Olivia Spencer Bower

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

Ngaio Marsh Painting

  • c. 1934-1939
  • Watercolour
  • Presented by the Friends of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery Inc, 1993
  • 655 x 815 x 60mm
  • 93/65

Two of Canterbury’s most successful twentieth-century creatives are brought together in Olivia Spencer Bower’s wonderful plein air study of her friend Ngaio Marsh painting outdoors. Both were involved with the Group (a collection of progressive artists based in Christchurch) during the 1930s. Marsh went on to become a world-renowned crime writer and theatre director while Spencer Bower is today recognised as one of the best watercolourists of her generation. Depicting Marsh painting at an easel under the bright summer sun, Ngaio Marsh painting highlights the enjoyment these two experienced when they escaped the urban environs of Christchurch for the openness of the Canterbury countryside.

(Our Collection: 19th and 20th Century New Zealand Art, 2018)

Exhibition History

earlier labels about this work
  • Nature's Own Voice, 6 February – 26 July 2009

    Olivia Spencer Bower was one of Canterbury’s most successful and prolific watercolourists, painting outdoors whenever the opportunity arose. This work provides a rare insight into the artist and novelist, Ngaio Marsh, who is depicted painting under the hot summer sun. It highlights the enjoyment artists such as Spencer Bower and Marsh experienced when they left the city to take sketching trips in the country. The painting has been worked up quickly with a very loose, wet technique, using broad washes of colour to develop the image of Marsh painting at her easel.

  • The location of the landscape in this work is not known, however this watercolcour provides a unique image of one of Canterbury’s most famous dramatists and novelists. Better known today for her literary work, Dame Ngaio Marsh initially pursued a career as an artist.

    Loose, broad washes of colour point to this being painted outdoors, in the same way that Marsh has been portrayed standing before her easel in the landscape. Olivia Spencer Bower and Marsh studied together at the Canterbury College School of Art and were both involved with The Group in Christchurch.

    Born in England, Spencer Bower was the daughter of the British-born artist Rosa Spencer Bower. The family came to New Zealand in 1919. Olivia also studied at the the Slade in London in 1929. In 1931 she returned to New Zealand. She devoted her life to painting and, late in her life, established a Foundation which finances an annual scholarship enabling an artist to work fulltime for one year. (Label date unknown)