New Zealand Woman’s Weekly
THE ARTIST’S FAMILY ARE DELIGHTED HER WORK IS ON DISPLAY
Remembering artist Edith
She remains one our country’s unheralded artistic talents, but more than 50 years after Edith Collier was laid to rest, her family is convinced the woman they knew as a shy spinster was a pioneer who was light years ahead of her time.
The Whanganui artist is currently being showcased at the Sarjeant Gallery, and the reception is a far cry from the hostile reaction her works received when she first exhibited in the River City after spending nearly a decade honing her craft in England and Ireland.
Relatives of Edith, who grew up with her artwork decorating their homes, say despite her remarkable gift and recognition from internationally renowned artists including Kiwi ex-pat Frances Hodgkins and Australian Margaret Macpherson, their aunt never received the homegrown acclaim she deserved.
It’s more than a century since Edith left New Zealand to study in London, immersing herself in the avant garde culture sweeping through post-war Europe and adopting modernist techniques.
She came be to revered in the small Irish village of Bonmahon for her humanitarian work clothing impoverished locals during the first World War. Her efforts were marked by the still-grateful community with a memorial unveiled in 2016.
The village is also regarded as the setting for some of her finest works.
But when the unmarried eldest of 10 was summoned back to Whanganui in 1921 to help her family, the artist’s contemporary style struggled to win over provincial pundits.
Niece Helen Gordon (89) tells the Weekly the savaging from conservative art critics and torching of her nude paintings by her enraged and embarrassed father dealt a cruel blow to Edith’s confidence.
“I won’t say she ruined her life by coming back to New Zealand, but she certainly ruined her career.
“It’s a sad story. I want to cry when I tell it because I can see her life as an artist was wasted. Some of her contemporaries ask me, ‘Why did Edith stop painting?’ Well, she didn’t get enough support. She was the eldest and had an inner conflict of wanting to be an artist and doing the best by her family. The family won out in the end.”
Adds the artist’s Taupo-based nephew Gordon Collier (83), “Those of us that care are still upset about it. She didn’t do what she should have done. My mother used to implore her to start painting again, but there was always some reason why she couldn’t and didn’t.”
Helen remembers her aunt explaining that to paint she would have to go away and shut herself in a little house to concentrate on painting.
“I think she felt she couldn’t leave her family,” explains Helen, who lived with her aunt at the family residence Ringley for two years before heading to
Vienna to study piano. “Later on she said she had lost her technique, but even to her death she was collecting materials, paint and paper, and trying to keep abreast of things.“
Gordon recalls as a small boy pestering his aunt to be allowed to explore her art studio whenever he visited.
“It was chaotic,” says Gordon. “There were plaster casts she brought home from England, paintings stacked up, and boxes of paints and brushes.”
On her death in 1964, relatives found every drawer, nook and cranny crammed with halffinished works and sketchings.
Both Helen and Gordon share childhood memories of their aunt coming to stay and going on a family outing to Tangiwai with Edith, draped in long dark clothes and large brimmed hat, where she painted a majestic landscape of Mt Ruapehu.
Says Helen, “I remember we sat there and watched while she painted. She lived with us at our Taihape farm for some time and did quite a bit of painting, mostly of country scenes. She was very supportive of us. Any of us that showed any artistic talent she would get out her charcoal, sit us down and show us how we should go about it.”
Family members have since visited the Waterford County village where their aunt made a profound impression during the Great War, retracing some of the places she created her masterpieces. Tells Helen,
“I sat at the same window as Edith would have painted.”
For Edith Collier Trust chair Fiona Collier, it’s a thrill to raise the profile of her late greataunt and let the public see a selection of her 300-plus works.
“Unfortunately, she was
‘I won’t say she ruined her life by coming back to New Zealand, but she certainly ruined her career’
ahead of her time. For the years she studied overseas, she was exposed to so much that New Zealand didn’t catch up for many years.
“It’s very fitting that people see it now in our generation when we’re far more liberal and open-minded and can appreciate her works. I was in Bonmahon three years ago when they celebrated 100 years since she had been there and went for the opening of an exhibition. It was wonderful to be able to walk through the town and actually recognise aspects of her work in and around the community.”
But for Fiona, the works are more than paintings that make an important contribution to New Zealand art history.
“They feel like family. They feel so much of Edith.”