The Rotorua Connection
John Weeks & Wilfred Stanley Wallis

MELVIN N. DAY

When I first met the painter Wilfred Stanley WalIis (about 1945 or 1946) I learnt that he was a firm friend of John Weeks. After so many years it is difficult to determine when they first met: but there are some facts which are relevant and may assist in establishing a putative dating.

The painter Charles Tole, who informed me that he met Weeks c.1938 when he visited Weeks's studio with his brother John, had not long before that time begun to paint in oils. He was deeply impressed with the quality and range of work he saw in Weeks's studio and was especially impressed with his 'Cubist paintings'. Both the Toles painted and worked with other Auckland painters, including Bessie Christie, Helen Brown, Joan Lillicrap, Vida Steinert, Joycelyn Harrison-Smith and Alison Pickmere. During the war Charles Tole served in the army, and during the winter of 1942, whilst in Rotorua military camp, he met the medical officer, W. S. Wallis, for the first time. At this stage he did not know of Wallis's interest in painting and they did not meet again 'until a year or two later' at an Auckland Society of Arts function.

JOHN WEEKS Landscape with Farmhouse
tempera on board
(collection of The Auckland City Art Gallery)

Wallis, according to the Society's records, first exhibited with the Auckland Society of Arts in the Summer exhibition of 1942; and certainly by that time was known to a number of the Auckland painters, including, I believe, Weeks. In all probability he was introduced to the circle by Cam Duncan. Later, Wallis told me that he had met Weeks in the early days of the war, and this suggests to me that the time would be before 1942, perhaps 1941 - but not much earlier, otherwise he would surely have met the Toles.

Certainly, by the mid-1940s there was a strong bond of affection between the two men, who were about the same age. In some respects they were similar in temperament. Wallis possessed a warm personality, worked well with people, and in spite of a strongly introspective streak was able to enthuse others with his projects. Weeks was rather shy, almost introverted at times, although he had a formal courtesy which seemed in keeping with his manner. It was generally on ly after one had known Weeks for some time that he thawed out to any extent: and then he would become most informative and astonishingly frank about his work and that of his contemporaries, al-, though he was never malicious.

In the art world of the 1930s and 1940s there was no question that Weeks was the dominant figure in New Zealand painting. In Auckland many artists clustered around him. There were, for instance, the members of the Thornhill Group. Wallis often spoke to me of its members and I can recall he spoke with enthusiasm of the Toles, of Bessie Christie and others. It was, however, Weeks who commanded his attention: largely because Wallis felt that Weeks had abetter intellectual grasp of the problems of painting than any other painter in New Zealand. Wallis had a glimmering of the way he wanted to travel but was unable to establish some fixed points of reference which would help him chart his course: and he felt that Weeks was the one painter who could give him some guidance.

Wallis began painting working along fairly conventional lines: but he soon realised that there was more ' to painting than the patient reproduction of the motif that lay before one's easel. Art, to Wallis, consisted in part in the very conscious imposition of the artist's personality and mind on the motif. In short, he was failing back on the classical concept of painting: but he wanted to up-grade it in accordance with the temper of the times in which he lived. One of the problems Wallis (and most other painters) faced in those days was the lack of literature on art. Apart from one or two outdated texts there was nothing to guide his thinking. When he met Weeks, however, this changed markedly.

Weeks was a comparative rarity in New Zealand for those days. He had worked and studied abroad and had met some notable artists. His training in André Lhote's academy, where he learnt the rudiments of Cubism, had impressed him deeply. It was here that he saw the attempts to give some coherence to the many strands of that style: and such matters as the employment of warm and cool colours, the use of the Golden Section, and the importance of tone and colour remained with him to the end. When Wallis and I questioned him on such matters during one of his visits to Rotorua he said, (apropos of the Golden Section) that he no longer adhered rigidly to the geometry of that formula, but the practice he had with it in his early years remained with him to the extent that many of the cardinal points came almost intuitively. In this respect he admitted to. a profound admiration for the compositions of Tintoretto which he saw in Venice. Weeks regarded him as one of the great painters of the Italian school, and his use of some mathematical structure, possibly the Golden Section, together with his subtle manoeuvring of seductive colours impressed him deeply. In further conversations he admitted that he did not regard all of the great names with unqualified admiration. In response to a question about Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling he replied that his work was 'like illustrations on anatomy in a medical text book'. In looking at Weeks's work it is obvious that the works of the great Florentine and Roman painters would be less stimulating to him than the work of the great Venetians. He did remark on another occasion that, he spent his time in Venice drawing and analysing the compositional methods of Tintoretto, and this he found invaluable as time passed.

W. S. WALLIS Abstracted Landscape oil on board (collection of The Auckland City Art Gallery)

Information such as this Wallis thought challenging, and we would spend many hours analysing and adapting designs by Tintoretto and recasting them to accommodate landscape studies we made. But that was only part of the problem we faced. Weeks spoke of 'orchestrating' the colours, by which he meant that the colours in a painting should be related, so that there was no discordant or jarring note. In fact, in a manner something like that of a musical score, Weeks established a colour key which acted as a control for the painting. Not only did it involve a harmonious colour relationship but also it implied that there should be a harmony of tonal relationships. This, Weeks stressed, was more difficult to comprehend. Tone, he explained, was related to colour, and times could be interchangeable. He would demonstrate this to us by isolating sections of paintings and show us how some colours 'jumped' while others were lost and played no constructive part in the composition. Wallis grasped these principles readily, and, in the light of his works, he was more successful in applying them than many of his peers. Such studies led, inevitably, to the study of Cézanne's paintings. These we studied from a Phaidon edition which Wallis had in his library. It was then that we began to see what Weeks was saying much more clearly.

Wallis concentrated much of his efforts over the years to the study of Waimungu. On occasions when Weeks visited Wallis they went to the area and studied the landscape. Waimungu had been the subject for a number of artists - Cam Duncan for one - but none, Wallis considered, had been able to express the majesty and latent forces of the geyser basin. Weeks volunteered the information that he would need to give the motif 'a lot of thought' before he began to paint it. I do not recall seeing any study of this theme by eeks. As the years passed Wallis's interpretations of Waimungu became more abstracted and among the last paintings he was working on before he died was a study of Waimungu which, he told me, Weeks regarded as a good work.

It is interesting to speculate on the question of how they influenced each other. Weeks's influence on Wallis is much easier to see. There is no doubt that at times it was considerable, especially in the 1940s: although it is my opinon that Wallis adopted a more personal line of approach after the early 1950s.

Wallis and I worked more independently after I returned from Europe until the end of 1954 when I left Rotorua. During that period he worked on fewer themes but exploited their possibilities more fully than before. He often over painted work many times in an effort to achieve a greater synthesis of the ideas he held, and this led inevitably to the production of few completed paintings. I believe that Wallis stimulated Weeks to wards a greater experimentation over his last years, which in turn led Weeks along the path of abstraction which he had been comparatively slow to adopt. Had Wallis survived (he died in 1957, Weeks in 1965) the moves which Weeks was tentatively making might have been accelerated. In my opinion, Wallis was the more radical thinker but he lacked the technical skills required to produce with ease what he envisaged.

JOHN WEEKS St Tropez, France
oil on board, 400 x 500 mm.

Weeks's moves towards abstraction developed, in part, from his studying and painting natural objects like dead leaves, mosses, fruit and the like. These - as he showed us on a number of occasions - were the basis for many of his paintings, and often were painted without any attempt to compose or arrange them in a composition. On other occasions, mounts were placed over sections of his paintings on the carpet on the floor, and these were then reproduced and modified for reference in the future. This approach appealed to Wallis and me and we followed this method for many months. So far as Wallis was concerned, it was a satisfying method because it reduced the problems associated with formal draughtsmanship.

Another aspect of Weeks's working methods was his interest in different media and vehicles for mixing with colours. I remember he used to show us an assortment of jars containing mixtures of waxes, oils, egg tempera and various grounds for applying to boards, canvases, papers and so on. He once wrote us a long letter in which he enclosed a number of such recipes. It began (in a humorous way) in the manner of Cennino Cennini. He advised us: 'Take thou thy wax and oil and prepare it with exceeding care' and so the recipe continued. From thenceforth we had the recipes of a number of concoctions which we tried out regularly. We were attracted to his egg tempera mixtures, and discovered the subtle qualities they imparted to colours. Wallis's scientific background led him to even more extensive experiments with these formulae. Perplexed pharmacists in Rotorua were directed to compound some of these mixtures, much to Wallis's amusement. In the main the mixtures proved durable and have lasted surprisingly well over thirty odd years.

Looking back, I feel that the late 1930s and the decade of the 1940s are a surprisingly overlooked or neglected period in New Zealand art history. In spite of the difficulties of working in war-time conditions for a large proportion of that time, it is striking to see how much good painting emerged from that period. Indeed, much of the work that was produced then made the transition to the 1950s all the smoother. It was the persistent experimentation of artists like Weeks and Wallis and the Tole brothers that formed the basis of this emerging movement.

Wallis, though he came to painting comparatively late in life, was more attuned to the post-war attitudes in art than was Weeks. The latter, in fact, seemed to grow increasingly bewildered and disappointed in what he saw emerging; and in some cases his opinion now seems justified. It may have been that the earlier death of Wallis left Weeks feeling he was without an ally. I have little doubt they relied on each other for support as they went into the 1950s. I remain convinced that their relationship was most beneficial, and their respective influences on each other yet to be fully recognised.

JOHN WEEKS
Figures in a Landscape

oil on board, 500 x 400 mm.
 

Originally published in Art New Zealand 22 Summer 1981-2