Tai o Marokura; some people call it Te Koha o Marokura.' —Sir Tipene O’Regan

(He Rau Maharataka Whenua: A Memory of Land, 17 September 2016 – 18 February 2017)

Rata Lovell-Smith Hawkins

By the early 1930s Rata Lovell-Smith was highly regarded for her paintings of the Canterbury landscape. One Christchurch reviewer in 1933 glowingly commented on her work:

'Of the painters who direct their attention towards the essential characteristics of New Zealand scenery […] Mrs Lovell-Smith makes an extremely direct statement of her subject. She paints with a large full brush in a series of broad planes. There is nothing 'bitty' about her work. This, perhaps, is its greatest virtue, a virtue that cannot be too highly praised. She glories in the colour contrasts of the New Zealand landscape. […] There are no subtleties but a series of vivid and simplified impressions of her native country. Whereas many pictures by [other] exhibitors […] might have been painted in other countries, there can never be any doubt about the locality of Mrs Lovell- Smith's landscapes. It is as though she had never got over her first impression of violent tone and colour contrasts, and in a state of beatific astonishment had set herself to establish that impression at the expense of anything that tended to modify it.'

In the vast emptiness, 8 January - 21 August 2016

Summer Kowai, 1934
Cedric Savage Summer Kowai, 1934

Kowai Bush is a farming area in the foothills of Central Canterbury, where typically the summers are very hot and dry. Like other Canterbury landscape artists of the 1930s, Cedric Savage was interested in recording the unique features of the Canterbury region. He was essentially a plein air (outdoors) artist concerned with painting directly from nature but in Summer, Kowai he has worked in a careful manner, keeping control over the application of paint. Born in Christchurch, Savage studied at the Canterbury College School of Art. He later studied with Sydney Lough Thompson (1877-1973) and Archibald Nicoll (1886 - 1953). After travelling, he returned to New Zealand in 1933, settling in Christchurch where he became vice-president of the New Zealand Society of Artists. Savage’s eyes were injured during World War II and for the rest of his life he could only paint outdoors. Although he won the Kelliher Art Award in 1962, Savage felt unappreciated in New Zealand and spent many years living away from the country, finally settling in Greece.