Memories of Three New Zealand Expatriate Painters


Is it no more than a matter of good fortune that New Zealand has produced a surprisingly large number of highly gifted painters, sculptors and teachers over the past sixty years? Among the names that have made outstanding contributions to the world through their art and teachings are Frances Hodgkins, Raymond Mcintyre, Francis McCracken, Len Lye, Godfrey Miller, James Cook, Roland Wakelin; as well as, in later years, John Panting, Billy Apple and Eric Macky.

Of the New Zealand expatriates that I have known personally, three stand out - for decidedly different reasons. Although these three were all dedicated painters there is no doubt that in outlook, artistic merit and philosophy they were poles apart ... one an intellectual, one a pioneer innovator, and one an academic and a compassionate and wise teacher.

The three painters I am referring to are Godfrey Miller, Roland Wakelin and James Cook.

GODFREY MILLER was a man who, while possessing great qualities of intellect and a philosophical approach to life, was equally gifted as a painter - a rare combination when one considers the developments of the 'fifties and 'sixties in Australia. Miller had an even rarer quality - that of a genuine communion with nature.

If Miller was a loner, one possessing something akin to mystical insight, JAMES COOK was affectionately known to his students and friends as Jimmy and is probably most remembered in terms of his abilities as a teacher - a teacher who could inspire the best in his pupils from the academic platform (academic in the best sense).

There is today a resurgence of interest in Cook's potential as a painter, particularly in the World War II period when he became an official war artist. His drawings and his ability to visually articulate and describe through the use of the pencil have found few equals. It is in his paintings of military activities within the jungle environment that the full powers of Cook the painter and tonalist become evident. Unfortunately one has very little opportunity these days to view this period in his painting output.

ROLAND WAKELIN was the innovator of contemporary trends in the Sydney art scene of the 'twenties. Along with Roy de Maistre and Grace Cossingtom Smith, he bridged the gap between the antipodeans and the impending modern attitudes that have resulted in and contributed to the subsequent development of contemporary painting in Australia. Wakelin was a theorist and a pioneer in the development of colour as a form of expression in its own right. Primarily a landscape painter, he sustained for a long period the continuity and ingenuity that always induced in the spectator a spontaneous emotive response.

I come into contact with these three painters between 1946 and 1952, at a period in Australian art when artists looked upon themselves as having substantial and meaningful presence: a situation occasionally highlighted by the return of an antipodean or a newly-immigrated continental artist. Most Sydney artists were members either of the Society of Artists or the more conventional Royal Art Society; and were supported by dealers such as the MacQuarrie Galleries (among others) who exhibited the more prestigious among the artistic elite, and thus contributed along with the societies to the artistic climate of the period.

JAMES COOK Lyttleton Harbour
oil, 31.7 x 38 cm (private collection)

It was while I was a student at the National Art School (the old Darlinghurst Jail) that I knew Jimmy Cook, who was teaching and painting in Sydney. James Cook's main responsibilities in teaching at this time were to take senior students in life-drawing and in one of his pet subjects, 'colour-theory' (the latter mainly related to French Post-Impressionism). Colour and the theory of colour were used in a very formal way, and were to take up much of Cook's endeavours as a painter.

James Cook was as a painter and draughtsman very much a traditionalist of course. As such he approached painting in a rather academic way - academic in the sense that all was thoroughly planned, each brush-stroke, his colour, its tonal value and chromatic intensity all logically worked out. He left little to chance, and the latter was never allowed to undermine or overshadow his great capacity for understanding tonal or pictorial structure.

I remember a particular afternoon life-class at the National Art School when James Cook arrived in a happy and typically exuberant mood, eyes beaming and eager to have the model cut through the usual introductory period of quick sketches to establish gestures with the utmost economy. Prior to beginning the sketches he said: 'Before we finish this period I have something unique to show you.' (As you can imagine in the somewhat academic atmosphere of the art classes during the late 'forties one was never very much surprised.)

Jimmy had under his arm a folio of photographs and drawings. When the rest period for the model arrived he came over and sat down. Then, to Tony Tuxton, Fred Jessop, Dave Lawrence, myself (and several others whose names do not come to mind) he presented a series of drawings - simple sweeping line studies of nudes by Godfrey Miller. As can be imagined, having been inclined under Cook's supervision to the more traditional and 'Sladeian' aspects of drawing, one did not quite know how to take the simplicity and style of these drawings that did not emphasise 'muscular articulation' and so on, or boast a nineteenth century outlook.

I must admit that the effects of this encounter with Miller's drawings were not realised until many years later. Cook was always one to be on the path to a new discovery; and certainly his fellow New Zealander was to prove that Cook's judgement remains as convincing today as it was some twenty or thirty years ago when I knew him.

Later (in 1947/48) I had the pleasure of being included in the day-time and night-time classes held by Godfrey Miller. Experiences with this artist were significant not so much for what he taught us, but because of his very presence - an eccentric and even mystical personality as he then appeared to an eighteen-year-old student.

Miller would always arrive punctually in the class-room, garbed in his familiar off-white linen jacket, whose pockets would be bulging with anything from sticks of chalk to various organic or inorganic objects together with a small notebook which was used to make studies of the model. I remember on one occasion when I had been in the course only a few weeks I dared to ask Miller, rather sheepishly for one of the drawings which he had used to illustrate the failings in my work. 'No' he bluntly replied: 'You have got your drawing - this one's mine.'

In fact what Miller was doing was allowing us to see problems in our own work and at the same time using the teaching period to give advantage to himself.

FRANCES HODGKINS Poet resting under a tree, 1932
oil, 56 x 68.5 cm (private collection)

On one occasion during the model's rest period Miller pulled an object out of his pocket. It was a shell: and it was used to illustrate the perfection and symmetry of a spiral. Miller would reflect upon the fact that nature was 'aware' of mathematics and that man in his discovery of lineal symmetry was in a sense paying homage to that which is already a part of nature.

All this was of course illustrated through the use of various spiral shells. He would go further in his observations and relate the movement of the spiral to water receding from a beach. I must admit that it was only years later (in fact in New Zealand) that one was able to visually experience this process of water receding in a spiral from the beach. It was an instance where air pockets under the sand had caused a suction action which made water spiral into the point of suction.

Miller's preoccupation with symmetry can be partly explained by his interest in eighteenth century French mathematics. It can also be related to his early days in New Zealand where the artist started as an architect in Wellington, and even then was interested in structural forms - in particular the beams and ties of churches on which he worked during his early career as an architect.

Outside of the class-room, Miller would often invite students and friends to his loft in down-town Sydney, and on rare occasions to view his paintings. (It is interesting to note that Godfrey Miller did not show his paintings in public until the last years of his life.)

GODFREY MILLER Nude and the Moon 1954-1958
oil, 61.6x104.2 cm (collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales)

One would enter his studio, after quite a procedure opening several doors and padlocks, only to find that the paintings were surrounding the room with their images facing the wall. Miller would then proceed to pull one out at an angle, look at the painting and glance at the light, and upon the light being at the right degree would permit you to see the work. Occasionally though he would complain that you had arrived too late and make you feel that you had committed a great discourtesy.

As a painter Godfrey Miller conceived objects in nature not as independent forms, but as a manifestation of space and light. His works rely on the harmonious interplay of large and minute planes within a fine grid system. Miller's small dashes of paint play an active part in the balance, harmony and symmetry of his light-filled paintings.

One final incident I remember throws some light on Miller's concern with honesty- honesty within his own work and towards others. Feeling predictably bored and frustrated with developments at the School, I had started on the first two weeks of term, and then decided to drop out. Some weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon while walking in an arcade off Pitt Street, Sydney, near the Palace Theatre, looking at various coin and stamp shops, I passed Godfrey Miller. I bid him a gesture of friendship and as I arrived at the end of the arcade heard his voice shout out: 'Ernest! I want to see you.' Again rather sheepishly I walked back to where Godfrey Miller was standing and he said-to me:

'You have forgotten to pay your term fees for my drawing- class. You know that if you do not pay the fees then I, as instructor, am responsible for making up the amount due when allowing you to enter the class. What I am asking you to do is-pay up!'

We talked for about an hour; and after this encounter when I arrived home I quickly enclosed my cheque in a letter. A week later I received a letter back in which Godfrey Miller, after thanking me in effect for the honesty I had shown in paying my dues, went on to say:

'I describe your work as "quite good" ... as you have shown honesty in your dealings with the problems of fees, so you should show honesty in your own work. I leave you with a thought - excellent elaborateness is a second-hand quality.'

It was some twenty years later, when returning to the 'antipodes' to take up an appointment as Director of the Auckland City Art Gallery, that I visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales and stood face to face with one of Godfrey Miller's paintings. The first thought that came into my mind was the evaluation Godfrey Miller gave to elaborateness as a second- hand quality. That remark, made to me back in the late 'forties, must have remained a constant source of annoyance to the artist himself.

During the late 'forties I was privileged to attend many notable lectures by Roland Wakelin, in which he discussed colour theories, gave small demonstrations, and showed examples through many stages to a final work. As I have already indicated, Wakelin pioneered the application of theories of colour in Australian painting, and gave to Australian art an awareness of French Post-Impressionist ideals - notably those of Cezanne. Roland Wakelin was a painter of omission who, along with Grace Cossington Smith and Roy de Maistre in the late twenties on the Sydney art scene, was to challenge the then antipodeans and to transform acceptance of the traditional into that of the contemporary modern movement.

RONALD WAKELIN Wellington Rooftops c1913
oil, 73x52 cm (private collection)

Roland Wakelin was certainly Australia's most important Post-Impressionist and was most consistent in his development as a painter. Examples of his work are too few in New Zealand - as is the case with James Cook and Godfrey Miller.

Other New Zealanders who went to live and work in Australia were Robert Johnson, Alfred Cook (James Cook's brother and at one time companion of Rita Angus), Francis McCracken, and of course Frances Hodgkins, perhaps New Zealand's most distinguished expatriate.

It is to be hoped that in the not-too-distant future our historians and writers on art will be able to come to grips with the expatriate phenomenon. Although in a sense their time away from the country has been lost to us, the works themselves can be brought back. This the Auckland City Art Gallery will be endeavouring to do in a series of expatriate exhibitions in coming months.

GODFREY MILLER (1893-1964) was born in Wellington, New Zealand, where he took a degree in architecture at Victoria University and began his career as an architect. After the First World War, he travelled and ended up in London to study at the Slade School through the 'twenties and 'thirties. He taught drawing at the East Sydney Technical College c1950-64.ln 1959 his work was the subject of a large retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. Godfrey Miller died in Sydney.
JAMES COOK (1904-1960) studied at Canterbury School of Art and taught there from 1927 to 1933.lnAustralia he taught at the East Sydney Technical College and was curator at the Western Australian Art Gallery, 1949-52. Cook was art critic for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, 1952-9. He died of pneumonia while travelling in Italy.
ROLAND WAKELIN (1887-1971) was born in New Zealand in 1887 and studied at Wellington Technical College from 1904. He arrived in Australia in 1912, studied at the Royal Art Society School under Dattilo Rubbo, 1912-14, and in Paris 1922-24. With Roy de Maistre and Grace Cossington Smith, Wakelin was a founder of the modern movement in Sydney. From 1952 he devoted a great deal of time to teaching. A large retrospective of Roland Wakelin's work was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in April 1967.

Ernest Smith, before taking up the position of Director of the Auckland City Art Gallery, was Director of the Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax Canada, and Professor of Art History at the Dalhousie University. He is a member of the International Association of Art Critics.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 1 August/September 1976