Display of philanthropy

"Persona" curator Jim Geddes in the gallery of portraits. To his left is an Alan Pearson portrait...
"Persona" curator Jim Geddes in the gallery of portraits. To his left is an Alan Pearson portrait of Sam Neill gifted by the actor and to the right is a self-portrait by Nigel Brown (2003, oil on linen, gifted by the artist and Sue McLaughlin in 2016). Photos: supplied
Spanning 150 years, the portraits now hanging in the Eastern Southland Gallery highlight not only the eclectic nature of its collection but also the generosity of benefactors over the past 40 years, curator Jim Geddes tells Rebecca Fox.

From a girl in a Dutch fishing village to a former New Zealand prime minister — there might be roughly 150 years between them but both have been captured in a moment in time by artists.

Their portraits, by Dutch New Zealand immigrant Petrus van der Velden in 1872 and Dunedin artist and former Frances Hodgkins Fellow John Ward Knox in 2020 respectively, are the oldest and youngest works being shown in an exhibition of portraits titled "Persona" from the collection of the Eastern Southland Gallery.

Gallery curator Jim Geddes says interestingly, despite their age difference, both works are photorealistic and meticulously rendered works.

Among the other portraits being exhibited are celebrities, well-known artists and local identities as well as everyday figures. Each of the 29 works also has a story.

"It’s a really interesting mix. I thought very carefully about it. There are key works from within the collection from here and outside here, artists we have worked with over the years and artists we would have liked to work with."

Just as importantly, each of the works has been bequeathed to the gallery during the past 40 years.

"It is a celebration of philanthropy — all have been gifted or the money has been gifted specifically to acquire those pieces."

Michael Smither, Portrait of Kirby Wright, oil on hardboard, gifted by Sam Neill 2020.
Michael Smither, Portrait of Kirby Wright, oil on hardboard, gifted by Sam Neill 2020.
That is highlighted by the Ward Knox work Jacinda, bought with donations from Tim Gerrard, an ex-Southlander who got together a group of like-minded expatriate Kiwis to buy the work for the gallery.

Gerrard had seen the two-layer oil-on-silk work as part of the Archibald Awards finalist exhibition in Australia and thought the group would like that work to go to the gallery.

Likewise the van der Velden was bequeathed by Zona Crombie, whose family wanted to ensure the work stayed in Southland.

The gallery, which is home to significant collections of work by artists such as John Money and Ralph Hotere, also has "quite significant holdings" of works by other artists.

"It’s interesting how the collection has evolved. Every aspect of the collection has portrait work in it."

A good example of this are the works by Dunedin-based artist Nigel Brown. Brown and partner Sue lived in Southland for about 15 years and over time have given 50 works to the gallery relating to their time in the South, including a self-portrait by Brown of him at Cosy Nook, near Riverton, where they lived.

"This is a lovely piece as it is him in the Southland landscape."

Also in the collection is a selection of 60 works on paper given to the gallery by Wellington collectors Jim and Mary Barr, mostly by Coromandel artist Michael Smither.

The most recent work in the show is Jacinda (2020) by John Ward Knox (oil on silk, bought with...
The most recent work in the show is Jacinda (2020) by John Ward Knox (oil on silk, bought with donations from Tim Gerrard and Sydney-based supporters).
"A lot are drawings. We have selected a few for this exhibition but there are enough to do a whole show."

There are also works by Laurence Aberhart, considered one of New Zealand’s most important photographers, also given to the gallery by the former locals based in Australia.

"There is one portrait work which is uncommon for Aberhart, but it is a lovely Southland portrait. It celebrates Tim Gerrard."

The exhibition also features works by other leading photographers, Dutch-born Ans Westra and Wellington-based Adrienne Martyn, who was brought up in Invercargill.

There are also portraits with Otago connections such as a portrait by Dutch-born, Dunedin portrait artist and illustrator Els Noordhof and a self-portrait by Central Otago artist Grahame Sydney, a lithograph created in Muka Studios of Auckland. Coincidentally, the gallery inherited the Muka press and the stone it was made from.

"It’s gone full circle in many respects."

Others have Southland connections such as a pair of works by Chrystabel Aitken, an artist known for her bronze sculptures who grew up on a farm in the Waikaka Valley before her family, recognising her artistic talent, moved to Christchurch for her to study art.

"She lived to 101. We were delighted, after she passed, that her estate bequeathed to us some of her paintings. It’s nice someone that left the district many years ago has come back."

The oldest work in the show is by Petrus van der Velden, The Belle of Marken (1872, oil on board,...
The oldest work in the show is by Petrus van der Velden, The Belle of Marken (1872, oil on board, gift of Zona Crombie 2004).
Then there are some familiar faces from Gore’s past such as Donogh Hurley, a former surgeon at Gore’s Seddon Memorial Hospital who also trained as a painter, former Gore librarian Natalie Dolamore who was captured by Martyn, local art teacher Geoffrey Hughes whose self-portrait is very much done in the style of 1960s England and teacher Wattie Gee by Cindy Hutton.

"There is a lovely portrait of very respected local teacher Wattie Gee, who had a bull dog he used to walk every day. A visiting artist captured him on his daily walk. Locals immediately recognise him as they saw him around the street."

A good portrait succeeds in arousing people’s interest in the life and individuality of the sitter. Much more than a mere likeness, it seeks to capture the unique character and essence of the sitter.

The exhibition also highlights the varying different approach to portraits artists can take, including photos, etchings, lithographs and paintings as well as varying different styles.

"There is everything from incredibly photorealistic works right up to quite expressive works where they are responding to themselves in mirror or responding to a subject. There is a really good mix of styles and approaches."

The works also showcase the different approaches to self-portraits, which often seem to be taken from quite interesting angles as the artists take a more creative approach to how they represent themselves as opposed to a subject where works are more formally composed, he says.

"There are some quirky perspectives and there is a sombre aspect about them. They are very reflective — there is a degree of doubt. They’re sort of capturing themselves at a certain point of their lives and careers. They’re quite reflective works."

To see

"Persona, Works from the Collection", Eastern Southland Gallery, Gore until May 12.