A Chapter in a Visual Autobiography


E.H. McCormick is best known for his biographies of Frances Hodgkins, for such of his books as Letters and Art in New Zealand and Augustus Earle in New Zealand. Less familiar are his fragments of autobiography. This is a chapter on Wellington from The Inland Eye: A Sketch in Visual Autobiography, written initially as a lecture for the Auckland Gallery Associates in 1957, and celebrating in a style unique for its dignity and wit the author's 'visual education' from his early youth in Taihape up to the Auckland of the nineteen-fifties. Dr McCormick's book on Omai, the young Polynesian who was taken back to England by Captain Cook and painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, is to be published by the Auckland University Press later this year.

WELLINGTON. . . the word still retains its power to call up an echo of childish emotion: it meant the endless respite of summer holidays; it meant the diversions of the city; it meant the unfamiliar homes of friends and relatives; above all, to our inland eyes, it meant the sea. I still recall the mounting excitement of the train journey as we left Levin behind us and watched for the land-marks - the flax swamps, the peak of Kapiti, the narrowing plain - and then at Paekakariki that line of wild, forbidding, beautiful coast, with the expanse of sea stretching from the South Island almost to the carriage wheels. After that the upward climb, the excluding tunnels, the quiet inlets on the southern side of the hill, then again more tunnels until, at length, there for a few moments it lay - Wellington Harbour, the magnificent, the incomparable. In that journey of anticipation and fulfilment, repeated almost annually from early childhood, lie the origins of what are perhaps the profoundest visual experiences I have received from nature. I have bathed innumerable times in the chilly waters of Wellington Harbour; I have walked over every inch of its foreshore; I have crossed and recrossed it at all seasons and all weathers; I have watched it from almost every eminence between Seatoun and Pencarrow; and I have never ceased to marvel at its endless variety, its matchless splendour. For me it remains a kind of ideal, Platonic harbour towards which all others must vainly aspire.

EH McCormick
Photograph by Marti Friedlander

That, doubtless, is why I am blind to the celebrated beauty of the Waitemata which to my eyes is not a harbour at all but merely a large inlet. I have studied it from many places, most often from Grafton Bridge, seeking to analyse its special character and doing my best to admire it. In the latter aim I am reluctantly forced to admit almost total failure. The Waitemata from Grafton Bridge suggests to me nothing so much as a piece of stage scenery devised by some ingenious but rather clumsy craftsman. There they are - the lumpish, meaningless mounds, the narrow ribbon of water, the toy-like ferries (why, you would almost think they were real!), then, in the desperate attempt to pull it all together, the implausible, oversized backdrop of Rangitoto. Even from the more flattering angle of the Museum, the view seems to me diffuse and formless, lacking above all in the superb sweep of hill which transforms Wellington Harbour into a powerful composition when seen from almost any point on its rugged perimeter. All of which, I am prepared to admit, has no absolute validity whatsoever, but merely illustrates the strength and persistence of long-established visual habits. It occurs to me as an afterthought that my error, also rooted in habits of the past, has been to view the Waitemata from a height. Do its peculiar qualities reveal themselves only at sea level? And have obscure aesthetic promptings rather than sporting inclinations turned Aucklanders into a race of yachtsmen?

As Wellington gave me my first experience of the sea, so it introduced me to the first in a long sequence of museums and art galleries. Of the old Dominion Museum behind Parliament Buildings my only surviving impression is a dim one of moas, Maori curios, and stuffed birds mouldering in an atmosphere of fusty neglect. The Gallery of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, as it was grandly termed, stands out more sharply. It was a barn of a building in Whitmore Street, and after my initiation at a tender age, a visit to 'the Art Gallery" was incorporated into the ritual of summer holidays. I always enjoyed going there, in the first place, I suppose, for precisely the reasons that made me enjoy picking over rubbish dumps and poking into other people's houses; all three experiences did something to satisfy my curiosity, to feed my insatiable appetite for the unexpected and the unknown. later on, my pleasure was of a different kind: it was the satisfaction of recognizing the pictures I knew. In the course of a few visits these included the whore collection, for little was added and little altered in Whitmore Street. At this time names meant nothing to me, and only long afterwards did I identify the largest picture in the gallery as Nairn's 'Tess'. I did not care for it much: the girl's dress was old-fashioned, and I did not like cows. I preferred a highly-coloured picture of a young woman decorated with peacock feathers (one of Mrs Tripe's paintings, I think) and a bright, sunny picture of boys bathing in a rocky pool, probably one of Tuke's. The water-colours of Frances Hodgkins made little impression, though again in later years they emerged into recognition from the buried past. Neither landscapes nor flower paintings, both of which hung on the walls in some profusion, made any strong appeal. I liked pictures with people in them, on the whole I preferred them large, and I admired strong colours. But I need not prolong the catalogue of my preferences and the wholly irrelevant reasons which prompted my responses. I made no distinction between oils and water-colours, nor between English works and New Zealand works, nor between portraits and figure studies. For years the contents of the gallery remained in a glorious state of anonymity until I made some attempt to sort out names and impressions when the collection had been transferred to the present National Art Gallery.

That, however, is to anticipate by a couple of decades, and I must again pick up the chronological threads where I dropped them at the point of entering a secondary school. The years I spent at Wellington College were not the happiest of my early life and, though clear enough in retrospect, they yield no specially significant memories. As in an ancient 'gazette' at the picture theatre, I see the old East School with its Gothic trimmings and the worn, scrubbed steps of the entrance; I see, from the lower ground, Mount Cook jail looming Bastille-like through the early-morning fog; I see the flutter of summer frocks on Sports' Day and the sedately revolving couples in Miss Borlase's dancing class; I see scores of fellow-pupils, their forms and features known with an intimacy rarely attainable outside army or boarding-school; and I see myself, lanky and alone, trailing through the tortuous Wellington streets, exploring the wharves, taking refuge in the Public Library or the Princess theatre, then at length turning back to the barracks that served both as class-rooms and living-quarters. It was a Spartan existence endured in surroundings of sub-Spartan discomfort. The walls were bare except for a portrait of J.P. Firth in the Assembly Hall, photographic enlargements of other headmasters, and, relics of some more liberal era, a few stained engravings, including, I particularly remember, one of the Cathedral in Mexico City. Art had no place in our lives nor in the curriculum. Our eyes, our minds, our energies were directed towards the playing of games and the passing of examinations - precisely in that order.

Thence I passed to the boisterous but rather more humane environment of the Wellington Teachers' Training College. To my initial dismay, I found that I would have to resume lessons in drawing so that I might, in turn, transmit this accomplishment to my future pupils. I am reminded of D'Arcy Cresswell's 'These teachers themselves attend classes wherein they are taught how to teach, and those who teach them must themselves at some time have been taught how to teach those now to teach; but where I know not.' My own didactic ordeal proved less severe than I had originally feared. The prescription did not differ greatly from the one I had known at primary school- it was still in essentials Drawing,. Freehand and Geometric - but the old discipline was warmed and humanized by the personality of our instructor, L.J. Watkin, a draughtsman of meticulous precision who exhibited with the Academy of Fine Arts. Thanks to his tuition - rather perhaps to his tolerant good nature - I emerged at the end of two years as a teacher qualified to instruct New Zealand youth in the fundamentals of drawing and painting.

Among my fellow-students were others like myself - aspiring, fumbling, priggish. We talked of Brangwyn and John and Whistler, we fingered the few art books in the College library, we introduced into our conversation - ever so casually- such terms as 'dry-point' and 'first state'. For that, as I remember it, was the golden age of the etching. Impressions of Gothic doorways and Cornish fishing-boats were imported into the country wholesale, to be framed in a narrow black beading and hung on the walls of Tudor living-rooms or in the exiguous entrance halls of suburban bungalows. The process was also popular among local artists, for by this means, the distracting element of colour removed, a damp alley off Manners Street could be made to resemble a corner of Dickens's London, while Island Bay might - with a little contrivance on the etcher's part - pass for Newlyn or St Ives. Such productions made discreetly inexpensive wedding-presents and were also favoured as gifts for friends abroad, visible and incontrovertible evidence that New Zealand was in truth more English than England - or, at any rate, just as English.

At this period, I freely admit, New Zealand possessed no more ardent Anglophile than myself. I admired the etchings - the imported ones more than the local - and with freshman's awe I admired the supposedly English facade of Victoria University College, the other institution to which I had attached myself on leaving secondary school. Its massive buttresses and pointed arches, its oriel window and vaulted library were in complete harmony with my taste and pretensions, as they were indeed with the travesty of high education I acquired between the hours of four and eight. In the present context, however, I must not speak harshly of Victoria College, for within its precincts I received my first- and only- formal instruction in the history of art. At the beginning of my second year, I decided to attend lectures in Greek History, Art and literature; not because I particularly wished to but because that subject or Greek was a prerequisite for honours in Latin, and, having no Greek, I was compelled to take the alternative.

Greek History, etc. (to use the common abbreviation) is regarded in the highest academic circles with stern disapproval. The grounds for objection are, apparently, that without a knowledge of its language one cannot possibly comprehend Greek civilization. The argument can hardly be denied, and it applies, of course, to every civilization: none can be fully entered into by way of translation. A partial conspectus is nevertheless attainable, and, to speak for myself, I can positively assert that eight years employed in construing the authors of Latin literature failed to yield a quarter of the profit and illumination I received from a single year spent on the broader subject. Indeed, one of the virtues of Greek History, etc., was that it did not, in the narrow, specialized sense, constitute a 'subject'. We studied a rich and complex society rather than a subject; and for the first time I realized that knowledge - and life in general- flowed not so much along independent, isolated channels as in one commingled stream: Dimly I began to see that art, literature, philosophy were related to one another, as they were to the humbler activities of human kind; tentatively I pondered on the force of the word 'culture' in its wider signification.

In practice, the breadth and vagueness of the subject were corrected by rigorous teaching. Especially thorough were the lectures on Greek art - to the understanding of which, by the way, a proficiency in Greek declensions can scarcely be considered indispensable. Illustrating his somewhat muffled words with a comprehensive collection of lantern slides, Professor Rankine Brown lectured on Greek architecture, he spoke more briefly of Greek vases, he traversed the history of Greek sculpture from its crude beginnings to its culmination in the fifth century and ultimate decline into Alexandrian affectation. That, as I was to discover later, was a prejudiced and partial view of Greek art. But it was put forward with conviction, and at least it placed the subject in a precise and rational framework. Greek History, etc., was a landmark in my formal education, perhaps the landmark. I owe an immense debt to Professor Brown and bear him one small grudge. Unaware of my entire lack of mechanical skill, he selected me} as the only male student in the class, to manipulate the lantern. The result was that I attended to his lectures in a fever of apprehension, never certain that his 'Next Please' would not be followed by an image of the Victory of Samothrace flying to earth or Laocoon and his sons writhing in agony on their heads.

So, eyes agleam with the glories of Greek art, ears ringing with the rhythms of Sir Gilbert Murray, I went out into the world. More precisely, I went into a remote corner of the Nelson Province to communicate the elements of a sound, secular New Zealand education to children ranging between the ages of five and fourteen; I became a solecharge country teacher. Was I disillusioned? Only on the rarest occasions. For the most part I was far too busy to indulge in futile emotions: by day I taught, at night I studied, advancing my cultural education by means of The Outline of Art and Literature, purchased from an early pay cheque. Soon after taking charge, I introduced flowers into the school-room and sprinkled the walls with pictures-cut-outs of animals for the infants and, for the standards, coloured reproductions from the Saturday Evening Post and other periodicals (the parental habits persisted). And what of Drawing, Freehand and Geometric? I relied on the more talented children to help the less talented, I spent a disproportionate amount of time on geometric design, and I gave plenty of coloured chalks to the infants. Thus I got by, pleased my pupils, and even succeeded in satisfying the inspectors. It was, generally speaking, a pleasant, healthy life, diversified by excursions to the lakes and mountains and beaches of Nelson, surely in its small compass the most varied and perhaps the most beautiful of New Zealand provinces. As I was to learn some years later, it is also a province remarkably fortunate in its painters. Moments of revelation in those Nelson years -looking from Mount Arthur towards the Tableland, the first glimpse of Lake Rotoiti, the discovery of a lonely beach in Golden Bay - these have been enriched and recreated in my mind because similar experiences were once shared and recorded by Heaphy or Richmond or Gully.

Urged on by demons of unrest and ambition, I forsook this idyllic existence to return to Wellington and Victoria College. During the years of my rustication, I soon discovered, revolutionary changes had taken place in the small circle of intellectuals on whose outermost perimeter I now began to move. Etchings had long been abandoned to the vulgarians of the middle class; Whistler was out; Brangwyn was unspeakably out; John wavered in the balance, but was apparently doomed. Exactly who was in had not yet been determined, 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-bed-sitters. 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. Another spin of the whirligig, and lo! orientalism was relegated to second place or wholly discarded in favour of the colour print. First Botticelli, so that, somewhat to one's embarrassment in mixed company, Venus rose perpetually' from her watery birth-place over a hundred yellow or lime-green mantel-pieces. In a trice Botticelli was removed from the living-room to the more appropriate surroundings of the bedroom to make way for the post- impressionists in rapid succession. Van Gogh's Sunflowers blazed on cream-tinted walls in ever-enlarging versions, the area defining not only the owner's financial resources but also the degree of his enlightenment. Van Gogh gave way to Gauguin, Gauguin to Cezanne, while he in turn, for reasons known only to the print-makers, was superseded by the elder Breughel. The masterpieces of painting became counters in the struggle for social and cultural supremacy - as they have been throughout the ages. The competition known to Renaissance Popes and Florentine princes has in our own time merely been democratized through the agency of the printing machine.

In the initial stages I was rescued from the consequences of this expensive folly not by good sense or settled taste. Had it been possible, I would have followed every turn of fashion's wheel with a slavish docility. I could not because I had little money, and what I possessed I was saving to go to Europe. I was helped to achieve this ambition by the award of a travelling scholarship and embarked for England just after my twenty-fifth birthday. I had never seen a really good painting, except in reproduction, and I had visited only three galleries - those at  Wellington, Christchurch, and Nelson.