Jill Trevelyan's Rita Angus, An Artist's Life
Along with the works of Colin McCahon and Toss Wollaston, Angus' oil and water colours are considered among the most
important in the development of twentieth-century New Zealand art. She was a pioneer of modern painting during the 1930s
and 1940s and during the century since her birth works such asCentral Otago (1940) and Portrait of Betty Curnow (1941-42) have become national icons. Although Angus is now one of Aotearoa’s best-loved painters, the story of her
life remained little known and poorly understood before Jill Trevelyan's acclaimed and revelatory biography, which won
the Non Fiction Award at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in 2009. This revised and handsomely illustrated edition
from Te Papa Press updates the original with new assessments of Angus in light of the upcoming exhibition to be held at
Te Papa late in 2021.
Henrietta Catherine Angus was born on 12 March 1908 in Hastings, the eldest of seven children, and in 1921 her family
moved to Palmerston North, where she attended Palmerston North Girls' High School. In 1927, she began studying at the
Canterbury College School of Art, but never completed her diploma in fine arts. She continued to study until 1933,
including classes at Auckland's Elam School of Fine Arts, where she was introduced to Renaissance and Medieval art and
received traditional training in life drawing, still life, and landscape painting.
Angus married fellow artist Alfred Cook in 1930, but they separated in 1934 and divorced in five years later. She signed
many of her paintings as Rita Cook between 1930 and 1946, but after discovering that Cook had remarried changed her
surname by deed poll to McKenzie, her paternal grandmother's surname. As a result, some of her paintings are also signed
R. Mackenzie or R.McKenzie. After a short period teaching art in Napier, Angus lived for most of the thirties and
forties in Christchurch, where she produced a large number of portraits, including Head of a Maori Boy (1938) and Portrait (Betty Curnow) (1942). In many cases, she was able to capture the essential personality of her subjects, moving beyond the mere
representation of forms. She also painted fifty-five self-portraits, particularly during her later years when she became
afflicted with increasingly serious bouts of narcissistic disorder.
Angus began to suffer from mental illness in the late 1940s and entered Sunnyside Mental Hostital in 1949. The following
year she moved to Waikanae to convalesce and began traveling widely around New Zealand, regularly visiting Hawke's Bay,
and painting one of her best known pieces Central Otago. She eventually settled in Wellington in 1955, where she focused primarily on landscapes, such as the iconic Boats, Island Bay), and lived next door to the artist Leo Bensemann. Their adjacent flats became a hub of the local art scene and they
both encouraged and spurred each other on in their art, with Angus producing some of her finest portraits during this
period. Her lifelong pacifism is also evident in the art she produced in the 1940s, during which she avoided any kind of
war work, flatly stating, "As an artist it is my work to create life and not to destroy it." She then produced three
goddess images symbolizing peace, of which Rutu is the best known.
In 1958, Angus won a New Zealand Art Societies' Fellowship and travelled to London to study at the Chelsea School of Art
and the ICA, as well as visiting Scotland and Europe to study modern and traditional European art. Angus devoted much of
1960 to the painting of a mural at Napier Girls' High School which was commissioned to commemorate the girls who died in
the 1932 Hawke's Bay earthquake and can now be seen at the front of the school hall. In 1969, her health rapidly
deteriorated and she died of ovarian cancer in Wellington Hospital in 1970, aged sixty-one.
Trevelyan is a widely respected Wellington art historian and curator who also editedToss Wollaston: A Life in Letters and co-wrote Rita Angus: Live to Paint & Paint to Live. She is a gifted writer, and her compelling study delineates the painter's private struggles, assesses her public
reputation, and brings her art back to life. Drawing on a wealth of archives and letters that trace the outlines of
Angus’ life from her childhood in Napier and Palmerston North, Trevelyan reveals a highly articulate artist who was full
of intellectual curiosity, forthright about her emotions, powerfully committed to her pacifist and feminist beliefs, and
above all dedicated to her life as an artist. The NZ Listener review commented, this is “the first and only bio of Rita Angus, feminist, pacifist, socialist … stacked with the works
of one of our best-loved painters.”
Art historian Mark Stocker sums up the lasting appeal of her paintings as follows - “She was a terrific watercolourist
and quite an 'easy' artist - only briefly abstract (before she realised how awful it was), but highly figurative and
determinedly linear, with solid colours filling in the spaces surrounded by the outlines. An excellent draughtsman, she
could have been a successful illustrator for Marvel Comics, but she never became an oil painter of the first rank,
unlike her near contemporary Rata Lovell-Smith, whose work has been insufficiently recognised."
"Her landscapes exploit the sharp, clear light that has captivated visitors, artists, and New Zealanders for generations
and depict a rural myth with which we can all identify. Opinion will always be divided over the value of her portraiture
(especially the self-portraits), partly because they reflect her misanthropic narcissism, but also because there is just
too much of it. Many of her other portraits are intensely compelling, however, and Rutu is an unforgettable image.”