THE POWER OF TWO

Few peo­ple know Anne McCahon, the wife of Colin, was also an artist in her own right. To mark the first solo ex­hi­bi­tion of her work, fam­ily mem­bers tell Metro about the cou­ple’s cre­ative part­ner­ship.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents -

Two decades af­ter her death, a new ex­hi­bi­tion re­veals Colin McCahon’s wife as an artist in her own right. Frances Mor­ton reports.

There’s a pop­u­lar dis­cus­sion in in­ter­na­tional art cir­cles right now that seeks to iden­tify and ac­knowl­edge the Over­looked Fe­male Artist. It goes like this: af­ter years toil­ing in the dark­ness, the ge­nius of cer­tain women artists is recog­nised by in­sti­tu­tions who put their work on show and the artists fi­nally get the recog­ni­tion they de­serve.

A clas­sic ex­am­ple is the case of Louise Bour­geois, the cel­e­brated French-Amer­i­can sculp­tor who was a con­tem­po­rary of Mark Rothko, Jack­son Pol­lock and Willem de Koon­ing and pro­duced work her en­tire life but fa­mously didn’t make her de­but on the in­ter­na­tional scene un­til New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art mounted a ret­ro­spec­tive when Bour­geois was 71.

Last year, when Lon­don’s Tate gallery pre­sented shows by lead­ing Bri­tish mod­ernist sculp­tor Bar­bara Hep­worth and ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist painter Agnes Martin, they were couched in terms of de­liv­er­ing long-over­due recog­ni­tion to the artists’ ca­reers, es­tab­lish­ing their po­si­tion along­side their male coun­ter­parts.

So when I heard that the McCahon House Trust was pre­sent­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion A Ta­ble of One’s Own: The Cre­ative Life of Anne McCahon at Ti­ti­rangi’s Te Uru gallery, I ad­mit I lurched to­wards the nar­ra­tive of the over­looked, down­trod­den fe­male artist. Here was a woman who topped her class at art school in Dunedin, was an in­te­gral mem­ber of a group of young modernists whose names are etched in New Zealand’s art his­tory books, started an all-fe­male stu­dio with Doris Lusk and yet has never been granted her own solo show. The in­jus­tice was surely only am­pli­fied by the fact that Anne McCahon was mar­ried to our most sig­nif­i­cant artist of the mod­ern pe­riod, Colin McCahon.

What I found was more nu­anced than that. Anne’s is not so much a story of sac­ri­fice — al­though that cer­tainly comes into it — but more one about the re­al­ity of life’s choices. And that, we can all re­late to.

In Auck­land, the first place to go look­ing for Anne is at 67 Oti­tori Bay Rd, French Bay, Ti­ti­rangi. This was Anne and Colin’s house when they moved to Auck­land in 1953 with their four young chil­dren and is now a mu­seum run by the McCahon House Trust. It pays homage to the life and ca­reer of Colin, but when you walk through the door of the tiny wooden house sur­rounded by the ver­ti­cal thrust of kauri trunks, you are im­me­di­ately struck by its hum­ble do­mes­tic­ity. You en­ter the cramped wooden house straight into Anne’s space, the kitchen.

When the mu­seum opened in 2006, the oc­ca­sion was marked with an ex­hi­bi­tion of Colin’s work en­ti­tled The Ti­ti­rangi Years. A decade later, the trust has deemed it time to tell Anne’s story — largely due to pop­u­lar de­mand. Vis­i­tors to the house of­ten ask of her, as do the artists who ro­tate through res­i­dency next door. “Many of the artists who come through feel the mana of Colin McCahon but they also re­quest to know about Anne,” says Diane Blom­field, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the McCahon House Trust.

Re­cent res­i­dent artists Tif­fany Singh, Bepen Bhana and Fiona Pard­ing­ton have all made works in­flu­enced by Anne’s pres­ence.

“I felt she was over­shad­owed by Colin,” says Singh, who cre­ated an art­work ded­i­cated to Anne with blue hy­drangeas — Anne’s favourite colour — as part of her res­i­dency project. “There is not enough aware­ness of her as an artist.”

While the Te Uru ex­hi­bi­tion is solely about Anne, it’s im­pos­si­ble to un­tan­gle her work from her re­la­tion­ship with Colin. “It’s a love story,” says Blom­field. “The more we look into it, the more we re­alise that.”

Lit­tle has been writ­ten on the cre­ative out­put of Anne McCahon. She is, of course, present in New Zealand’s art his­tory books through Colin, but un­pick­ing her story means dig­ging out scat­tered men­tions from the in­dex pages un­der sub­head­ings likes “mar­riage” and “chil­dren”, and there is scant ev­i­dence of her artis­tic achieve­ments.

Linda Tyler, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of art his­tory at the Univer­sity of Auck­land and the cu­ra­tor of the Anne McCahon ex­hi­bi­tion at Te Uru, was one of the first re­searchers to in­ves­ti­gate Anne’s story for a chap­ter in Deb­o­rah Shep­ard’s 2005 book about artis­tic re­la­tion­ships, Be­tween the Lives: Part­ners in Art. Tyler called the chap­ter about Anne, “I did not want to be Mrs Colin”. In it, she de­tailed how mar­riage to Colin and the de­mands of moth­er­hood had “ex­hausted Anne’s cre­ativ­ity”. There was only room for one artist in the fam­ily, wrote Tyler, and that was Colin.

Tyler’s view of Anne’s sit­u­a­tion has since soft­ened. “The slant I took with the chap­ter was that she’d been over­looked and for­got­ten and ma­ligned,” says Tyler. “Now, be­cause I know a lit­tle bit more, I think that she ac­tu­ally con­sciously made the de­ci­sion not to com­pete with him as an artist.”

“I think that she ac­tu­ally con­sciously made the de­ci­sion not to com­pete with him as an artist.”

Anne, nee Hamblett, met Colin in 1937 at King Ed­ward Tech­ni­cal Col­lege in Dunedin. Born in 1915, she was four years older and al­ready in her third year when he be­gan study­ing at the art school. Colin was one of three male stu­dents in the class and his first en­counter with Anne and her cir­cle made a last­ing im­pres­sion. In a bi­o­graph­i­cal es­say in Land­fall, Colin wrote about “su­pe­rior and aloof” fe­male stu­dents who some­how got away with smok­ing de­spite the “no smok­ing” ban. “Later on,” wrote Colin, “I mar­ried one of the su­pe­rior girls (first met and seen through a bar­rier of to­bacco smoke and Brahms on a por­ta­ble gramo­phone).”

Anne’s up­bring­ing was gen­er­ally one of obe­di­ence but she did have a re­bel­lious streak. She was born in Mos­giel and lived in Dunedin from the age of seven when her fa­ther, WH Hamblett, be­came an Angli­can vicar. The sec­ond old­est in a fam­ily of six chil­dren — three girls and three boys — Anne, with her sis­ters, was ex­pected to take on house­hold roles from her early teens, says Anne’s daugh­ter Vic­to­ria Carr. It fell to Anne to

take charge of the food and cook­ing, and she was known for her culi­nary skills all through her life. The sons were ex­empt from house­hold du­ties.

While at Otago Girls’ High School, Anne ex­celled at art and had strong role mod­els in her teach­ers Mar­garet Shearer McLeod, a por­trait painter and botanical il­lus­tra­tor, and Myra Kirk­patrick, who en­cour­aged her stu­dents to ex­plore ap­plied arts such as set and cos­tume de­sign and book illustration. With their sup­port, Anne en­rolled at art school and achieved high grades, win­ning a fee-pay­ing schol­ar­ship in her sec­ond year and the art school prize in her fi­nal year.

At the end of her stud­ies, Anne set up a stu­dio with a group of other new artists — in­clud­ing Colin McCahon, Doris Lusk, Max Walker, Mor­ris Ker­shaw and Mol­lie Lawn — above a phar­macy in Dunedin’s Princes St. It was a very pro­duc­tive pe­riod. In 1937, she ex­hib­ited four oil paint­ings at the Otago Art So­ci­ety, in­clud­ing Vicarage Bed and Pop­pies, which both fea­ture in the Te Uru show.

Jes­sica Dou­glas, who is a re­searcher for the Te Uru ex­hi­bi­tion and is writ­ing her the­sis on Anne McCahon for a mas­ter of arts de­gree at the Univer­sity of Auck­land, sin­gles out Vicarage Bed as a key work. It de­picts the iron bed­stead in Anne’s bed­room when she was still liv­ing with her par­ents. The paint­ing’s low, non-tra­di­tional per­spec­tive and flecked high­light­ing demon­strate the in­flu­ence of post-impressionism, par- tic­u­larly Vin­cent Van Gogh’s paint­ing The Bed­room (1888).

Anne’s friends ob­vi­ously also ad­mired the work. Dou­glas notes that 40 years later, Doris Lusk painted a wa­ter­colour por­trait of artist and critic Rod­ney Kennedy sit­ting on a chair with Anne’s Vicarage Bed hang­ing on the wall be­hind him. “It showed he re­ally liked the art work,” says Dou­glas.

Pop­pies is a bold still life of a vase of flow­ers with strong mod­ernist qual­i­ties. The glimpse of two paint­ings in the back­ground re­calls the work of the great mod­ern mas­ter Paul Cézanne. Anne has flat­tened the paint­ing’s per­spec­tive and moulded the flow­ers’ petals in thick, ob­vi­ous, scar­let brush­strokes. Dou­glas says this marks a con­scious shift from ele­gance and beauty to­wards a harsher treat­ment of sub­jects that was char­ac­ter­is­tic of the young mod­ernist group.

Carr notes that her fa­ther con­sid­ered her mother to be a bet­ter artist than he was in terms of skill. “Cer­tainly if you wanted a good paint­ing in those days, you would have gone to Anne to do it,” she says.

De­spite her suc­cesses at art school and in her bur­geon­ing ca­reer as an ex­hibit­ing artist, Archdea­con Hamblett clearly wasn’t en­thu­si­as­tic about Anne’s cho­sen path. Af­ter she grad­u­ated from art school, he en­rolled her at Dunedin Teach­ers’ Train­ing Col­lege, pre­sum­ably to set her up with a more re­spectable, sta­ble pro­fes­sion. Lit­tle did he know that Anne would reg­u­larly skip class in or­der to go to the stu­dio. It wasn’t un­til Anne re­ported sick for ex­am­i­na­tions that he

“Cer­tainly if you wanted a good paint­ing in those days you would have gone to Anne to do it.”

dis­cov­ered she had been sneak­ing off to con­tinue her art.

Anne’s quiet de­ter­mi­na­tion pre­vailed. She con­tin­ued to paint, and be­came a cen­tral fig­ure in the group of young Dunedin painters and also an early and staunch sup­porter of Colin’s work. At the end of 1939, Colin en­tered a large work in the Otago Art So­ci­ety an­nual ex­hi­bi­tion and it was re­jected, the first of many hu­mil­i­at­ing re­jec­tions he would en­dure from the art com­mu­nity. Anne was one of sev­eral young painters who re­moved their work from the ex­hi­bi­tion in protest. Even­tu­ally, Colin’s work was re­in­stalled.

By now, Colin had con­vinced the “su­pe­rior” older woman of his charms, and Anne and he were an item. Colin had vis­ited Anne’s par­ents to “walk her out”. That sum­mer, Colin and Rod­ney Kennedy went north to see Toss Wool­las­ton and gave up their shared stu­dio, leav­ing Anne to set up an all-fe­male stu­dio with Lusk and Lawn. It was a busy time ar­tis­ti­cally for Anne, who ex­hib­ited six works that year at the Otago Art So­ci­ety, sell­ing most of them for the im­pres­sive sum of twenty guineas ($42, equiv­a­lent to $2000 to­day) and re­ceiv­ing pos­i­tive re­views from art crit­ics.

Colin and Anne mar­ried in Septem­ber 1942 in a cer­e­mony con­ducted by Anne’s fa­ther at St Matthew’s Angli­can Church in Dunedin, but not be­fore over­com­ing some ob­sta­cles. In an in­ter­view with the Lis­tener af­ter Colin’s death, Anne re­vealed she re­fused his first proposal, say­ing that at four years her ju­nior, she thought him too young to marry. But Colin “never took no for an an­swer”. He searched the sec­ond-hand shops for a gift and pre­sented her with an an­tique bracelet with seven moon­stones. “I would not take it,” Anne told the Lis­tener. “I was hor­ri­fied, aghast. I did not want to be Mrs Colin.” She did even­tu­ally ac­cept the bracelet, and kept it her en­tire life.

Archdea­con Hamblett was less than en­thu­si­as­tic about the union. Per­haps con­cerned about Colin’s abil­ity to pro­vide for his daugh­ter, he in­sisted Colin pro­duce £80 (roughly $7000 to­day) be­fore he would give his bless­ing.

Anne’s fa­ther’s con­cern was well founded. The wed­ding marked the start of many fi­nan­cially pre­car­i­ous years as the McCa­hons strug­gled to find work that would sup­port their art and grow­ing fam­ily. Shortly af­ter their mar­riage, they lived in Pan­ga­to­tara, near Motueka. Paint­ings and sketches of Pan­ga­to­tara land­scapes from this time show Anne and Colin shar­ing ideas and in­flu­ences in their work. But the cou­ple were soon forced to sep­a­rate when Colin went to Welling­ton to work as a gardener at the Botanic Gar­dens, and Anne re­turned to her par­ents in Dunedin for the birth of their son Wil­liam in July 1943. A touch­ing pen-and-ink sketch of Wil­liam as a baby in a gown with smock­ing de­tail is in the Te Uru ex­hi­bi­tion.

Vic­to­ria Carr has a let­ter her mother wrote to Colin at the time in which Anne de­scribes the baby clothes she has made for the new ar­rival. “It’s just a page and it’s very sweet,” says Carr. “It was an im­por­tant thing. She was pre­par­ing to be a mother for the first time.”

Liv­ing in Dunedin with the sup­port of her par­ents meant Anne was able to put her artis­tic tal­ents to­wards a new cre­ative pur­suit as an il­lus­tra­tor. In 1943, au­thor Aileen Find­lay in­vited Anne to draw pic­tures for her chil­dren’s book called At the Beach. This kicked off a 16-year ca­reer as an il­lus­tra­tor for books and jour­nals that con­trib­uted much-needed in­come for the fam­ily.

Re­united in Mapua, near Nel­son, in 1944, Anne and Colin col­lab­o­rated on a de­light­ful series of ink and wa­ter­colour works called Pic­tures for Chil­dren. The paint­ings’ sim­pli­fied hills and har­bour land­scapes, which can be at­trib­uted to Colin, are brought to life by Anne’s play­ful line draw­ings of boats, trains, buses and cars.

Tyler calls these works “the artis­tic high point in the McCa­hons’ paint­ing re­la­tion­ship”. The cou­ple were work­ing as equals. But it wasn’t to last, and over the next, very un­set­tled, few years, Colin’s work be­gan to take prece­dence.

“Anne de­cided Colin was the ge­nius and it was her role to sup­port him,” says Tyler. “I feel like she prob­a­bly thought that she didn’t have that de­gree of orig­i­nal­ity. There are two ver­sions of the Dunedin Botanic Gar­dens — one she did and one he did. He was tend­ing more to greater ab­strac­tion and be­ing more ad­ven­tur­ous than she was. I think she pretty much made the de­ci­sion that he was the bet­ter artist, or more re­mark­able artist.”

Paint­ings and sketches show Anne and Colin shar­ing ideas and in­flu­ences in their work.

That small oil on hard­board paint­ing of trees in a win­try land­scape, The Park (1945), would be the last Anne ever ex­hib­ited.

Carr agrees there would have been a point when Anne made the con­scious de­ci­sion to for­feit her ca­reer for the sake of Colin’s. “She says in a let­ter that we have that she had no re­grets be­cause she was so sure of Colin’s work,” says Carr. “The other thing was she felt that Colin was the one who had some­thing to say, whereas her works [mostly do­mes­tic in­te­ri­ors and land­scapes] didn’t have some­thing to say. Peo­ple nowa­days would ar­gue that quite dif­fer­ently.”

Not that she would have had much time to paint. Anne had two more chil­dren in Nel­son — Cather­ine in 1945 and Vic­to­ria in 1947. In 1947, the fam­ily moved to Colin’s par­ents’ house in Dunedin. Colin moved to Christchurch in early 1948 to board with Doris Lusk and her hus­band, Der­mot Hol­land. The last McCahon child, Matthew, ar­rived in April 1949, and the whole fam­ily moved to Christchurch in mid-1949 to a rented house by the rail­way yards.

Some­how, even with four small chil­dren, Anne man­aged to keep work­ing cre­atively. In 1950, Roy Cowan, the new art edi­tor of the School Journal, com­mis­sioned her to con­trib­ute il­lus­tra­tions. Al­ways filled with a strong sense of char­ac­ter, Anne’s fun, lively draw­ings for chil­dren’s sto­ries such as “The Ob­sti­nate Turnip” and “Ap­ple Dumplings” dec­o­rated the Journal’s pages for the next 20 years. “Her cre­ative life, af­ter she had chil­dren, be­came some­thing she did on kitchen ta­bles,” says Carr.

Anne con­tin­ued on with illustration work af­ter the fam­ily moved north to Ti­ti­rangi and fi­nally had some sort of sta­bil­ity. Or at the very least, could be to­gether. Colin bought the tiny cot­tage in the Waitakere bush in 1953, af­ter be­ing promised a job at the Auck­land City Art Gallery. It’s New Zealand art folk­lore that when he turned up, there was no job and the only work di­rec­tor Eric West­brook could of­fer him was as a cleaner. In fact, this sorry state of af­fairs didn’t last long and Colin was soon pro­moted to cus­to­dian of the paint­ings, and be­came the gallery’s deputy di­rec­tor in 1956.

Regardless, these would have been hard, lonely years for Anne out in the bush. Colin went to town early on the bus and was of­ten not back un­til late. Anne was left alone at the house with the young chil­dren, far from her South Is­land sup­port net­work.

For­tu­itously, when they moved north,

“Her cre­ative life, af­ter she had chil­dren, be­came some­thing she did on kitchen ta­bles.”

Anne’s paint­ings were stored with Colin’s par­ents, by then liv­ing in Geral­dine, as there was no room for them at the French Bay place. Ethel McCahon, ob­vi­ously recog­nis­ing their merit, be­queathed the works to the Hocken Li­brary, thus pre­serv­ing them and en­sur­ing they be­came a part of Dunedin’s pub­lic art col­lec­tion.

With a lack of space in the Ti­ti­rangi house, Colin took over the liv­ing ar­eas to paint. Anne’s cre­ative out­put was more do­mes­ti­cally fo­cused. De­spite the fam­ily not hav­ing a lot of money, she made sure the chil­dren were al­ways beau­ti­fully pre­sented. “When we were young, we were turned out in cloth­ing that she made her­self which was al­ways im­pec­ca­ble,” says Carr. “Our dresses had white em­broi­dered Peter Pan col­lars. And

“She was very happy then, go­ing on that trip and com­ing back, she just sparkled,”

smock­ing, that was pop­u­lar. You look at pic­tures of the royal princesses. We had the same sorts of clothes as they wore.”

Anne was also kept busy at the Ti­ti­rangi house, play­ing host to the cre­ative friends who con­gre­gated on the sun­deck at the cot­tage, en­joy­ing “cheap plonk”, that Colin got from West Auck­land vine­yards. In a pic­ture by pho­tog­ra­pher Barry Mil­lar, Anne can be seen at the cen­tre of a gath­er­ing out­side un­der the trees, her ever-present cig­a­rette in hand, stand­ing be­tween Colin and artists Pat Hanly and Peter Ten­nant.

Carr says that when peo­ple dropped by, Anne would pro­duce good­ies in her tiny cooker at the “drop of a hat”. “Sud­denly there are tea cakes or scones or pikelets.” Cook­ery was re­ally an­other out­let for Anne’s cre­ativ­ity and she was much more ad­ven­tur­ous with in­gre­di­ents than most cooks at the time. Carr re­mem­bers a beef stir-fry made with ginger, gar­lic and herbs. “We all thought that was re­ally lovely and gob­bled it up, no sweat,” she says.

Quiet and con­sid­ered, Anne would keep an eye on the so­cial go­ings-on from her spot in the kitchen. “She’d come around from her lit­tle cub­by­hole and stand in the door­way where she could keep her eyes on the pots and things,” says Carr. “Then when some­thing cropped up that she wanted to com­ment on, she would make a com­ment. She was cer­tainly there and lis­ten­ing.”

Con­sid­ered the more in­tel­lec­tual one of the cou­ple, Anne was a dis­cern­ing critic of Colin’s work and he sought her ad­vice through­out his ca­reer. Just how in­te­gral and en­gaged she was to his prac­tice is ev­i­dent in the journal she kept of the cou­ple’s trip to the United States in 1958. Colin re­ceived a grant from the Carnegie Trust for a four-month travel tour to study art mu­se­ums. The chil­dren were dis­patched into the care of var­i­ous friends and rel­a­tives around the coun­try and Anne went with him.

She was just as in­volved in the fact gath­er­ing and anal­y­sis as he was, record­ing her ob­ser­va­tions in tightly packed, even lines in a bur­gundy, hard-cov­ered ex­er­cise book. The journal, which Carr has in her col­lec­tion, will be ex­hib­ited as part of the Te Uru ex­hi­bi­tion. When you see it, with its worn spine bust­ing out of its bind­ing and Anne’s fine hand­writ­ing spell­ing out de­tails of the art, peo­ple and mu­se­ums the cou­ple vis­ited on this revo­lu­tion­ary jour­ney, it’s hard not to be struck by the ob­ject’s sig­nif­i­cance.

It was on this trip that Colin and Anne got to im­merse them­selves in the very lat­est hap­pen­ings in the art world. On their re­turn, af­ter see­ing the work of ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists up close, par­tic­u­larly that of Jack­son Pol­lock, Colin moved in an even more ab­stract di­rec­tion and started mak­ing large-scale paint­ings to “walk by”.

The diary has never been pub­lished. It’s a project that Carr says is on the cards. Many years later, Carr helped Anne to type up parts of the diary and as they worked on it, Anne went back and re­viewed some of the text. On one page she has de­ter­minedly scrib­bled out some of her com­men­tary of a par­tic­u­lar mu­seum and added the note, “This is Mr Mor­ley’s baby and I must try not to be too nasty.”

While Anne and Colin were over­seas, she sent their chil­dren post­cards and aero­grammes, us­ing dif­fer­ent-coloured pens, which she knew they would ap­pre­ci­ate. “She knew yel­low was my favourite colour so she used gold pen,” says Carr. De­spite the long sep­a­ra­tion from her chil­dren, Anne loved her time in the States. “She was very happy then, go­ing on that trip and com­ing back; she just sparkled,” says Carr.

When the McCa­hons re­turned, Colin’s art ac­cel­er­ated stylis­ti­cally, while Anne’s cre­ative work dwin­dled. Af­ter ex­plor­ing vast cities and land­scapes in the US, the sod­den cot­tage in French Bay lost its ap­peal. In Colin’s words; “We went home to the bush of Ti­ti­rangi. It was cold and drip­ping and shut in — and I had seen deserts and tum­ble­weed in fences and the Salt Lake Flats, and the Faulkner coun­try with mag­no­lias in bloom, cities — taller by far than kauri trees. My lovely kau­ris be­came too much for me. I fled north in mem­ory and painted the North­land pan­els.”

In 1960, the fam­ily left the bush be­hind and moved to Partridge St in Arch Hill. By now Anne was do­ing lit­tle illustration work. Colin was still work­ing at the gallery but in 1964 left to lec­ture in paint­ing at Elam School of Fine Arts. Thanks to an in­her­i­tance from Anne’s par­ents, they were able to buy a stu­dio at Muriwai in 1968 and this is where

Colin painted through the 1970s un­til his health de­te­ri­o­rated so much he could no longer make the trip out from town.

All through Colin’s ca­reer, Anne re­mained his most im­por­tant critic. Their son Wil­liam, who de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this story, was quoted in the New Zealand Her­ald in 2002. “My­self, my mother and [Colin’s close friend] Gor­don Brown would talk through is­sues in his paint­ing which were trou­bling him, and the fi­nal say was al­ways given to her. If she had gone be­fore him, it would have been a dev­as­tat­ing blow.”

By the 1980s, Colin was suf­fer­ing greatly with Kor­sakov’s psy­chosis, a con­di­tion brought on by ex­ces­sive al­co­hol con­sump­tion lead­ing to brain dam­age and mem­ory loss. He had barely any aware­ness of the sig­nif­i­cance of his ex­hi­bi­tion at the Syd­ney Bi­en­nale in 1984. On what would be Colin’s last pub­lic ap­pear­ance, he be­came dis­ori­ented dur­ing a walk through Syd­ney’s Royal Botanic Gar­den and Anne

All through Colin’s ca­reer, Anne re­mained his most im­por­tant critic. The fi­nal say was al­ways given to her.

and cu­ra­tor Alexa Johnston spent the next 24 hours try­ing to find him. Anne nursed him through those dif­fi­cult last years. He died in 1987 at the age of 67.

Finn McCahon-Jones, Wil­liams’ son, was a child at the time and has some sense of just how tough it was for the fam­ily car­ing for Colin. “I don’t know what it would have been like for Anne,” says McCahon-Jones. “She was look­ing af­ter him when he was quite sick for a long time. It must have been re­ally hard. The per­son that you love, and have lived with your whole life, all of a sud­den is some­body else.”

Af­ter Colin’s death, Finn and his par­ents moved in with Anne in her house at Crum­mer Rd back when Pon­sonby could be de­scribed as a “sleepy place”. “You didn’t have to look to cross the road,” says McCahon-Jones. “There was one gelato hut and we used to go down to Cal­abria [restau­rant] and get piz­zas made. SPQR was a motorcycle fix-it shop that

my un­cle [Matthew] worked at.”

McCahon-Jones, who is now di­rec­tor at Te Toi Uku: Crown Lynn Mu­seum in New Lynn, has a par­tic­u­lar affin­ity with Anne’s ce­ramic works, which will fea­ture in the Te Uru show. She started mak­ing them in the 1970s af­ter tak­ing classes at Out­reach (now called Stu­dio One — Toi Tu) on Pon­sonby Rd, and had a kiln in the back gar­den. McCahon-Jones says he re­cently spoke to her ce­ram­ics teacher, who told him that un­like the rest of the stu­dents who were gen­er­ally at class to chat and muck about, Anne was al­ways very fo­cused.

“This was Anne’s time to work,” says McCahon-Jones. “Colin was re­ally get­ting old and sick and so this was her place to go.”

What strikes McCahon-Jones about his grand­mother’s pots is their 1950s qual­ity, even though they were made decades later. “They’re about form and are well crafted and these kind of beau­ti­ful pots that fit into the in­te­rior of the house,” he says. “They never seemed out of place with paint­ings that were painted 40 years ear­lier, or more. And I al­ways thought they were old. She was a mod­ernist. Colin was a mod­ernist. They were re­ally in­ter­ested in mod­ernism, so of course when she starts mak­ing, she’s think­ing about this stuff, so she starts pro­duc­ing these things.”

One of his favourite pieces is a large vessel that sat in the gar­den un­der a down­pipe catch­ing drips that Anne would use to grow wa­ter­cress. Later, they re­alised it wasn’t a vessel at all, but a stool that Anne had made from coils of clay. When it was leather hard, Anne sat in it, leav­ing her im­pres­sion in the top. “You sit in it and it’s this very er­gonomic, yet or­ganic stool,” says McCahon-Jones. “It’s lovely. There is a real phys­i­cal­ity about this stool, which makes you think about Anne mak­ing it.”

The phys­i­cal na­ture of mak­ing ce­ram-

ics even­tu­ally be­came too much for Anne, and when she could no longer wedge the clay (pre­pare it by bashing out the air bub­bles), she stopped mak­ing any­thing at all.

Anne was 78 when she died in 1993. McCahon-Jones re­mem­bers vividly go­ing to visit her in a Mt Eden hospi­tal on her death bed. She was too ill to say any­thing. She sim­ply wanted to see her grand­son, to gather her fam­ily near. A Colin McCahon paint­ing of a Nel­son land­scape hung above her bed.

“She chose that paint­ing,” he says. “It was the only thing in her room. It would have been from be­fore they moved to Auck­land — just the sky and the land, cut­ting the frame in two. In one cor­ner, where the sky and land meet, there’s a lit­tle glimpse of colour, whether it’s a

“There is a real phys­i­cal­ity about this stool, which makes you think about Anne mak­ing it.”

sun­rise or sun­set. Yes, it’s an ab­stract com­po­si­tion. Yes, it’s a diary en­try. But yes, it’s a sim­ple, beau­ti­ful land­scape from Anne’s past — from those days when Colin and Anne first met.”

Anne Hamblett, promis­ing young artist, may not have picked up a paint­brush af­ter she be­came Anne McCahon, wife, mother and sup­porter. She may not have had a long and fruit­ful ca­reer as a painter like her good friend Doris Lusk. But there is no doubt she had a deeply var­ied cre­ative life, and Linda Tyler may be right: there may have been room for only one artist in the McCahon fam­ily, but that artist may never have been able even to ex­ist with­out Anne. As Carr puts it, “We are all very sure that dad wouldn’t have been able to do what he did un­less she had given him her sup­port.”

The ex­hi­bi­tion at Te Uru is not an at­tempt at a big aha mo­ment, some long-last recog­ni­tion of Anne’s ob­scured ge­nius. “It’s re­ally to get her out of be­ing trapped be­cause of be­ing his wife and to give her some sort of agency as an in­di­vid­ual,” says Tyler. “As some­body who her­self would have been per­fectly ca­pa­ble of hav­ing a sus­tained ca­reer but ac­tu­ally de­cided to do some­thing else with her life.”

Carr thinks her mother would have been “sur­prised” about the show. “Some of the paint­ings have been ex­hib­ited be­fore so she would have been pleased to see in­ter­est taken in them and happy about that,” she says. “As far as all the other ephemera and other sides of her life, I think she would be very sur­prised that her journal work and ce­ram­ics would have made it into the show.”

The glory works of the Te Uru show may be the paint­ings Anne did as a pro­fes­sional, but it’s the journal il­lus­tra­tions done on the kitchen ta­ble that were so hugely valu­able to a strug­gling fam­ily, the journal writ­ings that doc­u­ment such a sig­nif­i­cant point in her hus­band’s ca­reer and the ce­ram­ics that pro­vided so­lace from nurs­ing an ail­ing and dif­fi­cult loved one that when lined up to­gether make the real fem­i­nist state­ment. A woman’s story, un­told un­til now.

“If it paints this pic­ture, then all of a sud­den the broader cul­ture is a lit­tle richer for it,” says McCahon-Jones. “In one ex­tent, I think ev­ery fam­ily should do this. I al­ways joke that I’m lucky that I was born into a fam­ily [for which] peo­ple want to do fam­ily re­search for me.”

A TA­BLE OF ONE’S OWN: THE CRE­ATIVE LIFE OF

ANNE McCAHON, NOVEM­BER 19-FEBURARY 12, TE URU, WWW.TEURU.ORG.NZ

JES­SICA DOU­GLAS, A RE­SEARCHER FOR THE TE URU EX­HI­BI­TION, IS WRIT­ING HER MAS­TER’S THE­SIS ON ANNE McCAHON.

LEFT TO RIGHT: ROD­NEY KENNEDY, DORIS LUSK, ANNE HAMBLETT, COLIN McCAHON AND FRIEND ELESPIE FORSYTH (LATER PRIOR), NORTH OF MAPUA, 1938.

FLOAT­ING JUG, 1941, ANNE HAMBLETT (LATER McCAHON).

LINDA TYLER, CU­RA­TOR OF THE ANNE McCAHON EX­HI­BI­TION AT TE URU.

VIC­TO­RIA CARR (LEFT) AND DIANE BLOM­FIELD AT McCAHON HOUSE. AT REAR, THE DRESS ANNE McCAHON MADE TO WEAR TO DAUGH­TER VIC­TO­RIA’S WED­DING IN 1965.

VIC­TO­RIA CARR AT McCAHON HOUSE. BE­LOW (FROM LEFT): ANNE McCAHON’S TRAVEL JOURNAL; EX­AM­PLES OF

HER POT­TERY; A PUB­LI­CA­TION SHE IL­LUS­TRATED.

FINN McCAHON-JONES ON THE STOOL MADE BY HIS GRAND­MOTHER ANNE.

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