Olivia Spencer Bower

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

Self Portrait

  • 1950
  • Oil on board
  • Purchased 1954
  • 672 x 520mm
  • 69/109

Unmarried and living abroad, Olivia Spencer Bower faced family pressure on her return to New Zealand to be the one to care for her mother. In 1931, she wrote: “I appreciate you sending me money, and especially as it is such a difficult time … strange it seems to think I shall be back in four months time. What am I going to do when there? Perhaps, be a ‘good daughter and sister’! And a useful presence in the house! But it’s a very ghost like vision!” Olivia’s first-hand experiences of the challenges women faced in establishing a career as an independent, professional artist lead to her setting up the Olivia Spencer Bower Foundation, which allows emerging artists to focus solely on their art practice unhindered by financial burdens.

(Perilous: Unheard Stories from the Collection, 6 August 2022- )

Exhibition History

earlier labels about this work
  • Olivia Spencer Bower is best known for her lively, sparkling watercolours, but in this formal, elegant self-portrait she has depicted herself in oils in a moment of quietly guarded contemplation.

    While her brushwork is spontaneous and appears deliberately semi-finished, a restricted contrasting palette focuses attention upon her facial expression and a questioning gaze. While Spencer Bower gives little away, she portrays herself as a stylish, cultured woman, at a time when she was one of the city’s leading cultural lights.

    Born in England, Spencer Bower was a twin daughter of the New Zealand artist Rosa Spencer Bower (née Dixon) (1865–1960). The family came to New Zealand in 1919. Spencer Bower studied at the Canterbury College School of Art before going to the Slade School of Art in London in 1929. She returned to New Zealand in 1931 and devoted her life to painting. Late in her life, she established a foundation which continues to finance an annual scholarship for an artist to work full time for one year.