Rita Angus
Impressions by some friends

BETTY CURNOW 

I cannot remember exactly when I first met Rita Angus. I think it would have been before August 1936, when I married and went to live in Christchurch. Before that I often used to go to Christchurch on the Wednesday or Sunday excursion train from Timaru for the day. I sometimes travelled with Eileen Rose (Mrs Cliff O'Malley) and I think I met Rita through her. I remember going to a studio in High Street that I think Eileen and Ethel Maher shared: and I'm sure I met Rita there that afternoon. After August I would certainly have seen her because I often dropped into a studio Ethel Fairthorne had: she was making lampshades and I think Rita was helping her. 

The first time I can clearly remember seeing Rita's painting was May 28,1937.1 have checked these and the following dates from my diary: 'I went to see Rita this evening to see the painting she is doing of Dr Birkinshaw's children.' (This was a largeish oil painting of his two little girls Fay and Jane with some of their toys on a shelf behind them.) 

RITA ANGUS Portrait of Betty Curnow 1942
oil on canvas, 77.5 x 64.7 cm (collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)

In 1938 Rita was living in Sydney Thompson's studio in Cambridge Terrace (or the one adjoining it) while he was overseas. In March of that year I went to a party there. Walter Brooks and Laurence Baigent were in the other half and shared the kitchen with Rita. She took me into her half and showed me the carved Breton bed she slept in and other similar furniture of Sydney Thompson in the studio. 

In 1938 Rita went to Otago and Arrowtown, possibly with Colin and Marjory Marshall (quite a few painters went to Otago from Christchurch each year). I saw Cass in the Group show for this year (probably begun on a visit to Arthurs Pass with Ethel Fairthorne in December 1937), and some small watercolours of Otago. At this time we were interested in Eric Gill and Surrealism, and we often went to Francis Shurrock's house ('Shurry' and 'Mrs Shurry') where I spent a lot of time looking at their large collection of Japanese wood-cuts. Rita would have known these well too. In the summer of 1939 I think Rita was in Otago again. During these years we used to visit Rewi Alley's mother, to hear all about China, and discuss radical ideas. There was a loan exhibition of arts and crafts to raise money for medical aid for the Spanish Civil War. The Theatre Group put on Russian plays. The magazine Tomorrow still flourished. 

The War started, and Rita and I were involved, with a lot of other women, in a magazine called Women Today - Leftish and strongly pacifist. 

In June, a Mrs Delbruck (I think she was a German refugee) gave a show of reproductions of European paintings,mainly modern. They were small and very cheap. Rita and I bought some: the Pieter Bruegel Autumn (seen in the background of Rita's portrait of me), Franz Marc's Red Horses, Matisse's Pumpkins, Gauguin's Tahitian, and Van Gogh's Cornfield. Rita and I walked across the Park to our house in Riccarton. She stayed to dinner and in the evening we talked about the prints we had seen. We talked of the early Italian artists and the use of symbols and motifs by painters. 

From this year on I saw a lot of Rita with other friends who were part of what could be called a group interested in writing, painting, music, politics. We met at plays, concerts, exhibitions, public meetings, parties, and used to drink draught beer and talk on week-ends. From this year on we went to The Coffee Pot in New Regent Street where there was usually a small exhibition of somebody's paintings on the wall. 

In September, 1939 Rita rang, very depressed. Her exhibition had not been a success and she needed a job. I suggested she come to us to help me in the house in return for food and bed. She came to stay on September 18, and next day in the evening started a pencil drawing of me. Rita was drawing almost daily, and I was drawing when I could. She also started to write a book at this time which she read out as she went along. My diary for this year ends in October, but I think Rita moved to a flat in a house on Queen's Avenue and Fendalton Road in November. Here I often visited her. She had a playpen for Wystan where he first walked by himself. She was doing designs and making up samples for children's toys for a friend who was starting a factory which eventually failed. I stilt have an elephant and a felt fish that she made at this time, and she gave Wystan a Jumping Jack of painted plywood. It was here too that the ink drawing of a willow tree now in the Auckland Art Gallery was done. 

1940 seems to me to have been the year that marked the final cutting of the umbilical cord with England and Europe. We became more aware of New Zealand history and its pioneer beginnings. 1940 was the Centennial year. The Centennial Exhibition was organised, with Rita's Cass and a self. portrait included. In the Group show she exhibited the portrait of Douglas Angus, Head of a Boy, Lake Wanaka and watercolours. Douglas Lilburn came back from England (he had gone there in 1937) and his music was played at the Centennial Concert. Frank Sargeson visited this year and there were parties for him. 

If Rita saw a picture of a pioneer woman in the Turnbull library, and this influenced her in her portrait of me, I did not know about it at the time. It would certainly have had a special meaning for her then, and may have been the beginning of the idea to do the portrait. We both come from pioneer families of similar background - commercial pioneers. I remember on one of my visits to her in Wellington, on one of our many walks in the Bowen Street Cemetery, we sat on the grass and she looked around her and thought we were possibly surrounded by wrought iron made by her grandfather's firm - the first makers of wrought iron in Wellington. 

From 1940 on, paints, canvas, and all imported artists' materials were to disappear from the shops. This year I went part-time to the art school, and we used to make our own canvases and use powder colour mixed with linseed oil. I don't think Rita ever did this: but she turned to watercolour during the War years. Watercolours were more saleable at a time when people had less money. 

It was in 1940 that I got the book Art Through The Ages (published 1936 - a sort of encyclopaedia of art and architecture). This book has a very small section on modern art: but there is Grant Wood's American Gothic, with his motifs of the pitchfork and oval on which the picture is based. Illustrated here was a picture using motifs such as the early Italians had used. Almost on the same page were Diego Rivera's murals being compared with Giotto's frescos. We had many talks on things from this book - it was almost like a dictionary! Anyway these two painters were the first we knew of recent American painting. 

The next year I got Eyes on America (published by W.S. Hall, no date of publication, but I think then recent) a large book with a number of Grant Wood pictures. Also about this time I got a little book of colour prints from Rivera's murals, printed in Mexico. The colours are brilliant and the themes were in keeping with our Leftish ideas at that time. These books were exciting finds and I must certainly have lent them to Rita. They are part of the background of the Portrait. Together with the Centennial Year and our new awareness of our historical pioneer ancestors they were the reason for doing the painting. 

RITA ANGUS Head of a Maori Boy, c.1938
oil, 42.2 x 31.1 cm (collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery

By 1941 the effect of the War was very real in New Zealand. Denis Glover and other friends were going overseas. We began to realise what the changes ahead would be, and what being a pacifist would mean for many of our friends. We went to meetings and Rita and I joined the Peace Pledge Union. The Manpower Board was set up. Pacifists were sent to camps or manpowered to essential industries. People were changing jobs to avoid working in factories - especially women. All the arts became far more important than before. With few men left, women became actively involved in things and did the things men would have done. There was an enthusiasm and a striving for the best we could produce - produce with limited means.

In the later 'forties (I think from 1944 or 5 to 1960) Rita lived at Sumner. She came into the city once a week. I would usually meet her at The Coffee Pot, and I saw her on most public occasions as well.

It was in 1954, when we were living in Auckland and Rita in Wellington, that I saw her on a visit and she first took me to her little house in Sydney Street West. I don't know if she had actually moved in, but she explained to me all the things that had to be done to it, told me about her father buying it for her and the arrangements he had made for her.

Every time I visited Rita I would see new things she had made for the house. She made all her own clothes with an old Singer treadle machine by the windows in her bedroom. She did beautiful embroidery and knitted her own jerseys. She also grew nearly all her own vegetables. She never had any money to spare for anything that was not a necessity. She was very thrilled when she was able to get a sheet of clear perspex for the roof of the studio, and a divan bed for which she made a deep blue cover with curtains to match. later she got a built-in unit with shelves and drawers and curtains in front, for paper, paints, watercolour materials, for her drawings and other papers. In another corner beside the fireplace racks had earlier been built where finished pictures were kept. I usually slept in the studio - at first on an old stretcher, later on the new divan bed. The studio had an old iron fireplace that Rita never used. In the other room was a big old brick fireplace where we made toast with a wire fork in the evenings.

If I tried to give or lend Rita some money she always refused. When I stayed with her I paid my share so that she would not be out of pocket; and when I went out alone I bought extra groceries which I put in her cupboards. But she soon found them because she knew exactly what she had and everything was so tidy. She had so few of everything.

We had nice pottery mugs to drink coffee from. These were usually kept with her special coffee-grinder on a small trolley in the living-room. Rita's kitchen was very small, with a back door leading out to a sunny yard. Up some wooden steps which always seemed to have moss on them, there was an outside wash-house, never used as such, and an outside lavatory. Beyond this was a rough area grown wild and then a high clay bank with houses on top. In the front of the house there was a large tulip tree growing against the verandah, shading it and coming out into glorious flowers in the spring, covered in lovely pale green leaves in the summer.

Rita's living-room got lots of sun. There were always flowers there and her books filled one recess at the side of the fireplace. On the wall behind the sofa there was always one of her pictures that was important to her. The one of the Wellington Hospital was there for some time, and she told me of the difficult time of her visits there, though I never questioned her about why she had to go. At another time, after her return from England, the bush-fire one was there, its brilliant colours vibrating. She had the picture of the Maori boy in the other corner by the fireplace above the gramaphone for some years: then the Sun Goddess was there for a while. Her self-portraits were usually above the mantelpiece: I remember the one in her blue smock being there, and another with a black beret. (I don't think I ever saw Rita in a hat. She always wore a beret of some sort, or a scarf. She had lovely wavy golden hair in the 'forties, worn long, down on her shoulders. In Wellington as it grew whiter she had it cut shorter each time I visited: but each style always seemed just right for her face.)

In Rita's studio there was never a thing out of place. She kept records of the times she had worked on a painting, of where the pictures were, who had bought them. All her oilpainting brushes were in a jar on the mantelpiece and there was never a single dirty one; canvases and boards were all in racks in one corner. She also did her ironing in here and there would often be a pile of neatly ironed clothes waiting to be put away in the area where the drawing things were kept. The studio faced south and got very little sun, though it seemed very light and sun did filter down through the sky-light.

As far as I remember Rita did very little drawing when she was painting my portrait: but I think she did many drawings and sketches for the paintings she did in Wellington. There were lots of fish drawings for the two paintings of tropical fish I saw painted. Also I think she did a lot of drawings of the Maori children who lived in Sydney Street and often came to see her and sat for the paintings they appear in.

When Rita returned from England we spent almost whole days looking at the work she had brought back spread out on the floor in the living-room. She told me all about each one. There were so many that I find it difficult to recall most of them: but I do remember drawings she did in the Underground, and street scenes where she told me she had to draw with leather gloves over woollen ones on her hands because it was so cold. She told me about the small room she had lived in - how the stone houses and bleak landscape of Cornwall had depressed her so much that she could not stay there long - how she loved the soft air and heather of Scotland and felt happily at home in Edinburgh (she bought a length of handmade tweed there which she later made into a beautiful coat, sewing every bit of it by hand). She told me she had been terrified in Italy where people were reported to be stealing British passports to get out of the country: Rita slept with hers under her pillow holding it in her hand.

When I stayed with Rita she always worked in her studio a set number of hours each day and would allow nothing to interfere with these times. Most days we would walk down to Lambton Quay to buy some vegetables and meat or have coffee at Parson's Book Shop; or go up Ascot Terrace where Douglas Lilburn lived to Tinakori Road. We always talked of her paintings. She showed me paintings she had done since my last visit, talked of what she was doing at the moment and what she planned to do. My last visit to Rita was in 1969.

She loved Island Bay and during some of my visits we went there for the day to watch the Italian fishing boats, the children, look at the lobsterpots. We would take sandwiches and have coffee at a little place there. Once the fishermen gave us a newspaper-full of little sardine-like fish telling us how to cook them in oil. We had some that night, and the rest the following night in fritters.

Rita had a very dry sense of humour and she was great fun to go out with. Our days at Island Bay were enjoyable with lots of things to laugh about. Rita watched absorbed and remembered so much that was happening about her. She believed in a Chinese way of looking absorbing and remembering which I also learned to do when I was out with her. All of her paintings were planned and worked out from absorbed and remembered things as well as from sketches all with reason and purpose.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 3 December/January 1976-77