Twelve months on from Art and Object’s memorable Auckland auction of the Tim and Sherrah Francis’ vast art collection, the record personal prices achieved for two stunning early MacDiarmid oil paintings remains unprecedented.
There were four of Douglas’ paintings in the late couple’s diverse catalogue sales on 6th and 7th September 2016, each expected to fetch a few thousand dollars. But two of these works, Children in room at night 1946 and Christchurch March 1945 captured the imagination of buyers, with bidding rocketing up to $27,000 apiece.
Despite being painted six decades ago, both paintings look as if they were finished yesterday; their new owners are overjoyed with them for very different reasons.
Children in a room at night, oil on board 47.7x 36cm, has a mysterious sort of expectancy about it. They are in fact mother and daughter, with a very clear link to Douglas and New Zealand. More correctly titled Marjorie Mitchell London 1946, this painting lived for many years on his close friend Helen Hitchings’ walls in Wellington before being bought by the Francis’, dedicated art collectors and diplomats, in 1984. But the giving and gratitude associated with the painting extends back much further to Douglas’ university years in Christchurch during World War II.
Marjorie was an English girl living and working in Christchurch. She found herself pregnant and alone, until Jewish refugee friends of Douglas took her in and looked after her. Marjorie was a vivacious part of their social circle of European migrants and avant garde artists, musicians and poets until she returned to London with her little one after the war ended.
Douglas painted Marjorie several times. He was desperate to see the world, and sailed to England in 1946 as tutor to his landlady Blanche Harding’s son Buddy. Accommodation was impossible to find in bomb-razed London, but Marjorie returned the hospitality she received in New Zealand by giving them the top floor of her house for as long as they needed. The walls were badly cracked; the cold and yellow pea-soup London fog seeped in, food was scarce and rationed, furniture too expensive to buy, so they made do with the little they had and were thankful for a dryish roof over their heads.
The travel cases next to the little girl in the painting are Douglas and Blanche’s trunks, used as storage, seating, tables. Unfortunately, no one remembers the little girl’s name.
The painting was bought at the auction as a surprise birthday present, after the current owners kept coming back to it in the catalogue… “It is hard to attribute the appeal of Douglas’ painting to one dimension. We felt the painting had an air of mystery, serenity and simplicity. We wondered about the relationship between the woman and the young girl. We also found we would notice different things when we kept looking at the catalogue picture. My wife was overjoyed on her birthday to unwrap the painting! She had no idea that I had purchased it.”