Moments in Time: Ralph Miller – Artist
Ralph Miller occupies a small, forgotten corner of our art history. A sign-writer and designer by trade, Miller nurtured a private artistic career that was sadly cut short by his sudden death in 1956, at the age of 37. Brian Miller, the author of this book and the artist’s son, aims to illuminate that corner.
Part art monograph, part Dunedin history, part Pacific War chronicle, part family memoir, this eclectic project has clearly been a labour of love, published by the author’s own company, LifeLogs Ltd. Moments in Time is attractively designed and printed on heavy gloss paper that lends glamour to the lavish art reproductions. Brian Miller has also been thorough: there are endnotes, appendices, a bibliography, a chronology and – hooray! – an index.
The book outlines Miller’s artistic development from competent 1930s watercolours to dashing conté and wash drawings of the 1950s. In WWII, he served in the Pacific Islands as a horn player in the 3rd Division Army Band. Miller’s drawing skills improved dramatically during this time. Tellingly, it is his drawing gear, not his euphonium, which he scrambles to rescue when the band’s hut is threatened by fire. Brian Miller does a good job of tracking this evolution of an artist, in terms of both proficiency and passion. The best of Miller’s war-time work is vivacious. The pen and wash sketch, Concert Practice, for example, has been wittily drawn from Miller’s viewpoint in the band: he has legibly inscribed his own part – First Baritone – on the sheet music visible on the foreground music-stand. We observe the bandmaster and the audience beyond through Miller’s eyes, over the backs and heads of his fellow musicians.
Back home in post-war Dunedin, Miller’s subjects become urban, dominated by street scenes. His lines grow ever more graceful, his use of colour sparing but sharply observed. Miller studied figure drawing after work and it shows. These fleeting streetscapes of Dunedin between 1945 and 1956 are engaging. People in hats and overcoats bustle before cafés, shops and cinemas. They jostle umbrellas; push prams; ride bicycles. A little bouncing dog in Sunday Afternoon is worthy of E H Shepard. The writer reminds us, quite rightly, that his father’s focus on the city is unusual in our landscape-obsessed art history.
Yet, despite their verve, there is a little penetration in these scenes. His observations are uncritical. Miller’s art is charming, but lacks the edginess of Lowry, Daumier, Australia’s John Brack, or our own Garth Tapper. The author insists on the influence of American social realist painter, Reginald Marsh, but Miller displays none of Marsh’s fascination with the brazen or seedy sides of city life. Brian Miller recognises the absence of “cutting-edge social issues in Ralph’s work”, but suggests this was because none existed in New Zealand during the post-war boom. All that wholesomeness, according to Brian, “was simply a record of life at the time”. Such complacency will raise eyebrows among Māori, gays and women, who may remember the stifling conformity of the period less warmly. But to a Pākehā man remembering a comfortable – though cruelly disrupted – Dunedin childhood, it doubtless seemed so.
Indeed, the writer’s tribute to his lost father is infused with nostalgia. “To go to town in those days,” he explains, “ladies wore hats, gloves and dressed in smart dresses.” Describing a town hall ball: “Those were the days when the gentleman was expected to ask the lady for a dance and they danced with each other.” Although I seem to be teasing the author for his wistfulness, in fact it is this evocation of a vanished world through the minutiae of daily life that holds my attention, and which Ralph himself was so good at capturing. The book’s title – Moments in Time – is well chosen.
Hence, I regret that the author loses his grip on his father’s particular moment. For some reason, Brian Miller has opted to make the latter section of the book into a series of potted histories of Dunedin sites, using his father’s work merely as illustrations. Boundary Eleven – a watercolour of kids playing cricket at the edge of a sportsground with the grown-up team in whites hazily visible beyond – has the life sucked out of it with a numbingly dull exegesis: “The sports pavilion in the background of this painting was replaced in 1969 and the club merged with another north end club in 1986 to become the Alhambra Union Rugby Football Club.” Never mind the yellow-green afternoon sunlight, the wind in the trees, the varied poses …
Similarly, one of Ralph Miller’s finest works – The Five O’clock Whistle – Cadbury’s – is, inexplicably, accompanied by a biography of 19th-century chocolate magnate Richard Hudson: “Hudson knew how to work hard – orphaned when 9 years old, he began working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week in an English railway workshop. Working his way to New Zealand as a cabin boy ….” And so it goes on. And on. This particular artwork is deservedly in the collection of Dunedin Public Art Gallery, one of only 13 of Ralph’s works in public collections. Rather than learning more than I wanted to about the Cadbury Hudson firm, I should like to have known how and when these acquisitions occurred.
Self-publishing has proliferated as established presses close ranks against the digital revolution and frustrated writers realise they can sidestep traditional barriers to publication. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to a lack of editorial input – the fresh eyes and professional distance that could catch stylistic and technical infelicities. Too often, I found my fingers twitching for a blue pencil as my reading flow was disturbed by a clumsy sentence or erratic punctuation. Self-publishers of the world: these are exciting times – but, please, invest in a professional editor!
Brian Miller is to be applauded for bringing his father’s delightful work to New Zealand’s attention. We benefit from constant re-examination of our canons, and I trust Ralph Miller’s place in our art history will henceforth be less obscure.
Stella Ramage is completing a PhD in art history at Victoria University of Wellington.