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