I was thrilled when my brother phoned a few weeks back to ask If I would like a painting of our Dad’s. It is an oil of the Hutt River looking towards the far hills and had hung on various walls of houses my mother had lived in since my father’s early death. When she died ten years ago, the painting came into my brother’s possession, and now, it has found its way to me. There is mention of this painting in my recent book The (almost) True Story of a Man Called Jack.
I had always known the painting had been exhibited as part of the Hutt Art Society show, shortly after its execution, and received favourable comments on its loose modern style. I liked it too, for the same reasons, plus the colour choice and the bold strokes of paint. To me, this painting epitomised my father, who was an enthusiastic, creative, and passionate man. It is the only painting in this style my father made, which makes the work so special.
Coincidentally, the day after the painting arrived, I attended a talk at the Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki, titled The Back of the Painting, which is the name of a recently-released book by three of New Zealand’s leading art conservationists: Linda Waters, Sarah Hillary and Jenny Sherman. The discussion was led by Mary Kissler, Curator Emerita from the Auckland Gallery.
As the title suggests, the audience was going to be shown the back of several paintings, chosen from the book’s selection. I shall just discuss one of the works here.
We were shown the front of a work first, and the painting’s provenance discussed. The first image was a gilded portrait of a bearded saint c.1380, attributed to Antonio Venenzio, a portion of a much larger multi-panel altarpiece. The gilt surface is clearly cracked and uneven, and the paint retouching obvious too. But it is the back of this work, I found equally interesting, as it revealed so much about the history and the restoration processes it had been through.
The back told us about various changes, or modifications made through the years. The pink and black paper had once been stuck on the wood panel, and ripped away at some stage. The battens a latter addition. The top handwritten label dates the image circa 1400, and that it was purchased in Lucca, Italy, in 1893. The second label is from the British Museum and dated July 1950 with a question mark. A tangible connection to the painting’s history. And now, amazingly, it is in the collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, having been donated in 1982, by prominent British collectors.
I arrived home following the discussion, and finished unwrapping my father’s painting, keen to examine it with a closer eye. The frame had suffered a little over fifty-eight years, a few small nicks at the mitred corners, and a lot of ingrained dirt. The painting itself was in a great state, the oil paint looking as fresh as the day Dad painted it. I was sitting with him that day on the riverbank, just a young teenager, keen on art even then. I liked watching Dad squeeze out the colours and mix them on the traditional style palette he’d made himself. He clearly got paint on his hands too, for when I turned the painting over on Sunday, there were smudges of paint left from his fingers. But what interested me most was the cut-out sliver of paper from a catalogue, which was glued to the hardboard near the bottom edge. I hadn’t realised until that moment that my father had named the painting. It reads A Glimpse of the Upper Valley, Oil J.F.L. Fowlds. NFS. And written in Biro, 1963. Thanks Dad, for the painting, and the Not For Sale sign.
The Back of the Painting was published by Te Papa Press, Wellington, April 2021.