The Les and Milly Paris Family Collection


A small weatherboard house near Wellington's international airport is not really the sort of place where one would anticipate discovering a major collection of contemporary New Zealand paintings.

For Les and Milly Paris, however, the collecting of works of art is an all-consuming passion that affects their entire life-style. Les Paris is a busy lawyer: but in order to bring together the paintings that dominate their lives and cover just about every square inch of their walls, the Parises have chosen to sacrifice many of the luxuries that would normally come their way.

Les and Milly Paris discuss arrangements for the exhibition at the Dowse Gallery with the director, Jim Barr

The Parises have been collecting New Zealand paintings for over thirteen years. Early purchases mostly centred around artists such as H.W. Kirkwood (there are four in the collection) and Nugent Welch - a painter for whom Les Paris still has a strong affection. Their first major acquisition was a Peter McIntyre portrait, Maori Boy. This was bought at a time when the couple had little or no money. 'We were so scared at paying so much for a painting that we told all our friends it was a gift' Les Paris now confesses. It was to set a pattern of collecting that has continued to this day: 'Maori Boy hit us both, and we had to have it'.

BRENT WONG Mean-Time Exposure 1971
acrylic, 90 x 130 cm.

Over the next few years Les Paris was to buy more Kirkwoods, a delicate Friström study of a Maori girl, and more works by Nugent Welch through Wellington auction rooms. (They now tend to avoid auctions and buy only from dealers, Les Paris says: 'We think it's important to give dealers and artists a fair go.') Dealer galleries were few and far between in Wellington at that time. If contemporary work was available in the city the Parises were not seeing it. Les Paris does remember, however, a time many years before when as a student he had laughed at McCahon drawings for sale at a local coffee bar - both because of their content and their exorbitant price of one shilling each!

It was a visit to Hamilton in 1968 that introduced the Parises to Margot Philips and led to the subsequent purchase of their first abstract painting - Waikato Hills. The Parises were to become close friends of Margot Philips the sort of relationship that they look on as another bonus of collecting. Travelling on from Hamilton the Parises arrived in Auckland and visited the Barry Lett Galleries for the first time.

For the two Wellingtonians this gallery was a revelation. Even now the Parises can remember practically every painting they saw on that day. The visit resulted in the purchase of Don Binney's Kereru at Te Henga one of three Binneys in the collection and a painting that remains one of their favourites to this day.

Les Paris in his Wellington law offices with works by Rick Killeen and Gordon Walters

On their return to Wellington the couple made contact with Peter McLeavey. Although at that time they didn't consider themselves as committed to serious collecting they nevertheless began to realise that they were 'hooked on New Zealand art'.

1968 was the first year of what was to be an annual visit to Auckland. The second led to the acquisition of a fine Woollaston landscape, Bayly's Hill. This particular painting was sent down to the Parises after their Auckland visit. Les recalls the painting's arrival and his horror at the thought of having to repack the large parcel: 'I couldn't for the life of me work out how we could send it back and told Milly we would just have to keep it.

As you enter the Parises' house you see hanging in the small hallway a Clairmont Interior. The painting was found for them by dealer Elva Bett, who knew of their interest in Clairmont. (Although Les and Milly will happily buy younger painters, the paintings must always be 'right' for them. A 'name' always comes second to a work's quality and appeal to the two collectors.)

acrylic and mixed media, 47 x 51 x 4 cm.

Above the hall door is Don Driver's Taranaki - a small canvas and rope construction of exquisite sensitivity coupled with a wry humour typical of Driver's work. This construction is one of the few works purchased by the Parises 'sight unseen'. It was bought after a review in an Auckland newspaper had brought it to their notice.

Also hanging in the hallway are two small Goldbergs and a Nigel Brown - a work from his Table series. Purchased during Brown's first one-man exhibition in Wellington, it again shows the Parises' concern for new painters. It is one of two in the collection: the other hangs in Les Paris's city law office and is from the Bedroom series.

oil, 118 x 80 cm.

Both the Nigel Brown paintings show the influence of Colin McCahon. Although this might make other collectors wait for further development before committing themselves it has not deterred the Parises. As a consequence they have in their collection two paintings which may well prove to be key works in the artist's development. Encouragement of younger artists is also reflected in their most recent acquisition - an uncompromising grid painting by Allen Maddox, Towards a series of monumental grids. (The Parises were among the first collectors of Maddox.) The smaller Maddox canvas rubs shoulders with a huge Mrkusich hanging next to it on the livingroom wall.

ink on paper, 88 x 63 cm.

The living-room is the most impressive of all the rooms in the Paris house-hold. Binney, Hotere, Wong, McCahon, Smither, Fomison, Randerson, Woollaston and Mrkusich are represented along with many others. It all tends to bring home to one the advantages of looking at works of art within the environment of the private collection. Unlike curators of public galleries, the Parises have not had to purchase with 'history' in mind. The profusion of styles, images, periods and quality that so often confuses the visitor to a public gallery is frequently rationalised in the private collection, where chronic idiosyncracies and caprice actually lead to a more 'readable' selection. It is this caprice that has generally led to the 'discovery' of new art - and not the necessarily well-ordered collection of public galleries, who, all too often, are forced to return to the private collector in order to fill important(gaps and round-off particular periods. (A telling example of this is the recent purchase from a private collector of Pollock's Autumn Rhythm by the Metropolitan Museum which, in spite of being New York based, had failed to get a major example of Pollock's work during his life-time.)

The raison d'ĂȘtre of the Paris collection would appear to be a need to possess and live with certain works of art. And yet, as one would expect with the combined awareness of two individuals, certain themes emerge.

A certain sense of mystery, or of the mysterious", is common to some major works in the collection. This theme is present in the Michael Smither painting Joseph with Teddy Bear, reproduced on the cover of this issue. Whilst Smither has presented a figure portrait of almost monumental proportions, it is an empty room mutely indicated by a child that captures the viewer. A paradox is stated between the demanding physical presence of the child and the menace of the unknown. It is this 'phantom' that becomes the true and hidden image, with the child a mere traveller, required only to point the way. This sense of mystery is perhaps more obviously present in Brent Wong's Mean-time Exposure, Michael Illingworth's Earth Sea and Sky and Tony Fomison's Ah South Island Your Music Remembers Me.

It is interesting to note that the Parises are now finding their tastes turning more to abstract painting. The abstracts in the Paris collection are not works that present the viewer with a visual fait accompli, however. They allow one to interpret, to travel within the image, using what talismans and guides as are provided by the artist on the canvas.

oil 89.5 x 64 cm.

This is clearly seen in Philip Trusttum's Five Circles, and in the Mrkusich - a large moody painting that rebuffs a superficial examination, but draws one in beyond the primary image and shifts one's perception from that of viewer to that of participator. Not surprisingly it is one of the Parises' favourites. When within its presence they feel 'all is right with the world'.

Other paintings that have this mystique for them are Allen Maddox's Towards a series of monumental grids, and Gordon Walters' painting from the Koru series. In the Maddox painting the grid system that has occupied this artist for the last year or so has been imposed on a loosely-stained background reminiscent of the American colour field painters. Remarkably the matrix of crossed squares can exist happily with this delicate background. The Walters presents its mystery in a different way: it is essentially a more dogmatic statement. Nonetheless, as with all the Koru paintings, Walters does not restrict himself to an absolute formalisation but relies on a sophisticated relationship of shape and colour, of rhythm and musical syntax, to invite the viewer once again to participate in the work.

ALLEN MADDOX Towards a series of monumental grids
oil on canvas

The dining-room houses some of the earlier purchases, including an early study by Christopher Perkins and several of the Kirkwoods gathered in Les Paris's initial auction days. Also in this room is a small McCahon landscape, South Canterbury 1968. This is a sparse painting - almost iconographic in its interpretation of the land - the land's relationship to the sky and the elements. The Parises see it as 'the quintessence of landscape. . . the landscape down to its bare bones'.

Alongside the McCahon is a Binney entitled Vanishing Wellington Bird which was purchased both for its quality and for the fact that it evokes a part of Wellington that Les Paris remembers from his childhood. Nearby, Clairmont's Table Study provides a strong counterpart to a quiet landscape by Charles Tole.

COLIN McCAHON South Canterbury 1968
acrylic, 50 x 60 cm.

The entire Paris collection now contains well over one hundred items, many of them large, and all in their different ways vying for attention. When to stop collecting is not a question that has occurred to either of the Parises: though they are very conscious of the increased costs that make purchases a much bigger commitment than they were in the late 'sixties. To this problem is added that of the public responsibility they feel to be theirs in owning so many important works.

In an effort to allow public access to these works, it has been decided to exhibit the collection at the Dowse Art Gallery in Lower Hutt in May of this year. This will have two additional advantages to the Parises: the collection will be catalogued; and they will at last be able to redecorate the house!

For the Parises, one of the most satisfying aspects of collecting has been the opportunity it has given them to meet and become friends with many of the artists represented in their collection. From the early meeting with Margot Philips to more recent encounters with Fomison, Clairmont and many others, the Parises are very conscious of the interrelationships possible between collector and artist. These friendships have of course been the driving-force behind many of the most celebrated collections in recent decades - in the United States, in Europe and in many other places. So long as they are not confused with too Romantic notions of the collector as saviour of the struggling artist they can bring about a valuable exchange of ideas and experience. It has to be remembered, however, that although moral and' financial support playa critical part in any artist's life, it is unlikely that one or many avid collectors could have removed Van Gogh's melancholy, or quieted Pollock's doubts, except perhaps in the very short term. It is one of the innate boundaries that the collector can never cross: and the Parises, to their credit, have always respected it.

The paintings in the dining room reflect the Parises' changing tastes; in the mirror can be seen Binney's Vanishing Bird; surrounded by (from bottom left) H.W. Kirkswood's Wakatipu, Edward Fristroms Maori Girl, a Christopher Perkins study, H.W. Kirkwood's Mitre Peak and Silver Lake Wakatipu.

Jim Barr is Director of the Dowse Gallery, Lower Hutt, and will be responsible for the cataloguing and exhibiting of the Paris collection in that Gallery next May.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 4 Febraury/March 1977