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Object: Still life with arum lilies

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Title Still life with arum lilies
Production Henderson, Louise (artist), circa 1950, Auckland
Medium summary oil on board
Materials oil paint, particle board
Classification paintings
Dimensions Image: 464mm (Height) x 334mm (Width)
Frame: 692mm (Height) x 562mm (Width) x 56mm (Depth)
Credit line Purchased 1993 with Harold Beauchamp Collection funds
Registration number 1993-0037-2

Pioneer New Zealand art dealer Helen Hitchings, who opened her gallery in Wellington as a showcase for local art and design in 1948, was the original owner of this painting by Louise Henderson. Still life with arum lilies was exhibited at Hitchings’ gallery in 1950 as part of an exhibition of paintings by Auckland’s Thornhill Group. The group’s members — including the Tole brothers, WS Wallis, Alison Pickmere and Helen Brown — all shared a stylistic allegiance to the cubism of John Weeks, who was then widely regarded as the country’s leading modern painter. Hitchings later selected Still life with arum lilies for the exhibition Fifteen New Zealand painters, which she boldly took to London in 1952. Henderson was singled out for praise by one English critic, who wrote that she ‘has perhaps the most finished style of them all and a sensitive, intelligent brain behind her strokes’.1 Hitchings acquired Still life with arum lilies around this time, and it is prominently displayed in the portrait of her that Rita Angus painted in 1955–56.

Still life with arum lilies is characterised by a sinuous line, decorative patterning, elegantly muted colours, and a subtle arrangement of transparent and interlocking planes. These qualities can be seen to exemplify Weeks’s belief that ‘the ideal to work for is noble design, which implies mass arrangement, with rhythm, incorporated with fine colour orchestration and great draughtsmanship’.2 Henderson had met Weeks in 1948 when she was living in Wellington and, following her move to Auckland in 1950, studied with him at Elam School of Fine Arts. Mentor and confidant, Weeks encouraged the French-born Henderson to return to Paris in 1952 — she had arrived in Christchurch in 1925 with a New Zealand husband — where she was accepted as a pupil by the ageing cubist Jean Metzinger. This ushered in a new phase in Henderson’s long career, one that placed her alongside painters such as Colin McCahon and Milan Mrkusich at the very centre of Auckland’s burgeoning modernist art scene of the 1950s.

William McAloon

This essay appears in Art at Te Papa, (Te Papa Press, 2009)

1. Nigel Gosling, ‘Breezy comment on NZ paintings by London critic’, Dominion, 10 July 1952, p. 7.
2. John Weeks, ‘Ideas on art’, Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand, no. 3, 1947, p. 30.

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