Thursday 9 September 2010

Toss Woollaston and Ursula Bethell

I gave a talk recently at the new TSB Wallace Arts Centre on a number of paintings by Toss Woollaston in the collection. I reminded the visitors that Toss always said that he was both a portrait and landscape painter. He sometimes felt that the public forget his life-long interest in painting and drawing people.

I recommend that you read Toss's letter to Ursula Bethell in Jill Trevelyan's fine book Toss Woollaston: A life in Letters (Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2005). The letters indicate the friendship and trust that they shared. They also contain illuminating perspectives on his beginnings as a painter. For instance, in late August 1932, he wrote to Ursula and noted about his teacher Robert Field "His teaching is decidedly of a different order from that at ChCh - from within, more inspirational than technical."

The New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre has a superb resource on Ursula Bethell and her work. It reproduces both the drawing and the painting that Toss made of her:

As well, there are all the poems included in her brilliant book of poems, From a Garden in the Antipodes (Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1929) and her other poetry.

Here is one for you to sample. Ursula and Toss both worked in her garden.

Old Master

Or picture, here, some Conversazione
With flowers, birds, grass, and purple hills beyond,
And gilding sunlight, elegant chiaroscuro,
And noble forms augustly grouped, and still –
Smiling and still. Initiate and aware.

And thronging on the outskirts, in the foreground,
You, and you, and you, beloved familiars,
Bearing your individual sign and coat of arms,
Surprised and still, smiling and yet expectant –
Found. Known. Secure. And reconciled.

I particularly recommend the superb essay Perfectly fairy-godmotherish’: the friendship of Toss Woollaston and Ursula Bethell written by Jill Trevelyan, that was originally published in Kotare: A Journal of New Zealand Notes and Queries 4.1 (June 2001): 3-16:

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