Friday 16 October 2009

Peter Black’s portrait of Dr Diana Mason OBE, SPUC, Wellington

During one of her regular visits to the Auckland Art Gallery, I introduced myself to Dr Diana Mason (1922-2007). In New Zealand, she was famous as one of her generation’s distinguished physicians. I informed Dr Mason that the Gallery had purchased an exceptional portrait of her created by Wellington artist Peter Black. She commented that she had never seen Peter's portrait.

Taking her into the Print room, where we store all of our unframed works on paper, I opened the solander box and Dr Mason immediately erupted into laughter. She boomed out that the 1979 portrait was indeed "utterly memorable." Seen from below, the renowned obstetrician stands in her usual theatrical manner. Dressed for a formal public event in a shot-silk coat ensemble whose matching dress pattern is decorated in flaming boteh (almond blossom). She wears a tall furry hat, pendulous gold earrings and the astonishing Rudi Gernreich eye wear in mock tortoiseshell that were her specialty. Dr Mason's costume and pose are both spectacular and intimidating.

During the 1970s, Dr Mason served as the national President of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) – a controversial group who were vocal opponents of abortion. She frequently stated that her views on abortion were philosophical rather than religious – she always stated that she was an advocate for “family planning rather than child destruction.” As one of New Zealand’s eminent obstetricians she once declared, “since leaving Otago Medical School I have delivered a town.”

Peter Black acknowledges Dr Mason’s reputation by adding to the portrait’s title the abbreviations of OBE and SPUC. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1977 for her three-decade long service to obstetrics. The New Zealand Medical Journal (volume 120, number 1257) commented, “Dr Mason was a doctor when women interested in medicine were usually nurses.” The Journal further commented that she was “a flamboyant part of Wellington’s cultural life, guaranteed to stand out in a crowd at orchestra or theatre events, tall, proud and magnificently got up.”

The version of Peter Black’s portrait held in Te Papa Museum of New Zealand (registration number 0.003073)
is cropped less tightly both at the top and the right hand side than the Auckland Art Gallery's print. The tighter cropping further emphasizes the photographer’s low point of view and, arguably, makes the portrait appear more confrontational. As a powerful portrait of a remarkable New Zealand woman, Dr Diana Mason OBE, SPUC, Wellington is an outstanding instance of Peter Black’s skill as an insightful portraitist.

Image credit:
Peter Black
Born 1948, New Zealand

Dr Diana Mason OBE, SPUC, Wellington 1979
gelatin silver print toned with selenium
237 x 160mm
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 1981

Conservation conference and other thoughts

Our conservators are currently busy lending their hands and time to organise the 2009 New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Material annual conference to be held from 21-22 October in Auckland.

Now, most of you know that I’m not a conservator, but I was attracted to this event because the keynote speech, by John Holden on 21 October, will be free, open to the public and presented by videolink at the Auckland University of Technology. This means of getting the best presenters despite their location opens up all sorts of debate for me about conferences.

The reason for the videolink, I have found out, is to save money spent flying John, from the UK, out to New Zealand, so allowing some ‘think-tank demos’ (sounds intriguing) to be affordable for the conference. I like the lateral thinking here, John will still be answering questions etc, but without the thousands of dollars spent on flights.

The more I think about it the more I wonder whether the way forward for conference is to open up the information live online, with people from around the world talking to others who are not able to attend the conference in person for various reasons, often financial. I know this kind of happens with twitter at the moment but it needs to be actual and real (even though only virtual reality).

Why not share the information from conferences, live, not three weeks later, allow people to see and discuss topics even if they are not physically there. Maybe by conducting conferences in this way it might start even more discussions, collaborations and networks and open up the sacred doors of conferences that are so often closed to many. I know there is a financial reason for people attending but I imagine some sort of cheaper online subscription to conferences might be beneficial also. Just my thought for today.

Ok, that’s my rant over, back to the conference in hand, for those interested in attending the keynote speech on Wednesday 21 October, 6.30pm, it is being held at AUT, in lecture theatre WE240. Best of all it’s free and open to anyone.

Here is the brief synopses and bio taken from the poster for the event:

the importance of conservation and its place in wider culture

The meaning of ‘culture’ has undergone radical change over a short space of time, but policy is based on an outdated concept of what culture means. Culture has become more participative, more integrated with other aspects of life, and hence more important to the way that people shape their identities. The concept and practices of museum and heritage conservation reflect an ethic of care for the material world that has wider application in the public realm and in society. Conservation has been seen in very narrow terms for too long, and conservators need to make the case for conservation not only in terms of its importance in relation to objects and the past, but also its role in shaping the values and creating the world of tomorrow. In doing so, conservators need to open up much more to public engagement and public dialogue.
John Holden was previously Head of Culture at Demos ( and is a Visiting Professor at City University.
He has Masters Degrees in law and art history and his main professional interest is in the development of people and organisations in the cultural sector.

The event is sponsored by National Services Te Paerangi, Auckland University of Technology, the NZCCM and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

By the looks of the tired but excited faces of our conservators it is going to be a cracking event (excuse the conservation pun).