Artist's work as early photographer revealed

Marion Scott Playing the Piano is among the works at ''Peeps of Life: Photographs by John...
Marion Scott Playing the Piano is among the works at ''Peeps of Life: Photographs by John Halliday Scott'' at the Hocken Library Gallery. A portrait of his wife, Helen Scott, who died at an early age, is above the piano.
John Halliday Scott.  Photos from Hocken Library.
John Halliday Scott. Photos from Hocken Library.

The exhibition ''Peeps of Life'' at the Hocken Collections looks at a previously unexamined part of the work of John Halliday Scott (1851-1914): his photographs.

It reveals an interest in interiors, as well as people and places, and his role at the centre of the city's art circles in late Victorian and Edwardian times.

It is nicely filled out with works by other members of this sociable set such as an 1898 watercolour of Scott's then new house at 47 Garfield Ave, Carlinwark, by Frances Hodgkins. It is owned by a descendant and I haven't seen it before.

There are also studies of Maori women and children at Moeraki, where the Scott family sometimes holidayed.

Frances Hodgkins painted watercolours of Maori women and children at Moeraki very late in the 19th century and the relationships between some of those and Scott's photographs is suggestive.

At least one of Hodgkins' pictures seems based on one of Scott's photographs. The present exhibition has another of her watercolours which nicely brings out the point.

The Hocken's exhibition space has three galleries and the exhibition uses the two outer ones to focus on Scott's interior scenes. I was aware of one of these, the image used for the poster, but not of many of the others.

Scott came to Dunedin in 1877 from Edinburgh, aged only 26, to be professor of anatomy and physiology at the university's medical school.

He first lived in the house now named after him, on St David St, one of four constructed as two semi-detached pairs, designed by Edmund Bury who also designed the oldest parts of the nearby university clock tower complex.

Scott photographed the interiors of this house, revealing a systematic interest in the subject. Many of the studies are very small, so the curator has set up a projector which throws enlarged versions on to the wall, silently changing after a pause long enough to study them with some care.

It produces the effect of being present in these more than century-old spaces, which is neither eerie nor mournful but rather interesting and attractive.

Of course, that's partly down to the nature of the images themselves. Although Scott was a scientist, his eye was not coldly clinical but it was more detached than some of his peers'.

Even so, Anna Petersen, the curator, has made good use of the images as indeed of researching and presenting the whole exhibition. Scott joined the Otago Art Society soon after his arrival and became a good friend and loyal supporter of one of its principals, William Mathew Hodgkins.

They not only shared an interest in painting but socialised together and were active in promoting the arts and photography in Dunedin. Both men joined the Dunedin Photographic Society to assist this purpose.

In 1880, Scott was on the Jessie Niccol which sailed from Port Chalmers and was at Lusitania Bay at Macquarie Island, about halfway between New Zealand and the Antarctic. He painted a number of views of this barren, austere place and several are in the exhibition.

They depart from his usual more detached observation and become more emotionally engaged, more truly Romantic. The landscape and meteorology are so staggeringly dramatic they seem to have evoked this unusual response. The results are some of his best painting.

One is astonished at how much Scott managed to do. From his appointment in 1877 to his death in harness in 1914 he developed the medical school from a tiny struggling infant into a nationally and internationally respected institution.

At the beginning he virtually was the medical school and even at the end it had very few staff compared with its peers. He produced the large collection of anatomical works, for teaching purposes, many of them diagrammatic, which remained in use to the late 20th century. (They are now at the Hocken Collections.)

In addition to his considerable output of watercolour paintings, he also produced this collection of photographs. One wonders how he managed it.

In 1883, he married Helen Bealey, the daughter of a Canterbury pastoralist and sometime superintendent of that province.

They had five children and their eldest daughter was Marion. Fanny Wimperis (1840-1925) made a pastel portrait of Mrs Scott, in which she looks rather sombre and which is in the exhibition.

Mrs Scott died at an early age, about the time the family moved into Carlinwark. It was a blow to her husband, who has been said never to have got over it.

There is a photo of a youthful Marion playing the piano with her mother's portrait one the wall above. It might have been maudlin or sentimental but Scott's objectivity came to his aid. Instead it's attractive and charming and makes an apt poster image for this sensitive exhibition.


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