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Newly acquired Toss Woollaston works

13 June 2014

Newly acquired Toss Woollaston works

The James Wallace Arts Trust has acquired an important series of works on paper by renowned New Zealand painter, Sir Mountford Tosswill (Toss) Woollaston (1910-1998). The 79 works depicting a young Māori male named Erua Brown were made over a two-year period in the early 1960s. 48 were published in Woollaston’s 1966 book, Erua (Blackwood & Janet Paul). All but one of the works are black and white drawings in mixed media. The single coloured, watercolour image of Erua was not published in the volume and has never been exhibited until now.

The works have been acquired by the Wallace Arts Trust from the Toss Woollaston Trust, which was established by the artist towards the end of his life.

The James Wallace Arts Trust and the Toss Woollaston Trust are delighted with the acquisition, which will ensure that almost the entire collection of Erua drawings will remain together, as only a few were ever sold. The drawings will join the major collection of paintings and drawings by Woollaston held by the James Wallace Arts Trust, which the artist himself considered the most important representation of his oeuvre in any hands.

Woollaston was born into a dairy farming family at Toko, near Stratford, Taranaki. From relatively humble beginnings he showed an extraordinary determination to realise his artistic talent, at a time when such ambitions were more likely to be considered lunacy than good sense. Although he received some formal art training in Christchurch and Dunedin in the 1930s, Woollaston’s impatience with academic formalism made him a reluctant student of traditional artistic methods, and he remained largely self-directed in his artistic training. Despite his academic recalcitrance, Woollaston was highly motivated to seek tuition from academically trained artists, if he felt they had something to offer which could help him realise his ambition to be a successful painter. For many years he and his wife Edith and their four children led a Spartan existence, while Toss worked first as a seasonal agricultural labourer in the Nelson region, and subsequently as a door-to-door Rawleigh’s household goods salesman in Greymouth, pursuing his painterly activities at every spare moment. It was not until he was in his late 50s that a successful business relationship with pioneering Wellington art dealer Peter McCleavey enabled Woollaston to paint full-time.

By 1979, when was knighted for his services to art, Woollaston was generally accepted as New Zealand’s greatest living painter of landscapes, especially well-known for huge, gestural renderings of dramatic regional scenery, painted in a manner ultimately derived from Cézanne but wholly local in its application to the light, colours and atmospheric conditions of his native country. But Woollaston was also increasingly being recognised as one of New Zealand’s greatest painters of people. In fact he had always made portraits and figure studies. Unable to afford models to sit for him, and temperamentally allergic to any great formality in his studio practice, for the greater part of his career he relied on his immediate family for models. His most consistent, faithful and fruitful model was the long-suffering Edith Woollaston, who endured decades of grinding rural poverty to enable her husband to paint. In 1958 Woollaston achieved the unexpected and extraordinary coup of selling two major portraits of Edith, one to Auckland Art Gallery and one to the National Gallery of Victoria – a sure indication of talent and future success. While accolade was still another ten years or more away, Woollaston’s modest successes in Auckland and Melbourne strengthened his resolve and increased his adventurousness, and in 1961 he began to look for models from outside his intimate circle of family and close friends.

‘For two years I had a model on Wednesday evenings’, wrote Woollaston in the opening lines of his Erua book.

‘His name was Erua Brown. What was he like? That was what I wanted to draw, but it wasn’t at all easy. It didn’t come right at first go. This drawing, for instance, may be charming, perhaps even a little sentimental, but to me it doesn’t look at all Maori. It was as if history repeated itself. When the early explorers came to the Pacific and their artists drew the “savages”, their drawings often looked like Europeans in fancy dress. Erua, of course, wore his school clothes, so there wasn’t even fancy dress to show that I meant him to look Polynesian. I couldn’t get that look at first...’

48 drawings were eventually reproduced in black and white in the Erua book, but Woollaston produced many more drawings in the two years during which Erua Brown was his model. As a result of this historic acquisition the Wallace Arts Trust is now the permanent repository of the majority of this wonderful series of drawings.

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