According to Toss, Ian Richards

Toss Woollaston: A Life in Letters
ed Jill Trevelyan
Te Papa Press, $59.99,
ISBN 0909010072

The first thing you notice about this handsomely produced volume from Te Papa Press is the title Woollaston, in large red letters, running down the book’s spine. When famous literary people are photographed in front of their bookshelves, it’s the sort of title that stands out boldly from the background. A bold spine for a big collection – though a busy artist, Toss Woollaston was also an active correspondent. Before devoting himself to painting he even considered becoming a poet, such was his regard for the written word; so the 419 letters that make up this hefty book are, in fact, a selection put together by editor Jill Trevelyan from a vast archive.

Trevelyan was part of the curatorial team that worked on the 1991 Woollaston exhibition at the National Art Gallery, and for her this book has clearly been a labour of love. She’s done an excellent editing job. The correspondence is stitched together into something that approaches a satisfying narrative, with useful expositions and unfussy footnotes. There’s also an extensive biographical register, a bibliography and an index at the back. The subtitle of this volume – necessarily reduced to small type on the spine – is A Life in Letters, and within the limitations of the epistolary form this goal is met. The letters cover most of Woollaston’s long life: the first written in 1928 at the age of 17, and the last in 1996, just two years before he died aged 88. Thus most of the modern era – that is, the heroic era – of New Zealand art history is up for scrutiny.

So what kind of a man was Toss Woollaston? An answer to this question makes itself plain from as early as the collection’s second letter. This letter was written in February 1928, when the young Woollaston was seeking exemption from compulsory military training on religious grounds, much against the wishes of his devout but more conventionally-minded parents. Woollaston writes to his mother and father that if they don’t endorse his claim for exemption by furnishing him with a supporting note for the courts, then their reason must be one of the following three – and he proceeds to offer three equally unpalatable choices, with no room for any other. On display is a giant ego. It’s the ego of the intelligent, articulate, cosseted child who will grow up to be either an artist or a public nuisance. Woollaston certainly grew up to be the former and, in the arch-philistine New Zealand of that time, it was impossible to be an artist without also being a major trial to other people. Woollaston’s parents did not supply the required note; he managed to arrange that from someone else. But he did succeed in subsequent letters in keeping both parents on his side. In fact, they were the first in a remarkable collection of people to find themselves, against all expectations, playing for Team Woollaston.

Woollaston never lost the childish energy that went with his ego and his charm. It is everywhere in these chatty letters, which do not vary much in tone or even phraseology for most of his extroverted, sunny life. And it’s this childish confidence that makes him so attractive, the sort of artist you’d be happy to meet. This same quality appears in Katherine Mansfield’s letters as well, but there it offers only a revolting sense of arrested development, in self-serving appeals to being a “special” friend and jibes of calculated malice. Nothing like that in Woollaston. He lived much of his life on the West Coast of the South Island, not a place noted for its sophisticated coteries, but in his correspondence there’s none of the whining about Kiwi provincialism which is common to the private communications of most New Zealand artists and writers. Instead, in his early years, he shows himself adept at convincing ordinary New Zealanders that art matters – especially art by Tosswill Woollaston.

Perhaps the crucial first step in becoming an artist or writer is to convince absolutely everyone in your life that you are an artist, really, and that you need to be taken seriously. Of course, a milieu of other artist types who also want the same respect can be helpful. Woollaston seems to have found such a group early and to have had the sense to stay in touch with it. His letters are full of pleasant gossip about others in the arts scene, such as Rodney Kennedy, Ursula Bethell, Charles Brasch, Colin McCahon, John Caselberg and Michael Harlow. There’s little on politics or current affairs; a late exception is a 1989 letter to his MP opposing the establishment of a Ministry of Culture. Not until the 1980s, close to the end of Woollaston’s life, does the outside world intrude much beyond opportunities for painting and the activities of dealer galleries. And though the near-contemporary New Zealand scene outside the arts grows more congenial for the ageing Woollaston, more and more he seems to view non-artistic people as interesting creatures from another species.

For any aspiring artist it also helps to have a wife or husband who can provide support – everything from cooking and cleaning to inspiration – and Woollaston found such a partner in Edith Alexander, whom he married in 1936. At first she lived with him in a house that had no electricity or running water, and she bore most of the drudgery in raising their four children. Woollaston rewarded her by confiding in her totally about each of his affairs, with female and even male lovers. But whatever Edith may have felt, her belief in her husband’s artistic merits admitted no doubts about their staying together. The Woollaston marriage seems mysterious to us, as perhaps most marriages do to outsiders, and perhaps it’s unfair to judge this sort of partnership (which was common among mid-20th century artistic couples) by today’s standards. Nevertheless, there are hints in many parts of this book that Edith was not happy with her assigned role. It is here that the reader wishes for something more like objective biography.

Woollaston’s growing family meant that, at length, he had to become a provider himself. For years he worked as the Rawleigh’s salesman in Greymouth and, while putting food on the table, it looked as if his craft and career would fade away. Woollaston was not one of those rare artists who can produce masterpieces from the very start and so launch a career without suffering. Nor did he have any luck at winning the sorts of competitions or sinecures that artists exploit to get ahead. His letters betray no bitterness as the goodies go to younger, and sometimes patently less able, candidates. Indeed, we might not have the marvellous large landscapes that he painted in his 50s, 60s and even in his 70s, if Charles Brasch had not generously provided an annual income for several years that allowed Woollaston to paint full-time. Of necessity, Woollaston was a late developer. But it’s another of his attractive qualities that, on the evidence of the letters, his ego never extends into a defensive arrogance about art. He is always sincere in his efforts to learn and improve on his talent.

“You have to stand well back to understand a Woollaston,” my mother warned me. In an attempt to turn her own cosseted son into a boy genius, she took me to see the landmark Woollaston exhibition at the Manawatu Art Gallery in 1973, the one which at last established the painter as a major figure. After that I could identify a Woollaston in any gallery: that baggy patterning, those hard, straw colours. Only Colin McCahon seemed to rival Woollaston in possessing a distinctive style that could make the New Zealand landscape visible, and McCahon’s rivalry with Woollaston is another relationship which appears in the margins of this book. But in some ways Woollaston’s style seemed the more painterly. Craig Harrison once gleefully told me his story of visiting a McCahon retrospective, where a group of schoolchildren were being shown the work of the master. “Please, Miss,” said a little boy, “do we have to read all of these?” There’s a generous selection of Woollaston colour prints to admire in this volume, and Trevelyan carefully refers to them in her footnotes. Just one glance at Tasman Bay, 1928 or Above Wellington is enough for the eye to know that the young Woollaston was right: art by (at last) Sir Tosswill Woollaston does matter.

“What is an artist?” asks Carr in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. “For every thousand people there’s nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who’s the artist.” Such a cynical view is applicable to the New Zealand art world of today, but artists in mid-20th century New Zealand usually felt anything but lucky. And yet Woollaston’s correspondence shows them forming a community, thriving and creating a legacy. Collections of letters are still a new development in New Zealand publishing and they’re viewed sceptically by publishers, who know that the funding for worthy tomes is always likely to be limited. Te Papa Press deserves praise for helping promote what should be a better recognised area of New Zealand literature.


Ian Richards is an associate professor of literature at Osaka City University in Japan.


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Posted in Biography, Letters, Non-fiction, Review
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