Robert Nettleton Field

The painter's life to me was exemplified by the life and work of R.N. Field.


It may be that Robert Nettleton Field A.R.C.A. has been one of the most paradoxically neglected figures in the history of New Zealand art. It now seems certain that, as a painter and sculptor as well as a teacher, he was of central importance in the development of modern art in this country.

Today in his early eighties and living in retirement in Auckland, Mr Field is a quiet man who has never sought publicity and makes the most modest claims for himself. And yet his early works dating from the time of his first arrival in 1925, as they become available for inspection, no less than the testimony of painters such as Colin McCahon and M.T. Woollaston as to the influence he had upon their most formative years, speak decisively for his special place in art here. In addition we must put the contribution made by his 1940 articles in Art in New Zealand.

Robert Nettleton Field at Tomahawk Road

R. N. Field has been active as a sculptor, too, of course. His work in this medium has been discussed by Michael Dunn in a volume of The Bulletin of New Zealand Art History. And later he was to be a seminal influence in the development of studio pottery in New Zealand. Here, however, in this necessarily brief article, I set out to discuss only his early work as a painter, teacher and writer.

The recent acquisition by the Auckland City Art Gallery of some important early Field paintings and drawings gives us the opportunity to assess the advanced nature of his paintings of the 'twenties and 'thirties. And it is interesting to compare these with several of his better known works, reproduced alongside them in these pages.

When R. N. Field came to New Zealand in 1925 he was twenty-six years old and already an artist of experience. He had begun his studies at the Royal College of Art in London, in 1919 where in 1920 William Rothenstein became Principal. Field does not remember Rothenstein as being a great influence however. Contemporaries and influences at the College in those days included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Leon Underwood, Colin Gill. Other artists Field remembers were Jacob Epstein, Ossip Zadkine, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, William Roberts and Wyndham Lewis. Many of the students at the College were returned soldiers - matured men who were prepared to take their studies seriously.

From left to right: Jenkins, Lipscombe, Shurrock, W. H. Allen

Field recalls working at this time with his friend W. H. Allen, a fellow graduate of the College, as an assistant on the murals for the Battersea Power Station. That whole experience he looks back on as 'a great privilege'. Through the early 1920s he tried to find congenial work in England (he was determined, above all, to avoid having to work in commercial art). Times were hard: though Field was lucky to have his family in South End, a fairly short journey away by train.

In 1925 Allen drew Field's attention to an advertisement for an art teaching job in New Zealand. Two young artists were being sought - a painter and a sculptor. The two friends both got jobs: at what was then the King Edward VII Technical College in Dunedin.

At first the College had only five adolescent pupils. Later, there were some young ladies who, as Field puts it, 'had nothing better to do'. Of students there over a period Field remembers Doris Lusk, Edgar Mansfield - later Colin McCahon and M. T. Woollaston.

Field's ways of teaching are significant when seen in juxtaposition with art education as it was envisaged by local pundits. He himself says that he was never a teacher in any formal sense. He carried out his own work; the students worked along; they had discussions - and so things were learned in a creative way. These were perhaps no more than the classical procedures of the European atelier: but they were certainly something new to the New Zealand schools.

The sitting room at Tomahawk Road, showing Christ at the Well of Samaria painted on the servery door

That Field was able to work like this probably says much for the perspicacity and support of W. S. La Trobe, Superintendent for Technical Instruction in New Zealand and the initiator of the La Trobe Scheme to bring qualified art instructors to this country under which Field had come out. Field remembers La Trobe as a creative thinker, a man of vision who realised that unless the art colleges had some strong teachers New Zealand would languish in the backwaters for a very long time.

La Trobe would make visits to the Technical College, was enthusiastically supportive of Field's work there, and was later to use the Education Gazette to disseminate material Field brought back from his trip to England in the thirties. (The normally forbearing Field comments, tellingly, that they had 'other inspectors who were not so encouraging, to say the least'.)

Field's way of teaching would include his drawing on the blackboard as he talked. Or he would sit down next to the students and do demonstration drawings for them. His essentially creative and 'informal teaching would spill over into the hours after the College was closed. The Six and Four Club was started (so-called because originally there were six women and four men); and students got together in the evenings and weekends to work and talk. Colin McCahon, looking back, has made the comment:
Field was one of the few people who really mattered to me as teachers. The other was much later and in Melbourne - an old lady battered about and broken and I had lessons at 3 shillings a go from her and we sat down and talked about it, and if you want to know how Field taught it was just that way. Field was an innocent man. This is how teaching must be done. It's all the goodness of the teacher passing to the pupil - and Bob Field did just this.

The Six and Four Club: front row, M. T. Woollaston Rodney Kennedy; back row, left to right, Marie Buchanan, Marion Field, R. N. Field, Doreen Fraser, Mary Iverach and Doris Eberhardt

M. T. Woollaston spent a term with Field in 1932 (after two terms in the somewhat conservative Canterbury School of Art); and he gives in a letter a glimpse of Field the teacher in a memory from a life class of Field saying: 'Look at that foot, how it splashes into toes!'
Field went to England the following year and I left Dunedin, unformed but hopeful.

What of Field's own work as a painter in New Zealand in the 'twenties and 'thirties? When he first arrived here the clear atmosphere that allowed all the local colours to be seen undimmed must have struck him almost as a confirmation in nature of Gauguinesque doctrines of the necessity for the direct expression of the artists intuitions by means of pure colours. In these early paintings Field likes to leave areas of the ground - often the unprimed canvas or board or paper - showing through. He apparently had a horror of the work becoming 'overpainted'. There was the danger that the whole thing would become pedantic, boring - there would be nothing for the spectator to contribute.

Discussing this approach of Field in an unpublished essay on the La Trobe Scheme, Elizabeth S. Wilson quotes some words from one of his 1940 articles: 'Enjoyment arises out of the capacity to share with the artist in his creative activity'. Ms Wilson goes on to say:
To this end Field insists on leaving space (be it in the form of the piece of blank 'canvas' or the broken line) in his works, which can be interpreted or manipulated by the viewer according to his own response. The work is completed not by a totally worked surface, leaving nothing unstated, but by the reception of the work in the consciousness of the viewer, whose response is the final link between artist and audience. The alternative for Field is 'boredom'.

A memory of the impression made by Field's work in 1931 can be found in M. T. Woollaston's autobiographical sketch, The Faraway Hills his recollection from The Group exhibition of that year:
His pictures, brilliant and heady, were painted with jewel like, full-sized brush strokes, or with rainbow-like spots and scales of pure paint shimmering on unpainted backgrounds of wood or canvas.

R. N. FIELD Epworth Farm c1928
Oil on hardboard, 330 x 378 mm. (Auckland City Art Gallery)

More than one writer has mentioned in passing Robert Nettleton Field's influence on other New Zealand artists. But no-one has outlined exactly what it was that he did have to communicate, both as a painter and a mentor.

In making this kind of assessment we can turn to two principle sources of information: the paintings themselves (particularly the works of the 'twenties and 'thirties) and - a source that has been, surprisingly, almost overlooked - Field's own published writings on the theory and praxis of painting and design.

In 1940 Field contributed to Harry Tombs's journal Art in New Zealand a series of articles. There are four that concern us here, and they were published under the general heading Art and the Public. Reading these short essays one can see a conscious desire on Field's part to educate the interested New Zealand public in the new developments, indeed the revolution, that had taken place in the art of painting in centres at the other end of the world. He had not long before been back to England for a 'refresher' trip (1933/34) and he must have returned fired with new enthusiasm and experience to communicate to anyone who cared to know about modern art.

In an Introduction to the series Field points out that paintings are food for the eye. They nourish the eye, training it to see. He says that he is setting out to offer readers an approach to art under four main headings or divisions: Colour; Line; Form; and Composition (the last was subsequently retitled Design).

Beginning with the subject of colour, Field asserts that the artist makes us newly aware of the colour in the world, unable as we generally are 'to disassociate ourselves sufficiently from the business of living to be able to take time to see the colour aspect of common life'.

He makes a plea for the ideal content of art, and considers that the artist should have 'enshrined for us in some attribute of his art that same spiritual quality which we all possess in greater or lesser degree, and all long to find expression for'.

Field then goes on to discuss in the main part of this first article The Ostwald Colour Theory, which he says he introduced into New Zealand some five or six years before (after his return from England).

He outlines Ostwald's conception of colour contained in a solid consisting of two cones placed base to base, like atop, on a common axis.
A vertical section through this axis gives us two equilateral triangles laterally, the axis of greys forming a common base between them.
The axis consists of eight neutrals ranging from white at the apex, or north pole, to black at the base, or south pole, with twenty-four full colours as the equator arranged in order, three of yellow, the third being a single step from the first orange, then three orange, deepening towards red, and then red, and so on through purple, blue and turquoise, sea green and leaf green, the three of each joining hands as it were in psychological progression.
Each colour merging off internally toward the neutral axis, either to white, light grey, dark grey, or black, according to the position in the colour solid.
Thus are obtained twenty-seven tones and shades of each pure colour (for experimental purposes, small portions of black and white can be mixed with any pure colour in the proportion required).

Field points out that excellent harmonies can be arrived at:
by selecting from the circumference of the colour solid an equidistant series of colours, either from the extreme opposites - the cornplementaries as they are called - for instance, blue and yellow or red and sea green, or any equidistant colours in threes (triads), fours (quadrants), sixes (sextettes) or eights (octaves).

R.N. FIELD Mrs Jean O'Connor 1930
Oil on plywood, 540 x 488 mm. (Auckland CIty Art Gallery)

It should be added in respect to these concepts of Ostwald that if followed too mechanically they would of course lead to merely academic results. Expressive colour proceeds from the intuition and experience of the individual artist. Nevertheless, the painter who has no initial understanding of colour order is likely to find his own house of colour in perpetual chaos. Field is perfectly aware of this of course. As he concludes:
When all is said and done, however, colour is something more than a mathematical formula - it is a heaven sent gift, enriching everything, and relieving an otherwise drab world from sameness and monotony.

In the second of his two articles for Art in New Zealand - on Line - Field begins by stating:
While colour appeals mainly to the emotions line is more directly dependent upon the intellect and the imagination.
In a general way line may be said to be the backbone of all art: it is the most obvious medium of definition, without which the graphic arts cannot exist.

Later, he exhorts his readers to look at Durer's drawing, Self-portrait at the age of thirteen, and goes on to give some practical directions as to drawing.
To my mind the best way to approach a line drawing is to make some not too definite statements at first with a soft fine line and follow this up with more certain line drawn with freedom as the required positions become clearer in relation to the whole design.
It must always be remembered that a drawing is essentially a design - but more of that another time. This kind of approach makes it possible to dispense with that curse disguised as a blessing, india-rubber. It is fairly safe to say that drawings by distinguished artists, both of the present day and the past, show no trace of its use, even when corrections have been made. It is my contention that much of the weakness of school drawing today is due to the presence of a medium close at hand that can obliterate what has been done. In putting down a line we are feeling after truth, and if the line is drawn with this thought in mind, it will not be out of place, even if corrections are made alongside.

In his third article - on Form - Field raises that much-discussed concept of Roger Fry: 'significant form'.
: . . the factor of form plays an important part in design. In a painting the sense of depth requires careful determination in relation to the design as a whole; also the volumes represented there, whether they are harmonious, contrasting, or rhythmical, they must obtain a balanced relationship to each other ...
Significant form, if I may borrow a phrase from a well known art critic, has all this in it and more. Form is a language in itself, not so simply understood as colour and line, but vastly important. Much modern work is based on the theory that the geometrical structure of form, in the abstract, has the power to stimulate aesthetic feelings. In architecture many experiments have been made, not, without success, to use the very form of the building to express its purpose. One might be a simple experiment with a series of vertical triangular prisms in contrast to a grouping of spherical shapes. The prisms give a sense of strength and arrested motion, while the spherical shapes suggest something more lyrical, and romantic ...
How eloquently Nature speaks in this language of form. Our response is unconscious and intuitive. We take it so much for granted that we scarcely realise form as a separate thing. The attractive shape of an apple makes its appeal to the palate. In art, however, the appeal is on a different level. The enjoyment derived from C6zanne's apples is in no way associated with the anticipation of eating them. Indeed, Cezanne's simple dictum, 'I have not tried to reproduce Nature, but to represent it', gives us the key to the appreciation of form in most modern art. Our enjoyment arises from our capacity to share with the artist in his creative activity ...
Those who attempt to criticise art must bear in mind that resemblance is never the sole aim of art. Actual imitations can be achieved of inanimate objects ... [but] the results lack conviction and that inspired quality which is to be found in great works of art - in fact, as far as stirring aesthetic is concerned they are entirely negative. Life demands a vital response. Nature provides the raw material. The rearrangement and rendering of things according to the spiritual urge, is the mainspring of all art - the uprush of the mind and spirit, recklessly casting aside all previously accepted formulae, in an endeavour to make habitation for the exalted moment . . . In regard to the graphic form, light and dark are the raw materials of its construction. The early masters of painting, for instance, made form their first objective, building their colour over a monochromatic base; the modern artist attempts for the most part to solve this dual problem in one hit. Colour was very precious to the old masters - every scrap had to be hand-ground, some from precious stones, e.g., lapis Jazuli for ultramarine blue - so it is not difficult to see why so much monochrome from easily procured earths was used as a substitute, and the colour 'hung' on, as it were, afterwards, by the process of glazing. Modern methods of producing oil paint, etc., place at the artist's disposal an abundance of colour, making possible the freedom of handling and experimentation of today.

R.N. FIELD Lake Wanaka 1927
Watercolour over pencil, 173 x 218 mm. (Auckland City Art Gallery)

In his final article of this series - Design - after a rather generalised discussion on the aesthetics of industrial design Field comes to a consideration of the problems of design in fine art.
In some rare cases it may happen that nature presents a complete design to the artist, leaving him nothing more to do than to translate his vision of natural phenomena in his particular medium; a task in itself which usually calls for a vast amount of selection and simplification. The Pre-Raphaelites attempted to beat the camera in multiplication of detail, and though they may have succeeded in this they failed in other directions, namely, in power of design. It is this power of design that modern art has rediscovered and emphasised, and nature very rarely offers us more than a suggestion in this direction, plus a mass of somewhat irrelevant raw material . . .
Modern art in general has stripped art bare of incidents in an endeavour to probe to the depths the significance of form.

Field goes on to discuss the question of what he calls 'controlled depth' in pictorial design.
This question of depth is one of the rudiments of pictorial composition. The man who is hailed as the supreme exponent of this quality, as a factor in design, is Cezanne. Cezanne has shown us, among other things, that every part of a picture is essential to every other part in a well-ordered scheme. In this sense his paintings are like architectural compositions. A cathedral is thought out in three dimensions - height in relation to breadth and depth. So also is a painting by Cezanne. The discoveries that his research has led to in this direction have resulted in what may be called controlled depth, depth itself becoming a significant factor in the construction of balance and rhythm. How can this be, you may ask? You are quite familiar with the converging lines in a perspective representation of a rectangular object, and you may have noticed how at once the eye is drawn into the picture imaginatively up to the limit of the object. That movement of the eye, unconscious though it usually is, indicates power within the picture, power to cause eye movement. It if; upon things such as this that the whole basis of composition rests. To state it more clearly and again, these properties of attraction within the frame of a picture, as, for instance, light merging into shade, and vice versa, lines acting like arrows and pointing out the way that the artist has chosen for us to travel, dark spots, bright colours, and the factor mentioned above of converging lines, either related to rectangular objects or simply fan-wise - these things are the raw material, plus many others, from which is woven for us the fabric of pictorial design. All this, though it must be analysed, is not consciously done by the artist. He responds naturally to his frame of mind, finding in nature and direct through imagination that which affords him a vehicle of expression. It is as fatal for an artist to have his head full of cut and dried rules for pictorial composition while he is composing as it would be for a singer to think only of enunciation while singing. These things must lie in the background of the mind, while the inspired vision, the emotion, takes the place of precedence.

Coming now to individual paintings by R. N. Field reproduced here: Christ at the Well of Samaria, which entered the collection of the National Gallery, Wellington, six or seven years ago, has been one of his most influential works.

In a long informal interview given by Mr and Mrs Field to Elizabeth S. Wilson the artist described the circumstances of the painting of this work on a servery door in their small house on Tomahawk Road at Anderson's Bay, Dunedin.
... I felt like a rat in a box there after the homes I'd had in England. They weren't vast homes in England but they did have some space ... We used to get confined to some extent in the house, because the weather was ... you know what Dunedin can do, and I had to do something, so I'd paint on whatever I had available. Here was this door and the grain seemed to be alive and the image grew out of it.

Interior 1928 was also painted in the sitting room at Tomahawk Road, and shows a clay head by Field, a portrait of a fellow teacher at the King Edward College, a Mr Lee.

R. N. FIELD Interior 1928
Oil on board, 355 x 263 mm.
(Hocken Library, Dunedin)

The watercolour of Laka Wanaka was painted on a trip that Field made with W. H. Alien in 1927. Speaking of his loneliness in these early years in New Zealand Field said that if one wanted to know how he felt at that stage one had only to look at this little watercolour.

The simplicity and pastel shades expressively show the stark, cold and lonely scene, with snow covering the mountains right down to the rocks and deep water.

The Portrait of Mrs Jean O'Connor, one of Field's many fine and original studies of heads, is a composition for which the sitter was the painter's sister-in-law.

Perhaps the most striking and beautiful of the Auckland City Art Gallery's new acquisitions is the composition with figures titled Epworth Farm. Epworth was the old homestead where Mrs Field was born.

Mr Field cannot remember whether the flying object seen against the white clouds is a bird or an aeroplane: but recalls that it was just down the road from Epworth farm that Richard Pearse made his pioneer aviation attempts. With its clear colour, the paint applied in a divisionist manner leaving patches of the untouched ground showing through, this work recalls early paintings by Vuillard and Bormard.

After one has considered the works by R. N. Field reproduced on these pages, together with those in public collections throughout New Zealand, and has read his articles, I think it can be clearly seen that he occupies a unique place in the history of art in this country. He was certainly one of the most important transmitters of new ideas of the possibilities - and indeed the mission - of the art of painting that had sprung up in France and Germany and Russia, and had been disseminated, belatedly, in England through such avenues as Roger Fry's Post-Impressionism exhibition held at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1910. These were the years of Field's early studies in England; and he was privileged to be the means of making the new ideas available in New Zealand - for those who were equipped to put them to use.

R. N. FIELD Christ at the Well of Sarnaria
Oil on wood, 796 x 454 mm.
(National Art Gallery, Wellington)

Though there have been several small and local showings in recent years, we still await the mounting of a large and comprehensive retrospective exhibition of R. N. Field's paintings and sculpture - one that will make evident for the first time the full range and stature of his work.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 19 Autumn 1981