Christopher Perkins in New Zealand

HAMISH KEITH

Christopher Perkins sailed for New Zealand in January 1929. By the same month in 1934 he and his family had arrived back in London. Of those four years something less than three and a half were spent in New Zealand and during that time Perkins achieved, by reputation at least, more than most of his New Zealand contemporaries did during a life-time of serious application to their art.

To adapt the remarks made by a member of the New Zealand Academy complaining a generation earlier about another foreign arrival, James Nairn, Perkins in those few years 'seems to have formed himself into a hollow square, and advanced upon. .' New Zealand art, '. . and conquered it, and sat on its chest and generally diffused himself allover it.. ..' The reaction to Perkins was far less petulant. There were niggles, horror and shock, of course, but the painter's champions were the younger cultural heavy-weights of the time and among them Professor P.W. Robertson, Frederick Page and A.R.D. Fairburn gave the nigglers, the horrified and the shocked hardly a word in edgeways. The anti-Perkins camp (of which the painter later seems to have been quite proud) might well have been identified with the Wellington cultural establishment and its hangers-on. Little remains for posterity of their objections apart from some newspaper comment and a slighting remark reported by Perkins as being made by Mrs. Isobel Field, sister of Frances Hodgkins and herself something of a painter.

CHRISTOPHER PERKINS Young Maori Model Resting
pencil and watercolour, 49.5x31.5 cm (Peter Webb Galleries)

Much more significant an indication that the initial glow of Christopher Perkins had already faded only six years after he had left. New Zealand is hinted at by E.H. McCormick in his pioneering work Letters and Art in New Zealand. McCormick himself, or some of the more influential among his sources, was then inclined to the view that Perkins's theories of art should be put a little to one side and that his work seemed to have been more successful when those theories were 'lost sight of'. The painter's influence might well be taken up by younger artists, but hopefully perhaps, 'with more caution than their mentor.' For more than a quarter of a century McCormick's assessment remained the only serious attention paid to Perkins and it is a sobering thought that, despite the closeness of the painter's New Zealand activity to the writer's work, apparently his paintings were only known to McCormick through their reproduction in Art in New Zealand. From 1940 Perkins, the flesh and blood painter, fades into legend among his contemporaries and later, for a handful of students becomes an interesting and intriguing highlight among the mass of dross reproduced in the same source available to McCormick.

Until 1962, when the oil Frozen Flames, c.1931, was purchased by the Auckland City Art Gallery, a minor wash drawing, Employed, in the same collection was the only original work accessible to the public. In 1967 these two works were joined by a number of oils, Meditation 1931, Taranaki 1931, Volcanic Country near Rotorua 1931 (reproduced in Art and New Zealand as Turangakumu), Maori Meeting a large work begun here in 1932 and completed in England in 1934 and a very late Self Portrait 1954. In the collection of the Peter Webb Galleries in Auckland are three drawings: a red crayon drawing of a young man, a conté head of a young Maori girl probably dating from 1933 and a delicate and beautiful pencil and watercolour sketch of a young Maori model resting.*

Six oils and four drawings are very slender direct evidence on which to assess Perkins as a painter and not only as an apparently seminal influence (a judgement on that can be attempted on the basis of external evidence). By reproduction a further six oils, six drawings and a carved plaster portrait head are also reasonably familiar. To this group a significant number of key works belong, Silverstream Brickworks, 1930 (destroyed during the bombing of London), Activity on the Wharf, 1931, Professor P.W. Robertson (location unknown), Mrs Michael Stiver 1931 (in 1967 reported to be in the subject's own collection in New York) and the only reproduced pre-New Zealand painting, a 1928 self portrait (also vanished).

CHRISTOPHER PERKINS Frozen Flames c1931
oil, 66 x 60.5cm (collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)

From external evidence supplied by the painter in a personal correspondence shortly before his death in 1968 it seems beyond dispute that New Zealand works were a high point in his career. Before he came to this country, from 1918 to 1928, his activity seems to have been erratic, veering between energetic promise and lethargic despair. The impact of New Zealand seems to have lifted his work to something both consistent and mature. The very few pieces known here from the years after his departure seem now of little interest or quality and about his subsequent career the painter seemed curiously reticent only mentioning in the correspondence referred to before one somewhat decorative and trivial work. More than merely cultural chauvinism then might compel us to come to terms with Perkins through his New Zealand works rather than survey his entire oeuvre, even if that were possible.

Only during the last decade has any serious effort been made to overcome the deadening proximity of the 'thirties and 'forties and to rough out a few high points from which to survey the whole scene. We now know that the period was not a 'cultural desert'. It may well prove to have been one of the most critically formative periods in New Zealand painting so tar.

From our present outlook we suspect Perkins sums up most of the period's achievement. He seems the highest point so far. But as yet no one has dared to tackle the real nature of Perkins's assumed influence, or even to consider the corollary to that, whether it was an influence at all and not merely that most pathetic of art history's fallacies: the notion that since a work contains in its clearest expression the best of what went before and points directly to what was to follow, it is therefore responsible.

CHRISTOPHER PERKINS Head of a Maori Girl 1932
charcoal 40x 33.5 cm (Peter Webb Galleries)

When we can finally clear away that urgent need to make Christopher Perkins significant to the development of twentieth century New Zealand painting (or at least to make that secondary to our approach to each painting or drawing), we may find in the best of the New Zealand works a richer experience. The Young Maori Model Resting, in the Peter Webb Galleries, for instance, is no doubt amongst the most important New Zealand drawings, but in its own right it is also a sensitive, beautiful and masterly thing.

* This list may have a few minor omissions but it certainly contains the most significant directly known works.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 1 August/September 1976