Friday, July 8, 2011

Edith Collier ~ New Zealand’s forgotten artist

When Edith Collier died in 1964, several of the younger generation in her family had no idea that she had been an artist. She passed away in the family home she shared with her sisters in Wanganui, on the west coast of New Zealand’s North island, the town where she was born some eighty years earlier.

The eldest of nine children, Edith grew up in a musical household. Her early skill at playing the cello was put to good use in the Collier chamber quartet under the baton of her father, Henry. She was taught watercolour painting by her mother, Eliza, and excelled in art during her school years. At eighteen she enrolled as an art student at Wanganui Technical School, proving herself by achieving success in several demanding examinations. However much of her time was taken up with the domestic duties essential to the running of a large family home. As the eldest daughter, Edith’s responsibilities weighed heavily upon her. Her father’s prolonged absences from home in pursuit of his business interests added to the burden on her mother, who came to rely heavily on her daughter’s support. The idea of marriage had no attraction for Edith, but the prospect of an independent career as an artist seemed an impossibility to this shy, self-effacing young woman. Indeed, for much of her life, her pursuit of art had to take second place to the demands of her family.

In 1912 an unexpected opportunity came her way. Herbert Babbage, a family friend and painter with a career in St Ives, recognised Edith’s potential. Convinced that she would benefit from continuing her art education in Europe, he persuaded the Colliers to provide their daughter with the necessary financial support. They consented, on condition that Edith continued to study the cello as well. At the age of 27 she left New Zealand for a new life of freedom.

On arriving in London, she enrolled at St Johns Wood School of Art, an establishment entrenched in the academic tradition. The narrow approach of the teaching staff soon became apparent to Edith. Conversation between male and female students was confined to the subject of art and only permitted during breaks. Roger Fry’s second Post-Impressionist exhibition had recently introduced London to contemporary artworks from Paris, including canvases by the Cubists. It also showcased British modernists such as the Bloomsbury group. The artistic elite of the capital was nonplussed by exposure to an aesthetic completely at odds with that of the establishment. However it is doubtful whether the influence of the show was reflected in the teaching at St Johns Wood, or felt within the group of art students among whom Edith established friendships. These women, mostly expatriates, found themselves socially excluded. Consequently they were deprived of access to contemporary art circles which could have provided them with the confidence to challenge convention and incorporate elements of modernism in their own work.

While living in London, Edith embarked on a series of paintings of church interiors, most notably Westminster Abbey and St Bartholomew’s in Smithfield. She also spent some time getting to know her cousins in Manchester, one of whom, Fannie, encouraged Edith’s interest in the women’s suffrage movement. She produced a fine pencil portrait of Fannie, later to become the first woman lecturer at Manchester University.

Cousin Fannie c. 1914
pencil on paper

Henry and Eliza, under pressure at the prospect of continuing to finance their daughter’s sojourn abroad, were keen for Edith to return home to New Zealand. But the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 guaranteed an extension of her stay. Not only had a long sea voyage become out of the question, but also three of her brothers had enlisted to serve in Europe as part of the allied war effort. Edith anticipated that, based in London, she would be able to offer them a homecoming of sorts while they were on leave from the front line.

At this time she was fortunate to come across an artist from Australia, Margaret Macpherson (later Preston) under whose tuition she gained inspiration and encouragement. While Margaret was visiting Ireland in 1914 Edith joined her and the following year, together with a party of art students, they set up a summer school in the village of Bonmahon. Here Edith spent several months, experimenting with a new printing process, monotype, using this medium to capture the charm of the cottages, farm buildings and landscape around her. She also painted portraits of the villagers in all their dignity and simplicity.

Peasant Woman of
Oil on canvas

Returning to London, Edith gained confidence under Margaret’s continued tuition. She broadened her circle of friends and was able to sell a few paintings. She began to use female life models and exhibited her work at a number of venues, gaining a favourable review from the Society of Women Artists in 1917. Post-war London was becoming exposed to a range of avant-garde art movements which had originated in Europe. Edith’s Bathing Figures heralded a departure from the academic tradition, acknowledging the influence of Post-Impressionism.

Bathing Figures 1917-1918
Oil on canvas board

Despite pressure from her family, Edith was feeling settled in England. The prospect of living as an independent artist left her with no desire to return to the isolation of New Zealand. The circumstances of the introduction to her compatriot, the painter Frances Hodgkins, are unclear. It is thought that Edith may have made a brief visit to St Ives in 1915. At any rate, she was invited to Frances’ summer school in the art colony in 1920, which proved to be a seminal moment in Edith’s career. Frances’ association with Cornwall had begun in 1902 and by the time of their meeting she enjoyed a significant reputation. Frances wrote home: ‘I have one very bright N Zealander, Collier by name, who is coming along wonderfully – I’ll make something of her I feel sure.’ Under her tutelage, Edith’s work developed a distinctive identity. Her St Ives portraits are characterised by a freshness and vitality lacking in her earlier work.

The Pouting Girl 1920

Like many artists before her, Edith found inspiration in the steep, narrow cobbled streets, rooftops and quayside of this quaint fishing town. Her body of work from this period reflects a loosening up of technique and approach encouraged by her tutor, while retaining its individuality and integrity. Boats is a painting considerably ahead of its time, composed of formal elements bordering on abstraction.

Boats 1920

While Edith’s stay in St Ives marks the pinnacle of her artistic achievement, her role in the art historical narrative of the colony has largely been obscured by the attention bestowed on her famous compatriot and tutor. It is primarily as a pupil of Frances Hodgkins that she is remembered in the UK. In 1921 Frances decided to spend some time travelling in the south of France, inviting her protégée to accompany her. Such an opportunity would have provided an enormous boost to the development of Edith’s career, but her parents withheld their consent, insisting that their daughter return home.

Unable to resist any longer, Edith packed up her canvases with a heavy heart, arriving back in New Zealand in 1922, but hopeful that one day she would return to Britain. She was 37. Any expectation of dedicating herself to her painting was thwarted by the demands of her family. She was immediately thrust into the role of carer to her ageing grandmother. She then nursed her father, an aunt, and finally her mother, who died in 1946. Over the years her brothers and sisters had families of their own, and as a devoted aunt to thirty-seven nephews and nieces, Edith had little time to call her own.

The artistic climate in New Zealand had scarcely changed during the time Edith had been abroad. Cezanne was unknown and modernism regarded as an aberration. A reviewer of a contemporary exhibition in Auckland declared that there were ‘no daring departures from the conventional. Cubism, Vorticism, Futurism, and all the other freakish “isms” … find no representative’. This view accurately reflected the prevailing atmosphere, in which any attempt at artistic innovation was discouraged.

Nudity in art was frowned upon, and a recent homosexual scandal in Wanganui had unfortunate consequences for Edith. The town was reeling from revelations concerning an encounter between the mayor and a young bohemian writer, who threatened to expose the mayor’s homosexuality. The mayor responded by attempting to murder the young man, for which he received a long jail sentence. The mayor, a supporter of the arts in Wanganui, had been associated with the establishment of the Sarjeant Gallery in the town, and his victim was an art critic. Thus art became associated in the minds of local people with what they regarded as sexual perversion.

In the Collier household, the joy of receiving Edith back into the fold was tempered by the realisation that, contrary to her father’s expectations, the long period of art training in Europe had not produced an academic portrait painter he could be proud of. At an exhibition held by the Sarjeant Gallery in 1926, Edith’s modernist works were vilified and Henry Collier felt deeply ashamed. Eventually he could no longer contain his outrage at the realisation that his years of investment had produced an artistic output which, in his eyes, was morally corrupt. One day when Edith was out, he searched through her canvases, coming across many nude images. He built a bonfire and threw the paintings onto the flames while a four-year old niece of Edith’s looked on, aghast. Much of her best work was destroyed.

Edith was shattered by this catastrophe. Her confidence evaporated and from then on she painted very little. The following year she took a holiday in Kawhia. In this peaceful, scenic environment she produced some landscapes and portraits of Maori women, but these works lack the innovative edge of her St Ives period. She exhibited sporadically in Wellington and Christchurch but critical attention was now focussed on the canvases of up-and-coming male artists. Deprived of the support of an artistic community and the intellectual and cultural stimulus she had enjoyed in Britain, Edith faded into obscurity. 

The Korero 1927
Oil on board

In 1941 A Portrait of my Uncle was purchased for the New Zealand national collection in belated recognition of her talent. Retrospective exhibitions of her work were held in Wanganui and Wellington in the 1950s but she lacked the confidence to attend the openings. After her death at 79, while sorting through Edith’s possessions, her relatives came across trunkfuls of blank canvases and oil paints which she had accumulated over the years – ever hopeful that her dream of returning to the life of an artist would one day become a reality.

Grazing Sheep c. 1930

As far as can be ascertained, there are no works by Edith Collier in public collections in the UK. Most of her surviving paintings are held by the Serjeant Gallery, Wanganui  which endeavours to raise the profile of New Zealand’s neglected modernist.

Further information:

  •  Edith Collier : A Light Among Shadows is a moving documentary available online, made in 2007, on the life of the painter.
  • Edith Collier – her Life and Work by Joanne Drayton (1999) 
  • Sea Change by David Tovey (2010)

© 2011 Helen Hoyle


  1. The drawings and paintings reveal so much natural talent and accurate vision: I hope her father is feeling really ashamed right now.
    Wendy LG

  2. Thank you Helen for publishing this post on Edith! I admire her. I liked to your post and gave you credit. Thanks again.

    Sharon Carr