Celebrating the singular, Julia Millen

Sit There and Draw That! Helen Crabb (“Barc”): Artist and Teacher  
Patricia Fry
Steele Roberts, $29.99,
ISBN 9781877448546

Bill’s Story: A Portrait of W A Sutton
Pat Unger
Canterbury University Press, $39.99, 
ISBN 9781877257704 

Painting Out the Past: The Life and Art of Patricia France
Richard Donald
Longacre Press, $44.95,
ISBN 9781877361760

An observable “truth” is that biographies of artists who have struggled to obtain recognition and the wherewithal to succeed, who have overcome major obstacles, who have died young, or whose personal relationships are fraught with complexity, have particular appeal for the general reader. For some of the above reasons the two women artists Helen Crabb and Patricia France, while vastly different in personality and style, make excellent biographical subjects. Bill Sutton, by contrast, had a commercially successful career, was officially recognised and decorated, and is well represented in major writings on New Zealand art. His biography is the most substantial, yet his story seems rather predictable and uneventful.

Although roughly contemporaneous, these three 20th century New Zealand artists have remarkably little in common. Born of colonial stock, all were dedicated to their art; all lived to a considerable age and none of them married or had any long-term relationships (Helen Crabb discouraged women artists from marriage, which she saw as leading to babies rather than art). In other respects, apart from both Sutton and Crabb being art teachers, their life patterns are very different; they probably knew little, if anything, of each other’s work and almost certainly never met.

The authors of all three books have some connection with the artist and in each case the text includes personal recollections and quotations from letters, diaries and interviews. While in some ways the personal aspect is a bonus, the reader at times feels that the author is being too kind and insufficiently analytical. All three biographies are attractively presented, designed for quiet reading rather than the coffee table. In the case of France and Crabb, the book production is particularly charming.

Charm is hardly a word to associate with eccentric, forthright Helen Crabb (1891-1972) whose evocative pen and ink drawings, signed by her adopted name “Barc”, spring from the pages of this biography with life and movement. As well as using “sitters”, she drew lightning sketches of people and animals around her, on trains, trams, bus stops, anywhere. One of her sayings was “never waste a visitor”.

Rebellious and ambitious, by age 20 she had abandoned plans for a musical career and was taking art classes at Palmerston North Technical School. In 1913 she persuaded her parents to send her to the Julian Ashton School of Art in Sydney. Two years later, during WWI, Crabb accompanied her sister to England where she took classes at the Royal College of Art, joined the Women’s Volunteer Service, embraced Christian Science and a lover who turned out to be married, and became ill. Back in Palmerston North she soon recovered and, returning to Sydney, for several years taught art to schoolgirls and later at her old art school.

Crabb’s career as “Barc” reached its full flowering in the 1940s and 1950s when in middle age she set up a studio/flat in Wellington. It was there that the author Patricia Fry began her long association with the artist, despite the “perils in accepting Barc’s friendship”.

Fry includes a wealth of personal description on the teacher’s working methods as well as recollections by others like Elva Bett and Loas Wong. Crabb inspired many artists, and even in her last years in Tasmania and New Zealand, with declining physical and mental powers, she remained an indomitable spirit. Based on material in Crabb’s unpublished autobiography Three Pens, this narrative, though rather uneven with its awkward changes of perspective, is fascinating. Hats off to author Patricia Fry and publisher Roger Steele.

While published material on the two women is sparse, their younger contemporary, Bill Sutton (1917-2000) has been the subject of many articles, and a book, published in 1994, by his former student Pat Unger. Now, eight years after his death, she has written the full biography, including many family photos as well as selected art works. Recognised as a “regional artist” for his many Canterbury landscapes, in a way Sutton’s life illustrates the advantage of belonging to the male establishment: at Christchurch Boys’ High School, even in the New Zealand Army, his talent was noted and nurtured.

After a visit to London, Sutton accepted a teaching position at Ilam School of Fine Arts. From then on he had few financial problems and maintained a comfortable, bachelor lifestyle. He enjoyed association with non-conformist Christchurch artists – “the nearest The Group got to a formal opening, was opening the keg” – but in time most of them also became part of the establishment. Later, after retirement from teaching, Sutton completed numerous commissioned portraits, notably of the Queen and other lesser – mainly male – mortals like judges, school principals, professors, mayors.

Despite thorough and conscientious work, Unger only rarely makes Sutton’s story compelling. She relates a delightful incident about a friend bicycling out into a stormy night to “borrow” a glass wreath for Bill to realise in “Nor’wester in the Cemetery”, (his best known work alongside “Dry September”). Sadly the former painting is not reproduced in the book. The biographer seems to have kept faith with Sutton’s comment, “I hate the bugger”.

On Sutton at the School of Fine Arts – especially during the Rudi Gopas era of the 1960s – Unger writes, “both had their problems with women students”. A gross understatement. Unger mentions that Sutton, “a friendly pedant”, was hospitable to students though careful to defend his privacy: “if anyone did finally cross that almost invisible line, his friendly manner froze in an instant.” The same reaction seems to apply to the author. In a postscript, Unger notes, with obvious reluctance, that criticisms surfaced after Sutton’s death not only about his art but about his “sexual and emotional commitments and proclivities”. The subsequent quotations on the supposedly sexual matters leave the reader puzzled and wanting more. Perhaps in a way Sutton’s respectability and success had become a straitjacket.

Patricia France (1911–1995), like Janet Frame, had a narrow escape from devastating brain surgery. In the 1960s, while undergoing treatment as a voluntary patient at Ashburn Hall, she began painting almost by chance, as art therapy. Not quite Grandma Moses, she was in her 70s when her art came to a late – full – flowering, and she became better known and her work popular. Since her death France’s distinctive oil paintings, mainly of flowers, women and children in outdoor settings, have been much sought after.

Unlike Sutton and even Crabb, who had received an appropriate education for a budding artist, France struggled to obtain training. While travelling overseas with her mother and aunt, in Paris she attended the New York School of Interior Design which provided her only formal tuition. Returning to Auckland she assumed the life of a socialite, though she had neither the income nor the inclination. She was also expected to care for her ageing and progressively demented mother and aunt – a depressing experience which pushed her to the brink of insanity. Another factor, a mystery which requires further examination and explanation, concerns France’s relationship with her father who had disappeared when she was a child. Hints of abuse come from France’s art therapy paintings.

At Ashburn Hall France befriended and was encouraged by Rodney Kennedy, and later settled in Dunedin where she created a very special home and garden. She was supported by the “Dunedin Bloomsburys”, as well as Toss Woollaston and Ralph Hotere. Author Richard Donald notes that although in her old age she had many male friends, perhaps because of her childhood experiences, France hardly ever included male figures in her painting.

Splendidly reproduced are numerous art works, about which a reviewer commented: “Although superficially they are charming with flower-like colours suffusing the painting, anxieties and mysteries lurk here behind childhood’s apparently ingenuous perception of a marvellous clear new world.”

In the narrative the author includes a wealth of quotation from literary and artistic friends, which makes the text somewhat disjointed. The book is designed more for browsing and dipping into than sustained reading. Overall, France’s life probably merits further scrutiny. One quibble – the author’s name is given more prominence on the cover and title page than that of the artist. I would prefer it the other way around.


Julia Millen is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 


Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category