Hills, weather, houses, Norman Bilbrough

Why Go To The Riviera: Images of Wellington
Peter Shaw
Godwit, $99.95,
ISBN 1869621018

When Evelyn Page arrived in Wellington in 1947 she was captured by the capital’s energy and bustle. She often painted scenes from her car, even obtaining a letter from the State Services Commission to brandish at traffic officers who might question her sustained parking in a single spot. Peter Shaw suggests that the cover image, “Why Go To The Riviera”, was one of these paintings, a small work executed – with dash – from her car. I wonder though. The painting is done from an elevated perspective and is really a bird’s eye view. It seems more likely that her other painting, “Summer’s Day, Oriental Parade”, was executed in this manner. But, however painted, both show the space and vigour of Oriental Bay that is still there today.

The selection of images in this book – paintings, photographs, prints, drawings and ceramics – is eclectic, starting with Charles Heaphy’s delicate watercolour “View of a part of the town of Wellington” (1841) and finishing with a subtle abstract by Tom Sladden, “Orca in the Bay” (2003).  So, more than 150 years of images that are often beautiful and compelling. But although I live in the city, I did not always feel I was in Wellington. The images didn’t ground me here. Many pleased singly, but they failed to add up to an evocative whole. Still, I was beguiled.

Shaw’s text is erudite, his comments on the individual works are generally succinct, and I was particularly struck by this in his introduction: “From early colonial days, artistic representation of the area tended to be panoramic as artist-settlers, keen to communicate a sense of visual possession, recorded the spread of European influence on what was formerly Maori Land.” Heaphy’s painting is a famous example.

“Visual possession” suggests another kind of possession. In 1890 Thomas Bracken crowed in his poem “Jubilee Day” that the virgin that was Wellington was roused by Wakefield’s ship – bringing the dawn of British peace and progress. But in his 1994 poem “Ghost Ships”, Chris Orsman has a less benign view of the arrival: “he’s taking the air/and whatever else/he can lay his hands on.”

Shaw sums up his introduction by saying, “The task of assembling images of Wellington is a salutary reminder that all artists, intentionally or otherwise, are inevitably making forceful historical statements.” This seems a particularly political 21st century perspective. What about the purely visual appeal of the subject that might have captured the artist in the first place? Painters are not always driven, unconsciously or otherwise, by the urge to be historical commentators. And reading the book and admiring the reproductions, I was mostly unaware of this angle.

The book includes an amount of abstract representations. Although I tend to approach paintings subjectively, I don’t think these work so well. Obviously they are not as directly representative of time and place as the realistic images, but I think some are also poor, almost an evasion of the topic. Toss Woollaston’s 1986 oil “Above Wellington” is a semi-abstract that appears to be rather hit and miss. But it has a kind of deliberation about it, as if the painter were embracing an artificially naif style. Contributions from Melvin Day, Gordon Walters, Richard Thompson, and Buck Nin do little for me. Of course these artists may have valid views of Wellington, but for me these were lost somewhere between the idea and the canvas.

The highlights? Probably the land-and seascapes north of Plimmerton. Nicolas Chevalier, John Gully, and Nugent Welch offer meticulous paintings of the Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay coastlines, and H Linley Richardson’s scene of Titahi Bay is, well, joyous. These artists show superb control of their medium, while still capturing an almost tangible atmosphere.

Hills, weather, houses … Maybe that’s what Wellington is really about. Evelyn Page captured the people, Paul Olds (a much underrated painter) brought along his own quirky view of the streets, and John Cam Duncan produced lush Palliser Bay hills. Roland Hipkins painted meticulous Wadestown houses, and Gerda Leenards gives us great weather. With “Names Painting: Katherine Mansfield”, Nigel Brown offers an emphatically tortured image of the writer. Then there are the photographs, the outstanding two being Leslie Adkin’s panorama from the Paekakariki Hill in 1923, and Brian Brake’s vivid scene of bathers at Oriental Bay in 1960.

Technically, two things mar this publication: the feeble print – I had to read the text under a glaring light – and a list of works that is faint as well non-alphabetical. But it’s still a delicious book. It smells good, it’s beautifully designed, and the reproductions are excellent.


Norman Bilbrough is a Wellington writer who studied at Elam for three years and failed to graduate.


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Posted in Art, Non-fiction, Review
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