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SRB: Rita Angus a Life Well Told

Te Papa Press 420pp (RRP $70) Reviewed by MEGAN VIRTUE for the Scoop Review of Books
rita_angus_biography_400.jpg Jill Trevelyan struck gold at the Alexander Turnbull Library when she stumbled upon a stash of more than 400 letters from Rita Angus to the composer Douglas Lilburn. Most of Angus's personal papers were destroyed by her New Zealand-based family following her death in an effort to protect her privacy.

The papers of Angus's London-based sister, the late Jean Jones, also provide invaluable source material for this highly readable and extensively referenced biography.

Rita Angus was born 1908. The first of William and Ethel Angus's seven children. William, a Scot, was orphaned at 14 and went onto develop a successful construction company. Ethel nee Crabtree was from Tasmania of English parentage.

Strong willed, Rita was a father’s girl. Drawing from the time she could hold a pencil, creativity was encouraged at home, despite William's puritan Scottish work ethic.

Educated at Palmerston North Girls High, Rita accepted a place at the Canterbury College of Art in Christchurch. “My father taught me as a child that whatever I wanted to make of my life I must do so, and not waste time talking about it”

A disciplined perfectionist, Rita took advantage of the sound academic Impressionist training on offer at the college and appeared aloof from college politics.

The controversial Canterbury Art School tutor, Richard Wallwork, who has been described as intimidating by some of Angus's contemporaries, is treated fairly by Trevelyan.

In 1930, aged 22, Rita married fellow student Alfred Cook. They travelled to Auckland so Rita could attend modern art lectures at Elam. Returning to Christchurch, Rita continued painting, studying part time. In 1934, Rita developed a heart problem. Desperately unhappy, she separated from, and then divorced Alfred.

Christchurch - with its lively art scene - was the place to be if you were an artist in New Zealand in the 1920s-1940s. Rita exhibited with the Canterbury Society of Arts and with ‘The Group’. Artists were beginning to look beyond the narrow confines of conservative British art and other influences were coming into play. A 1937, touring exhibition from Canada influenced Rita and her contemporaries. Artist and close friend of Rita, Juliet Peter recalled, in an Art New Zealand interview, that the paintings had a ‘profound influence on us all, on everybody”

In 1936 Rita moved to Christchurch's artistic and intellectual heartland, an old home at 97a Cambridge Terrace, divided into studio flats. As well as painting, she illustrated for Ballantynes department store and The Christchurch Press. She went on sketching trips with her new boyfriend Harvey Gresham and Olivia Spencer Bower.

The relationship with Gresham ended in 1939 - the beginning of a turbulent decade with the death of her sister Edna that very same year.

Douglas Lilburn and Rita met in 1941 and she miscarried their child the following year. It was enough to put her off both marriage and sex for the rest of her life but Lilburn remained a life-long friend. From then on painting was to come first in her frugal, uncluttered life.

Rita’s parents bought the struggling artist a cottage at Clifton, near Sumner, Christchurch during the war years. A lifelong pacifist, Rita was summoned to court for not reporting for ‘manpower’ duty at a Christchurch rubber factory.

In 1949, after an isolated period at her Clifton cottage, Rita became mentally ill. She spent a couple of months a Sunnyside and emerged rested, relaxed and grateful for the care received.

She recuperated under her family’s care at Waikanae and continued work on her goddess series. Rita spent time in Mangonui, Northland. Selling Clifton, she became part of an artistic drift north and bought a cottage in the Wellington suburb of Thorndon, living close to her sister Jean, Douglas Lilburn and other friends.

Rita gave a lecture to the Workers Educational Institute in Wellington. This is her longest and most sustained piece of writing about art. Disappointingly, the entire text isn't reproduced in the biography.

Rita won a fellowship in the late 1950s - which was generous enough to fund a year's study trip to Britain and Europe. Her life ambitions were validated on this trip. The isolation she felt as a woman artist in New Zealand evaporated when she saw art was well established and highly regarded.

Reading and studying were lifelong habits, Rita filled many note books with how to achieve brilliant, glowing colours, pigments, varnishes etc. Rita knew her paintings should be made to last.

Rita developed severe, possibly sinister back pain in 1962. Stoically, she learned to live with the pain but took the hint. Her last decade was one of her most productive with Boats, Island Bay, Wellington and Hawke's Bay paintings, abstract work and as always, self portraits.

In the late 1960’s, work began in Thorndon to destroy part of the Bolton St cemetery and other property for motorway construction. In the summer of 1969, Rita and her friend Juliet Peter trespassed every Sunday to sketch tombstones at Bolton St.

Rita had surgery in November 1969, which revealed the silent killer, ovarian cancer. In January 1970, Rita died. She was 61 years old.

Rita Angus was a proud New Zealander and New Zealanders, almost, instinctively identify with her landscape paintings. Cass, the first of her paintings bought by a public gallery is now an iconic work. Rita never wavered from her belief that her art and artists were an essential part of life. Rit knew that her art was an important part of New Zealand culture.

Rita had a vision of an art temple, where the major portion of an artist’s work could be seen together. She monitored criticism like a hawk and swooped on unfair words. Already aware of ownership and copyright issues, she learnt more on her study trip to Britain and Europe. She allowed no retrospective of her work whilst alive. She was in possession of over 600 works on her death - left to a niece and nephew who have shared the legacy with all New Zealanders.

With its 108 reproductions this beautifully produced, thoroughly researched work will change the way you look at New Zealand art. That's not to say Trevelyan's judgement is always spot on.

Self-Portrait, 1936-37, featured on the book's cover is described as having an industrial background “evocative of Chicago”. Rita didn’t need Chicago, the background is an instantly recognisable Canterbury sky. Another reference casts doubt on Rita’s ability to paint hands, apparently she may have put them in gloves for this painting? Rita would never have accepted this criticism. Portrait of R. Gormack, Esq., 1948-49 is a true likeness, including the hands, according to his daughter Annabel Gormack.


Megan Virtue is a Christchurch reviewer and furniture maker. (Annabel Gormack contributed to the review.)

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