Graphic transitions, Elva Bett

Flowers into Landscape – Margaret Stoddart 1865-1934
Julie King
Hazard Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 877161 13 6

Jane Evans
John Coley
Hazard Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1 877161 16 0

Flowers into Landscape – Margaret Stoddart 1865-1934 is a scholarly treatise, well-researched and well-documented. Julie King adeptly weaves together an account of early colonial life in New Zealand with the career of a gifted artist who has been overlooked in the assessment of the rise of New Zealand women artists of the late nineteenth century.

Stoddart was one of the first women to succeed as a professional painter in this country. She was a member of a coterie of women painters, including Dorothy Richmond, Grace Joel, and Frances Hodgkins, who formed a vanguard for women artists in the twentieth century. King’s re-assessment aims to establish Stoddart’s place in this company: “This book seeks to illuminate Margaret Stoddart’s painting in relation to its time, and to add to our understanding of how women worked as artists.”

The contrast between the mundaneness of colonial domesticity in Diamond Harbour, Lyttelton, where Stoddart was born, and her urge to paint is vividly captured in accounts of long periods on the family farm in the Chathams and of flower-hunting expeditions with her father and brothers into remote areas, such as Mt Cook, Mt Torlesse, Mt Sefton and Lake Tekapo. These expeditions added naturalness to the renditions of flora in native habitats, the field in which Stoddart specialised.

Stoddart and her three sisters were amongst the first entrants at the Canterbury University School of Art in 1882 where close observation, truth to nature and accurate botanical drawing were instilled. This training developed in the young artist an eye for detail and started her on a career as a competent flower painter, the accepted oeuvre of women artists before the turn of the century. Even before she made the discovery of the impressionists in Europe, Stoddart had evolved her own unique response to landscape, not only to her own immediate surroundings in and around Christchurch but also in the remote back country amid the mountains.

The transformation from “flowers into landscape” was given impetus when, in Europe between the years 1898 and 1906, Stoddart painted with the Newlyn School. This group, headed by Stanhope Forbes, worked in the fishing village of Newlyn on the Cornish coast at the end of the last century and were leading exponents of plein air painting in Britain. During this productive period Stoddart had work accepted by the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon. After travelling in France, Italy and Norway (her mother’s birthplace), she returned, as she thought briefly, to New Zealand, but was in fact to spend the rest of her life here.

Flowers into Landscape was published as an introduction and catalogue to an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch. Of the 73 paintings assembled for the exhibition, and illustrated throughout the text, only 23 are of flowers; the remainder are of landscapes. Previously known solely as a watercolourist of technically perfect renditions of native flora, Stoddart emerges here as a landscapist of the stature of Charles Barraud and J C Richmond, father of her colleague Dorothy Richmond. After her return in 1907 and until her death, Stoddart painted a diversity of landscapes from her childhood homestead at Diamond Harbour, with its gardens in full bloom, to the seascapes of New Brighton and Sumner, to the Mackenzie country, and the back-country mountains.

Julie King is a lecturer in Art History at the University of Canterbury, specialising in New Zealand women artists. She has made a very readable history of the life of a colonial woman who left her mark on New Zealand art history. With the numerous illustrations and King’s knowledgeable text, Flowers into Landscape is a welcome addition to the growing literature on early local artists who recorded with fidelity aspects of indigenous flora and New Zealand’s back-country landscape.


John Coley’s Jane Evans is an arresting volume, a lavishly and brilliantly illustrated book on one of New Zealand’s most successful contemporary artists. What verve and vitality come across! Evans’s work has become almost legendary during the three decades of her painting career, and buyers are now reputed to be standing in line for the next off the easel. Coley’s overview of her house and her garden, and her life story, gives his book a unique charm.

Evans was at first a “people painter”. With a fluid, expressive line and a brush laden with subdued colour, she makes a few simple marks to indicate the life and personality of an individual – young, old, infirm, gregarious, whimsical. Painting flowers and the garden, she employs the full colour range with great animation.

In Evans, Coley has a heroic subject and one of great human interest. The crippling disease – lupus erythematosus – with which the artist is afflicted nevertheless allows her to celebrate life in the lyricism and dynamism of the paintings. Coley ably delineates the facts underlying Evans’s life, adding another dimension to the two distinct directions in the work: the pathos and sadness within the people paintings and the joyousness of the flower and garden subjects.

The biography lays bare the distressing affliction that plagued the life of the eighteen-year-old art student. To be placed amongst the elderly and the infirm in the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Rotorua prematurely suppressed her zest for life. Ironically, however, this incarceration is what gives a sense of genuine humanity to Evans’s paintings of the aged and the racked, an aspect that is often overlooked.

Coley, who is director of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, has done a service to New Zealand art literature by describing the struggle against time that underlies Evans’s whole artistic career, the urgency to get it all down before being laid low again. His account of the environment in which Evans produces her paintings is as lively as the illustrations of the paintings themselves. The result is a delightful book – delightful to handle, browse through and ultimately to read.

These biographies, though different in kind, have one thing in common: both graphically describe transitions. In Stoddart’s case, the transition is from botanically accurate paintings of flowers to impressionistic landscape; in Evans’s case, from sympathetic (sometimes grim, sometimes whimsical) portrayals of people to flamboyant, almost baroque, flowers and garden subjects. Both books can only whet the appetite for a closer inspection of the artists’ original works. Hazard Press is to be congratulated on its selection of authors.

Elva Bett is the author of New Zealand Art: A Modern Perspective.

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