Harry Linley Richardson

Aotearoa New Zealand / British, b.1878, d.1947

Cynthia’s Birthday

  • 1926-1927
  • Oil on canvas
  • Presented by the Canterbury Society of Arts, 1932
  • 775 x 1380mm
  • 69/106

Harry Linley Richardson began painting Cynthia’s Birthday in Karori, Wellington in December 1926. When purchased for Christchurch’s intended new art gallery in 1928, it attracted much criticism, largely for the children’s doll-like immobility. “Where is the joyful spirit of a birthday party? Why, such dolefulness?” wrote “Disgusted Ratepayer” to the Press, also discerning “no concentration on the matter at hand, namely, the lighting of the candle.”While others defended the selection, the painter himself had no comeback. London-born Richardson had arrived in New Zealand to teach at Wellington Technical College in 1908, and was a painter with a background in illustration and design, influences both evident in this work. Looking back rather than forward, he also admired the work of mid-Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painters such as John Everett Millais, whose devotion to realism with decorative effect and melancholic tone Cynthia’s Birthday certainly suggests.The work’s solemnity also makes it difficult perhaps not to consider the demands made on sitters, even the most pliable – these were the artist’s children – and the inherent tensions of artist-model relationships.

(Persistent encounters, March 2020)

Exhibition History

earlier labels about this work
  • Treasury: A Generous Legacy, 18 December 2015 – 4 December 2016

    Harry Linley Richardson was brought out to New Zealand from London in 1908 to become an art instructor at the Wellington Technical School. His design background led to New Zealand postage stamp design commissions and he became well-known for his paintings, predominantly of children and Māori subjects.

    Cynthia’s Birthday, based on his own children, was exhibited in Auckland and Wellington in 1927 and Christchurch in 1928, and purchased by the Canterbury Society of Arts with funding support from the city council. One of the first paintings to be bought for the city’s intended new public art gallery, it was presented by the Society in 1932.

  • H. Linley Richardson frequently used his family as subjects, particularly his youngest daughter, Cynthia, whose birthday on 4 December 1926 is here being celebrated. Richardson preferred to paint directly from life, so the children would have had to sit still for their father as he worked at his easel. This may account for the stiffness of their pose. Portraits and figure studies were a major part of Richardson’s output and his style has the clear sharp clarity and emphasis of form associated with his interest in design work.

    Born in London, Richardson studied as a graphic artist but found his interests lay more with painting. After studying in London and Paris, in 1900 he began exhibiting at the Royal Academy. Richardson arrived in Wellington in 1908 to take up position as Assistant Art Instructor at Wellington Technical School and began exhibiting at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. He lived in New Zealand for the rest of his life.

    There is more information about this work in page 2 of Bulletin No. 5, September/October 1979.