Por­trait of an Artist

Dunedin painter Si­mon Richard­son be­gins each morn­ing by crack­ing an egg.

North & South - - Contents - AMIE RICHARD­SON

Dunedin painter Si­mon Richard­son be­gins his morn­ing by crack­ing an egg, sep­a­rat­ing out the precious yolk. He sources his eggs lo­cally, near his home in Broad Bay on the Otago Penin­sula. He par­tic­u­larly likes these eggs, he says, be­cause the yolks are glossy – and when the yolk is for an art­work, not break­fast, the gloss mat­ters.

Paint­ings hang on the walls, in­clud­ing some that were gifts or “swaps” with other artists. Among his own works is “Mila”, a por­trait of his then seven-year-old daugh­ter, re­cently re­turned from the UK af­ter be­com­ing the first New Zealand paint­ing ac­cepted into the pres­ti­gious BP Por­trait Awards, in 2016.

The por­trait – cap­tur­ing the depth of a fa­ther’s love while con­fronting the fragility of life – was painted as Richard­son

watched his brother-in-law Wayne Biggs (my late hus­band and the fa­ther of our two chil­dren) dy­ing of can­cer. Richard­son, 43, trav­elled with his wife, Gepke Schouten, for the ex­hi­bi­tion open­ing at the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery in Lon­don, where the paint­ing re­mained on dis­play with other award fi­nal­ists for sev­eral months.

“Watch­ing Wayne dy­ing, and try­ing to live to have more time with his boys, was gutwrench­ing,” he says. “Paint­ing Mila, who had a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with her un­cle, was my way of or­der­ing the grief.”

“Mila” is now des­tined for his next show, South­ern Gothic, at Mil­ford Gal­leries in Dunedin (8 Septem­ber-3 Oc­to­ber), his first ex­hi­bi­tion in New Zealand for al­most a decade. He’ll be show­ing four paint­ings, along­side works by other artists in­clud­ing Jef­frey Har­ris and Gra­hame Syd­ney.

“It takes time to learn what you want to do and how to do it,” Richard­son says, as he adds sev­eral drops of wa­ter to his yolk. “I’m still learn­ing about the sort of artist I want to be.”

Over the years, Richard­son has won nu­mer­ous ac­co­lades, in­clud­ing the Cana­dian Elizabeth Green­shields Award (three times) and the Main­land Award in 2003. He was a fi­nal­ist in both the Adam Por­trai­ture Awards in 2004 and the Visa Gold Awards in 1998. He’s painted many no­table New Zealan­ders, in­clud­ing poet Hōne Tūwhare, for­mer All Blacks cap­tain An­ton Oliver, for­mer Dunedin Mayor Peter Chin for his of­fi­cial civic por­trait and, more re­cently, a com­mis­sioned por­trait of 1987 World Cup All Blacks cap­tain David Kirk and his wife.

Richard­son only re­cently be­gan us­ing tem­pera, a medium where pig­ments are dis­persed in an emul­sion – typ­i­cally egg yolk – that can be fully com­bined with wa­ter. The method was pop­u­lar in Europe be­tween the 12th and 15th cen­turies, then was re­turned to favour by Amer­i­can painter An­drew Wyeth in the mid-1900s, but isn’t com­monly used by con­tem­po­rary artists. “I love the level of de­tail and rich­ness of colour you can achieve with tem­pera,” Richard­son says. “It’s a slow medium and very pure, mix­ing the paint as I work.

“In today’s world, paint­ing is in an in­ter­est­ing po­si­tion. There’s so much vis­ual me­dia com­pet­ing for your at­ten­tion, telling you what to think. Paint­ing re­quires you to go out and seek the original.

“No one’s there to tell you how long to stand in front of a paint­ing or what to think. It’s up to you.”

Sir Ernest Davis was a man of many gifts. Three years af­ter pre­sent­ing the Queen Mother with his cham­pion race­horse Bali Ha’i in 1958, he gave Auck­land Hos­pi­tal an en­tire build­ing to house its re­fur­bished med­i­cal li­brary.

Now hold­ing more than 4000 his­tor­i­cal books, the li­brary has also be­come the repos­i­tory of a fas­ci­nat­ing col­lec­tion of out­dated med­i­cal equip­ment and reme­dies and, from 2015, a cen­tre for con­fer­ences and lec­tures.

Walk into its hushed at­mos­phere and you find your­self back in an era of some­times grisly med­i­cal prac­tices. Once, there was a time when a pa­tient’s skull would be drilled into with a brace and bit, their head clamped into an un­for­giv­ing stain­lesssteel har­ness. And, un­til the 1930s, X-rays were done with bul­bous, lead-laden cath­ode ray tubes.

The X-ray tubes, on dis­play in a sep­a­rate cab­i­net, were used by Bal­clutha-born ra­di­ol­o­gist Dr Bruce Macken­zie, the son of Sir Thomas Macken­zie, who served briefly as Prime Min­is­ter in 1912. He set up a ra­di­ol­ogy prac­tice in Auck­land in 1921 and,

ac­cord­ing to the Lancet in 1950, “played no small part in rais­ing the sta­tus of ra­di­ol­ogy as a spe­cialty in New Zealand”. As for the fear­some tools of early ob­ste­tri­cians and gy­nae­col­o­gists, best avert your eyes.

For Davis – a mil­lion­aire brew­ery baron, phi­lan­thropist and one-time mayor of Auck­land – it wasn’t all race­horses and li­braries; his legacy lives on through many be­quests to his beloved city. Ap­pre­cia­tive of the care given by the med­i­cal fra­ter­nity to his ail­ing wife Mar­ion, who died in May 1955, he gifted a fine brick build­ing in the grounds of Auck­land Hos­pi­tal to re­place the cramped ex­ist­ing med­i­cal li­brary.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr Jon Sim­cock, re­tired neu­rol­o­gist and for­mer chair of the li­brary’s board of man­age­ment, Davis “didn’t want a Taj Ma­hal me­mo­rial to his wife; he just wanted to give a li­brary to the doc­tors of Auck­land”. More­over, he set up a gen­er­ous en­dow­ment fund to en­sure its con­tin­ued op­er­a­tion.

Cu­ra­tor Juliet Hawkins has run what is now known as the Ernest and Mar­ion Davis Li­brary and Lec­ture Halls since 2001. Dis­plays are ded­i­cated to car­di­ol­ogy, plas­tic surgery, or­thopaedics, oph­thal­mol­ogy, anaes­the­sia, ear, nose and throat, den­tistry, phrenol­ogy, ra­di­ol­ogy and neu­ro­surgery.

An ar­ray of more than 100 glazed ceramic apothe­cary jars were sourced from Bri­tain by one-time su­per­in­ten­dent of Green Lane Hos­pi­tal Dr James New­man; one jar once con­tained oil of mas­tiche, made from the resin of the mas­tic tree, a dose of which would ap­par­ently “strengthen the heart, help a cough, and stay your vom­it­ing”. Then there’s a com­plete 1901 Ma­te­ria Med­ica cab­i­net, with 250 spec­i­mens of what Hawkins de­scribes as “plants, min­er­als, and bot­tles of strange, ground-up stuff”.

Mostly it’s med­i­cal his­to­ri­ans who come through the doors. Some med­i­cal stu­dents “can’t be both­ered with all this ar­chaic stuff”, says Hawkins, but oth­ers are fas­ci­nated – and also re­lieved they don’t have to wield what some would see as in­stru­ments of tor­ture. She’s happy for small groups to visit, but only by ap­point­ment. The squea­mish should think twice.

Si­mon Richard­son in his stu­dio on the Otago Penin­sula.

Above left: “Mila”, a por­trait of Richard­son’s daugh­ter, which was painted as her much-loved un­cle bat­tled can­cer. Above right: “Eben Afloat”, Richard­son’s son at Broad Bay.

Above: Cu­ra­tor Juliet Hawkins stands be­side the ob­stet­ric and gy­nae­col­ogy dis­play, hold­ing a 1930s-era blad­der evac­u­a­tor “for re­moval of frag­ments”.

Top: X-ray tubes used by pi­o­neer­ing Auck­land ra­di­ol­o­gist Bruce Macken­zie, who died in 1950. Above left: Part of an Auck­land Hos­pi­tal anae­sethe­sia ma­chine, from around the 1920s. Above right: An am­pu­ta­tion kit dat­ing back to the late 1800s.

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