Afternoon Tea with Olivia Spencer Bower


The following conversation took place at Olivia Spencer Bower's Christchurch home on 22nd. November 1981. She had seen me at a C.S.A. opening and invited me to afternoon tea - the last thing I expected since she was frail from the hospital ordeal and treatments. But then everyone who knew her, I suppose, including myself had not reckoned on her extraordinary and captivating robustness of heart.

She was an abundantly kind hostess, and practical. The afternoon tea things were ready. A fruit loaf baked specially stood cooling on the bench. Of course she remembered exactly what I had wanted to talk over - to do with Grace Butler mainly and the idea that women painters have a unique viewpoint - and as we wandered about her small garden she remarked how much she would like to be of help but she didn't see how she could be, and what did I advise for some ailing plant. I could advise nothing but confessed to having a tape recorder out in my car and what did she think about that. She replied that seeing I had brought it this far I might as well bring it in, which I did. It had been loaned to me about half an hour earlier so together we found how it worked. It was clear that neither of us felt completely comfortable with it there 'listening in' although acknowledging it had its place. 'I won't turn it on yet, I said. (I almost forgot to turn it on at all.)

Photograph Of Olivia Spencer Bower by Marti Friedlander

'No, all right. Anyway I don't have anything 'significant' as they say these days to offer.'

OLIVIA SPENCER BOWER: Perhaps we've got something in our work - this is women you see - but we don't yet know what it is. We haven't had the chance to tell people what it is. So many pictures in the past which were considered men's work were actually women's, weren't they?
GRACE ADAMS: But then the way we've judged painting is from the men's point of view.
O.S.B.: Absolutely. There's something more subtle we can get into it surely.
G.A.: In relation to Grace Butler, the highest compliment in some of the criticisms of her work was that it could have been painted by a man.
O.S.B.: (laughing) Yes that was considered the greatest thing. Strong painting they usually mean by that.
G.A.: And powerful. And the critic's surprise on meeting the artist, a slightly built, retiring sort of woman. All meant in the kindest way. 
O.S.B.: Yes, I've found the same attitude coming forward, just at times, as if it was a better thing. And it's such a pity. it isn't really needed. That's why I made the remark earlier about needing more women critics. I think it is so necessary to have women in this role.
GA: Sutton was aware of an unusual subtlety in the bush studies of Grace Butler. 'An unrivalled interpretation of the backcountry forests of Canterbury', was actually what he said. I've often wondered - she never mentioned it to me - if she found it hard going working for so many years in what was largely a male preserve.
O.S.B.: Well of course she was one of the first women who bothered about New Zealand scenery as such. She must have been one of the first.
G.A.: She was fortunate having a husband who helped cart her gear into amazingly difficult places.
O.S.B.: And her subject matter would prescribe her method to a large extent. The bush here, as far as I know, is different from anywhere else in the world and few people have tackled it. It's extremely difficult. That lush growth which she did I couldn't have coped with. I like doing the long terraces beside the Waimak with all that sort of tussocky stuff. It was really I who told Sutton about that. 'Where did you paint those?' he said. You remember, that last collection of his?
GA: To come back to your earlier years, to your portrait of Dr Smith of Rawene. That's a magnificent thing. [it was painted in the late 1940s.]
O.S.B.: Oh? It was quite a tiny painting. He said he'd sit for me that evening you see and I'd never thought he would. He was never still. I mean he'd pace the room, so I started a very tiny work. Actually he was very good. A lovely head he had. I've got another one there [indicating another room]. Yes, I got a likeness.
GA: I was a young girl when I bought his paperback [on his backblocks hospital] and realized what an outstanding person he was ' Your portrait I remember affected me deeply when it was first exhibited. And it still does [it was in her Retrospective Exhibition of November 1977 held at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch].
O.S.B.: Of course it's nothing much as a portrait. I think it's the man himself [pointing across the room]. I've taken the Maori babies down from their usual place. These were the babies I did at the Rawene Hospital newly born babies. It was just amazing how alert the Maori ones were. The white children seemed to be quite supine by comparison.
G.A.: You mean in the same hospital? Did the Pakeha women keep their babies in bed with them, not stuck away in a nursery?
O.S.B.: Yes.
GA: I'm wondering as we talk, the way you approached these subjects - G.N. Smith and the Maori mothers and babies would surely be different from a man?
O.S.B.: Yes. But I don't know. You see Picasso did some wonderful mother and child studies.
G.A.: He did: but I'm not suggesting women are any better at painting babies, or should be better. I just seem to love to think there might be differing areas of subtlety, different contributions from both sexes.
O.S.B.: There should be: but too many of us have been trained by men haven't we?
GA: I reckon women have a special viewpoint which hasn't been properly acknowledged.
O.S.B.: Some people, like Doris [Lusk] for instance, don't like to be considered as women artists. 'I am just an artist.' But I'm a bit different to that. I would like to know if we do have something different to offer. I haven't striven for it in any way at all. They often say a woman's painting is feminine, and you half resent it, don't you, because 'it means quite good but too sweet. That's the sort of way men expect us to paint don't they; whereas work can be feminine and strong with a good deal of insight.
G.A.: Yes, I never equate 'feminine' with 'weak' or sugary. Women have a resilience and all sorts of attributes often not accounted for. You would think their more rugged insights would have a unique dimension to them.
O.S.B.: Have you come across it in any painting? Have you been able to discover it at all?
GA: [shaking head] We're only just beginning to wonder if it's a factor. It might not be. After all we've been so male oriented.
O.S.B.: Frances Hodgkins's work was very feminine. I think she was one of the greatest New Zealand painters. You know, she had to sign herself Francis, with a c i s so that no-one would know what sex she was in order to get on as well as she did.
G.A.: I've been rereading the Ascent number devoted to her, and she emerges as a tremendous person. The dedication, and courage, all her life!
O.S.B.: Yes. My mother knew her. So did Miss Margaret Stoddart. And mother said, 'You must see Frances while you're in England'. Well, I didn't. She was having an exhibition in London at the time, and I asked the people organizing it if I could see Miss Hodgkins. Oh no! Not possible, not possible at all! And it put me off ever getting in touch with her. My mother, of course, should have arranged an introduction for me.
G.A.: They were personal friends?
O.S.B.: Yes, but I can't find any letters. I've looked.
G.A.: Did you get any feedback from your mother? Frances Hodgkins wasn't understood was she? Not at all really. Not for a long time.
O.S.B.: Not out here she wasn't. I think those joneses must have done a lot for her.
GA: Your mother, Rosa, trained in England? 
O.S.B.: Here and also in England. I realize now looking at some of her work that it's far better than I realized at the time. Far better tone than I have. But I'm not interested in tone. I'm interested in form first.
G.A.: And even when she grew older your mother did not care for any of your work that was current?
O.S.B.: Yes, that would be it. She'd hark back to the earlier stuff. There was this one early work over the mantelpiece, and if any visitor commented, 'Oh, that's nice', she would agree and say something like, 'Yes, Olivia used to paint well. What a pity she doesn't do that now'.
GA: And this was the only painting of yours she'd have on view?
O.S.B.: The only one. In the end I rather maliciously took it down because I thought 'Well, if nothing I do now is any good (laughing) you bally well can't have that one!'
G.A.: I remember my mother was a great admirer of you.
O.S.B.: Oh?
G.A.: As a woman, as an artist of fine integrity.
O.S.B.: I'm surprised at that because, you see, I was younger than her by enough not to be considered even. She was very warm and kindly to us. I would ask for her help and she would give it willingly. I remember up in Auckland I'd become very interested in form solidity and so forth, and I was showing her this painting - I've still got part of it here - and she gave me a criticism of it. She said the head was very good and the rest not so good because I'd forgotten to do the form back there. In the end [laughing] I only left the head and cut the rest off. That would be about '47. But Grace Butler had none of the politics that all 1he people had at the time. It was very much 'Canterbury Society of Arts' with those few people you know, hanging their paintings in the centre positions. Did your mother ever talk about that? I asked if she would go on the committee but she wouldn't. During The Pleasure Garden business, [the fierce public row in Christchurch in 1951 over the purchase for the city collection of The Pleasure Garden by Frances Hodgkins] the Kellys voted against buying it, the Wallworks. Even Nicol! Oh, I was surprised at Nicol doing such a thing. In fact, in the heat of the time, just after I'd heard the news, I saw him in Whitcombe's book shop and I cut him ...
O.S.B.: To get back to Frances Hodgkins. We see something in her work that cannot be found in the work of male painters and it is to do with realism. Women face the hard facts much more than men. No man would accept that viewpoint but I do think it. They regard her work as fantasy, as depicting fantasy, but it is of truths, truths that no man has discovered. When I went to the Tate her work stood out as well as any there with all 'the greats' around it. She is one of the great painters. She never was a minor painter, even though in Britain they regarded her as such simply because she worked so much in gouache and watercolours and not in oils.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 26 Autumn 1983