T.A. McCormack

A New Talent to Emerge in the Nineteen-Thirties


In the past the observation has frequently been made that the majority of New Zealand's population has been deprived through geographical remoteness of seeing European art in the original. The case seemed especially critical in the first two decades of this century when the local product attracted only a lukewarm response from the general public. To be sure, there were opportunities to view paintings by foreign artists, chiefly British, as early as 1889 with the ambitious New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition held in Dunedin. Further representation from Europe came with the comprehensive International Exhibition at Christchurch in 1906 and a few years later the Baillie Collection of British art came to New Zealand. The late nineteen-twenties and early 'thirties saw several exhibitions in the capital organised by Mr and Mrs Murray Fuller but these shows, although remarkably enterprising, were uneven in quality and tended to weigh in favour of English favourites from the Royal Academy. The pattern of outside influence was thus well established in the Dominion - for New Zealand, England was the homeland and the art it produced was the desirable area for appraisal and collection.

T.A. McCormack
at his studio in
Hill Street, Wellington,
May 1955
(photograph by Lynette Corner)

Given these circumstances, it was understandable that from 1890 until the nineteen-thirties a compulsive drive prevailed among local painters to make up for their remoteness by travelling abroad. To see the world's great masterpieces and to measure their own efforts with those of the 'moderns' was irresistible. Many were attracted away permanently - Raymond McIntyre, Frances Hodgkins and Owen Merton among them. Observations reinforcing the inverted nostalgia were often aired. In Christchurch for the International Exhibition, a certain Alfred A. Longden noted in the Lyttleton Times (31 May, 1907) that 'those artists who had been Home to study had acquired a European precision and form of treatment, while those who had not were more influenced by New Zealand directly and perhaps by the Oriental feeling for emotional colour.'(1) It was a perceptive comment but preference continued to rest with the former and in 1928 the catalogue foreword to Murray Fuller's exhibition deemed it necessary '... that we in New Zealand should be brought more frequently into intimacy with the best contemporary work of the British Schools...'

It was only with the Depression that something of the old colonial independence and confidence was regained. Economic strictures, social and political tensions and the failing off in immigration paradoxically brought about a desire for self-identification. The hypnotic draw of Europe was countered not only by the sobriety of the times but by such advice as proffered by Mary Elizabeth Tripe in 1931 . 'if a painter has anything to say - and knows how to say it - he or she should be able to say it in any part of the world, and New Zealanders will do well to think hard before leaving New Zealand whether they are prepared to undergo the necessary hard training, or whether it is worth while in their particular case.'(2)

Poppies c.1955
watercolour on toned paper,
400 x 248 mm.
(Collection of the
National Art Gallery, Wellington)

Among the new talents to emerge in the nineteen-thirties who reflected this change in attitude was T.A. McCormack (1883-1973). Throughout his long and productive career he achieved a uniquely independent vision which matured almost solely in the confines of New Zealand and with the resources found there. Except for the eight months he spent in Australia in 1928, Thomas Arthur McCormack never left this country, yet his professionalism is undisputed. His early years were spent in Napier, where largely because of ill-health he took up painting in watercolours at the age of twenty. Apart from a few lessons from R. D. Anderson at the Napier Technical College, McCormack received no formal training and for the most part sketched the environs of his home with a companion, Lewis Evans, whose watercolours have the ingenuousness of a naive artist. McCormack's own efforts soon propelled him outside the class of amateur, not least because of his intense single-minded approach. He was one of New Zealand's first full-time painters who only occasionally, and rather reluctantly, taught. His work never sold freely and when resources were low he had to rely on the earnings of his wife, the former Mabel Craddock. By the end of 1921, McCormack had left Napier and was residing in Wellington - his home for over forty years.

Most of the watercolours, charcoal drawings and occasional black-and-white print one comes across by the artist are undated. A certain amount of conjecture is thus unavoidable but the earliest Wellington subjects show McCormack's penchant for the coast and the juxtaposition of sea and sky. In addition there are lively depictions of Lambton Quay with its scurrying pedestrians and Whistler-like drypoints of the Town Hall portico. In all his efforts there is an unquestionable competence but as yet that remarkable breadth and simplicity, the spontaneous brushwork and inventive colour that we most readily associate with McCormack, was only nascent. In fact, his watercolours from the 'twenties and into the first half of the next decade could almost be confused with those of his friend Nugent Welch whose age and career almost exactly paralleled McCormack's own.(3) Welch's landscapes are a legacy of the Impressionists and fall in direct line from James Nairn and his rebellious associates at Pumpkin Cottage in the eighteen-hineties. Unlike McCormack he took on no fresh challenges and his watercolours barely developed over the fifty-odd years of his working life.

Summer Time c. 1935
watercolour and charcoal,
307 x 469 mm. 
(Collection of the
Hawkes Bay
Art Gallery and

The Hill Street studio formerly occupied by D.K. Richmond became McCormack's home and working space in Wellington. It became a focal point for other artists and for a small yet staunch body of collectors. Roland Hipkins, who arrived in New Zealand with fellow artist Jenny Campbell in the 'twenties to teach at Napier and then settled in Wellington, was probably the first to appreciate the individuality of McCormack's work as it matured. When commenting on the Spring Exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts in 1932, Hipkins described him as an artist who '... conveys his intense emotions by suggestion rather than topographical truth ... '.(4) In 1936, a lengthy article on 'The Art of T.A. McCormack' appeared in Art in New Zealand in which Hipkins traced the artist's life and the development of his career up to that point.(5) Again he emphasised the instinctive and intuitive aspects of his vision. They had little to do with academic standards or readily acceptable modes, and Hipkins stressed, were not a legacy of any particular school. Nevertheless, it would be difficult not to recognise the high-pitched colour and broken brushwork of Impressionism in McCormack's work or to avoid acknowledging an influence which had hitherto been largely dormant amongst New Zealand painters this century, that of the Far East.

In intellectual circles it had become fashionable to collect oriental art, as E.H. McCormick recalled tongue-in-cheek during the time he was a young student at Victoria College, '... but for the moment a cult of eclectic orientalism held sway. Japanese prints of obscure provenance were framed, often in a narrow black beading, so that something could occasionally be salvaged from rejected etchings. Alternatively and more fashionably, they were mounted on strips of fabric and hung over black divans in dimly illuminated studio-bedsitters. Respectable virgins ransacked the Chinese shops of Wellington's red-light district for rice bowls and fish plates of approved design. Blue ginger jars were de rigueur, grass table mats obligatory.'(6) Leaving the superficialities of the trend aside, a number of related factors came together in New Zealand at this time which encouraged artists to take an imaginative leap in interpreting the spirit of their own country. That they were prepared for a change in attitude has already been noted.

Seascape c.1937
watercolour, 500 x 636 mm.
(Collection of the
National Art Gallery, Wellington)

Of particular relevance was the arrival of Christopher Perkins in the capital in 1929. He brought with him a style of drawing and painting that emphasised design and a deliberately formal treatment, and not least he brought an informed and critical eye.(7) Faced with his new environment, Perkins quickly recognised the truth of A.R.D. Fairburn's remark that 'There is no golden mist in the air, no Merlin in our woods, no soft warm colour to breed a school of painters from the stock of Turner, Crome, Cotman and Wilson Steer.'(8) Fairburn saw Perkins as a 'healthy influence'-a much needed antidote to the uninspired and staid approach of the nineteen-twenties. 'The method impressed me, for I had come to think that impressionist technique, though it represented one permanent and fruitful line of march, failed to express the character and singularity of our natural landscape. it needed civilising by some other methods.... I am sure that our methods of painting could borrow with greater profit at the present time from the Japanese than from the traditional English and French schools.'(9)

In September, 1934 an exhibition was organised by the Auckland City Council of Capt. G. Humphreys-Davies' collection of 'Japanese Colour Prints' which later toured to Christchurch and Dunedin. This was one of the first examples of the spate of Oriental art exhibitions which occurred in New Zealand during the 'thirties. They encouraged a number of young artists in the formative stages of their careers, and those who were receptive to change, to re-evaluate the position of painting in this country. In Christchurch for example, Rita Angus produced in the late nineteen-thirties watercolours that evinced the bright colours and concise outlines of Japanese woodcuts and the precise rhythms of Chinese landscape painting.(10)

Lake Wanaka 1938
watercolour, 235 x 290 mm.
(Private collection, Christchurch)

For McCormack, the single most important event in this respect came at the beginning of 1937. To his friend John Stackhouse, he confided that he paid many visits to the major Chinese Art exhibition at the National Museum when it was displayed in Wellington at that time. The four hundred pieces of jade, porcelain and painting confirmed the direction McCormack's own work was taking. The Chinese-produced objects that were vehicles of contemplation, poetic but not in the least rhetorical or romantic. The emphasis was on aestheticism and spiritual insight. in formal terms, McCormack came to appreciate more fully the power of the brush in Oriental expression and the concentration on essentials. Although a devout Catholic, there was something of the Taoist quietism in his unostentatious lifestyle and reflective manner. 'An artist develops from his surroundings-the sea, rivers, plains and mountains, his friends and fellow artists ... A little wine, a sardine or two with their little eyes, a little bread, soften the hard road and help one on. Art is a matter of feeling and expression', is how McCormack described his personal philosophy a few years later.(11)

One admirer, David Martineau, found it 'refreshing' to come from an exhibition of the Royal Academician, Lamorna Birch, at the National Gallery in Wellington in mid 1937 to '... enter the quiet studio of Mr. T.A. McCormack, who has been holding an exhibition of watercolour drawings. There is the surprise of originality in these paintings, and in some even an occasional moment of spiritual urgency.'(12) Possibly a direct response to the Chinese Art exhibition earlier in the year, one of the works shown was Seascape. In his review, Martineau compared it to Hokusai's woodcut of the great wave off Kanagawa but it also reflects the milky green of celadon glazes and the calligraphic designs on Chinese porcelain.

Still Life c. 1955
watercolour on toned paper,
394 x 250 mm.
(Collection of Mr and Mrs
Frank Corner, Wellington)

The watercolour titled Chinese Pottery, now at the Auckland City Art Gallery, was produced at the end of the nineteen-thirties and is also a milestone in the artist's career. The emphasis on a decorative language and seemingly effortless skill in manipulating watercolour reminds one of a passage from Clive Bell's seminal text Art. 'Turn to a Chinese picture; the forms seem to be pinned to the silk or to be hung from above. There is no sense of thrust or strain; rather there is the feeling of some creeper, with roots we know not where, that hangs itself in exquisite festoons along the wall.'(13) As McCormack's imagery developed he increasingly arrived at stylistic solutions, such as cross-hatched lines and flat patterning, which adhered to the Clive Bell and Roger Fry notion of 'significant form' and in appearance are similar to the experiments of the Omega Workshops. This development found its fullest expression in the later works such as Poppies and Still Life of c.1955.

There were times in the late nineteen-thirties and early 'forties, however, when the emphasis was less on formal decorative rhythms than on high-pitched colour and broken brushstrokes, which brought McCormack's watercolours once again closely in touch with the Impressionist's vision. The change from his work in the 'twenties was in the richly variegated marks which enlivened each subject. He adopted an almost unlimited range of brushwork, from the most sensitive and light touches to the assertive boldness of swiftly applied strokes. Coast Scene of c. 1937 and Summer Time, which is one of many river scenes the artist produced of the Hutt Valley, are cases in point. Such works were painted on white Whatman paper but by this stage McCormack had begun using textured and toned paper - usually a warm buff colour.

Chinese Pottery c.1939
watercolour on flecked,
toned paper,
387 x 574 mm. (Collection of the
Auckland City Art Gallery)

This was the period McCormack's reputation was at its highest. In 1940 his work was declared '.., the greatest individual achievement of recent New Zealand art.'(14) A discriminating band of admirers and collectors had grown up which included C. Millan Thompson, J.C. Beaglehole and Francis Cumming-Bruce, then British High Commissioner. His imagery appealed to the connoisseur rather than to the layman and in 1945 the Arts Year Book succintly stated the position - 'McCormack, like an old, dry sherry, is an acquired taste and to be relished as such. His colour is sophisticated, and its range is restricted by a kind of patrician reticence. In the still-lifes there are browns and a red moving towards muted purple, flicks of yellow. His seas are dark and chilly. All of which is to say that McCormack gives great pleasure to the educated eye and is not to be confused with any artist south (or north) of the line.'(15)

During the nineteen-forties and 'fifties, the format of the landscapes and still lifes became larger (some say it was in order to contest the popularity of oil painting) and the treatment more summary. The range within these twin themes was striking-seascapes transformed by the brilliant hues of a sunset, an assembly of rocks at Island Bay, still life objects against a curtain or a strip of gay brocade and flowers placed informally in a vase. There are smaller works from this last phase of McCormack's career that are essentially wash drawings, such as Flowers, where the subject is superbly articulated into an organic whole with swift calligraphic brushstrokes. They demonstrate that above all he was a linear painter-with a line that has beautiful economy and control, yet is never static. This attribute was already apparent in the 'thirties when his distinctive quality of vision began to emerge. From that point he developed and added to his vocabulary but he did not change direction. In 1956 he was honoured with an O.B.E. His work was shown in Australia, Canada and the United States and retrospective exhibitions were held in Wellington in 1959 and 1971 and in Hastings in 1978.

Coast Scene c. 1937
watercolour, 486 x 642 mm.
(Collection of the
National Art Gallery,

T.A. McCormack's importance for New Zealand painting is that he achieved an independent way of perceiving the world outside normal conventions or aspirations and within the country of his birth.

1. Gordon H. Brown, New Zealand Painting 1900-1920 (Wellington, 1972), p.21. 2. Art in New Zealand. vol. III, no. 11, March 1931, p.220.
3. Nugent Welch (1881-1970) worked in Wellington as a full-time landscape painter, chiefly in watercolours. Like McCormack, he regularly contributed to the annual exhibitions of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and was awarded an O.B.E. in 1949 for his services to art.
4. Art in New Zealand, vol. V, no. 18, December 1932. p. 78.
5. Art in New Zealand, vol. VIII, no. 4, June 1936, pp. 189-196.
6. E.H. McCormick, The inland Eye (Auckland, 1959), p. 26.
7. Christopher Perkins (1891-1968) came out form England to teach at Wellington Technical College returning there in 1933. In the nineteen thirties he often wrote reviews including 'Modern Chinese Painting', Art in New Zealand, vol. VII, no. 4, June 1935.
8. A.R.D. Fairburn, 'Some Aspects of New Zealand Art and Letters', Art in New Zealand, vol. VI, no. 4, June 1934, p. 215.
9. ibid.
10. Rita Angus (1908-70) was familiar not only with the travelling exhibitions but with private collections of Oriental art particularly that of G.J.C. McArthur in Christchurch.
11. Arts Year Book, no. 3, 1947, p. 61.
12. Art in New Zealand, vol. IX, no. 4, June 1937, p. 198.
13. Clive Bell Art (London, 1914), p. 235.
14. E.H. McCormick, Letters and Art in New Zealand (Wellington, 1940), p. 190.
15. Arts Year Book, no. 1, 1945, p. 80.