A colourful life, Belinda Cullinan

Shona McFarlane, A Memoir
Shona McFarlane
Penguin, $49.95,
ISBN 0 14 028481 8

Shona McFarlane follows in the tradition of 19th-century New Zealand women artists who sketched and painted their families, friends and immediate surroundings. This charming memoir, her sixth book, is an attractive publication, illustrated with family photographs and reproductions of her paintings, and enlivened by memories and anecdotes.

The general shape of her early experiences will be familiar to many older New Zealanders, especially fellow South Islanders: being born during the Depression (in Gore); going to school (in Lawrence and Dunedin) in box-pleated tunics; facing the limited choices for girls leaving school; attending Teachers’ College; enduring life as a single young woman in rural New Zealand; sailing to the UK and Europe on the big OE in search of culture and a larger world; and then, the most difficult part of all, returning after five and a half years to provincial and prejudiced small-town New Zealand.

What sets McFarlane apart of course is her lifelong involvement with art, which pervades her memoir as a guiding force. Early encouragement came from her father, Francis, himself a talented amateur painter and official war artist, who urged Shona and her siblings to “look and see and draw and paint and make things for ourselves.” School does not seem to have provided any great stimulus, but at Teachers’ College she was selected for “the élite group chosen nationally each year to do a Third Year in Art and Craft” in Dunedin. Members of the group were then sent out to cover schools in country districts. Kyeburn in the Maniototo, says McFarlane, was her “undoing”. Asked to do posters for the local tennis-club, she “drew a very apprehensive girl with her legs wide apart and her racquet at the ready, and wrote underneath ‘waiting for her first service’. In the country everyone knew what servicing meant – but not me.”

Not long afterwards, she gladly left for London. There she studied four years part-time at Hammersmith Art College and a year full-time at Goldsmiths College, supporting herself with teaching, pub work and au pair jobs. But it was returning to New Zealand and having lessons from Rudolf Gopas that, she claims, really “opened my eyes to the use of colour, jolted me out of the muted, conservative things I had been doing, and startled me into a new awareness of what art could be about.” This love of colour is very evident in the paintings produced throughout the memoir.

In addition to her art, McFarlane has had a varied career, which she chronicles in lively fashion. On her return to New Zealand in the mid-1950s, she worked for 12 years as a journalist for the Dunedin Evening Star. This gave her plenty of scope to promote causes close to her heart, particularly the conservation of historic buildings and artefacts in Dunedin like the old Dunedin North Post Office, Olveston House and the 19th-century French Altar in St Joseph’s Cathedral – a commitment further pursued in books such as Dunedin, Portrait of a City (1972). Journalism also resulted in her involvement on many committees including the Dunedin Civic Arts Council, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, the Regent Theatre, the Otago Settlers Association and the Otago Art Society. In 1969 she became the first woman member on the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council. Her contributions to the arts have been rewarded by various honours including a CBE in 1994.

Above all, it is McFarlane’s candour and sense of the absurd which make this such an entertaining and at times moving account of her life. Lightly sketching in her family background, she cannot resist including a one-sentence letter from Thomas Edison to her grandfather John McFarlane in 1886, in which the great inventor briskly informs her grandfather that his “suggestion” for an amazingly complicated roller-blind sign on trains to show passengers their location was not “a feasible plan for accomplishing the object referred to.”

McFarlane herself, as painter, journalist, panelist on the long-running TV show Beauty and the Beast, and wife of National MP Allan Highet, has come across many of the great and the good and recounts some memorable stories about them. Bill Sutch, though a rather “unfriendly, humourless, dictatorial, even ruthless man”, is recalled as admirable in his determination not to resign from the Arts Council when under suspicion of being a Russian spy. Richard Prebble, then a Labour politician, is caught remarking to McFarlane’s husband Allan, “‘I don’t talk to Tory bastards’”, after Allan has said something friendly to Prebble following a joint radio interview. Fred Turnovsky is caught refusing to shake hands with Allan after the appointment of Hamish Keith as chairman of the Arts Council – a position Turnovsky himself had very much coveted.

And there are some engaging anecdotes about fellow artists. One about Colin McCahon, a ”modest gentle man”, deserves to become a classic. When McFarlane was compiling her artists’ cookbook to help raise money for the Otago Art Society, she asked a range of artists to supply a recipe plus comment. McCahon’s contribution was hilariously unappetising:

A Dreary Breakfast Dish – four raw eggs. Break eggs and swallow quickly from the shell. A very quick dreary breakfast. Has the advantage of using no plates, cutlery, gas or electricity. Your family and friends will most certainly find your breakfast habits nauseating and you too may eventually be repulsed yourself.

Belinda Cullinan is a Wellington teacher and reviewer.

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Posted in Art, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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