Portrait of a much-loved friend Blanche Harding (1945)

This beautiful little jewel like painting is Douglas MacDiarmid’s second-ever portrait, painted (as was his first) of his Christchurch landlady Blanche Harding. He lodged with her throughout his university years in the early 1940s, around WWII military service. When the portrait was exhibited with The Group, it was greeted with praise and disbelief…how could an untrained young man, aged only 22, possess such technique!

Madeleine Blanche Harding is a fascinating character – not only Douglas’ landlady but his dear friend and trusted confidante. She was born in South Africa, a very cultured, intelligent woman with a love of poetry, classical music, opera and theatre that matched his own. Both were deeply unhappy when he joined her household and, in a sense, saved one another. In 1946, when Blanche went to England and Europe to claim an inheritance, she took Douglas with her as tutor to her 11-year-old son Buddy on the long voyage. That is how he first came to leave New Zealand. Theirs was never a sexual relationship, but they were as close as two people can be in mind and spirit for many years. After losing track of Blanche in his new life in France, Douglas has had the great good fortune to get to know her grandchildren in New Zealand, after their curiosity about paintings in her estate led to Paris and their painter.

Portrait of Mrs M.B. Harding 1945, oil on board, 31 x 32 cm. Private collection, Wellington, NewZealand

The whereabouts of the portrait was unknown for decades, just a tantalising image in a grainy little black and white photograph until the painting came to light. It was an exciting day when Douglas saw it again in colour, for the first time in 60-odd years – and declared it wasn’t too bad an early effort. It is of course in his biography Colours of a Life (page 63), and will continue to enchant visitors to Douglas MacDiarmid’s New Zealand Portrait Gallery exhibition, of the same name in Wellington until 23 September 2018. This showing is the first time Blanche’s portrait has appeared in public since the late 1940s.

Blanche’s portrait was described by French art historian Dr Nelly Finet, of Paris, in her 2002 book MacDiarmid…. “To convey humanity and refinement, this lady has been painted in a Renaissance-type manner. The profile is clear, precise as an engraved medallion and stands out sharply against a wall of dark broken by a light window opening onto a mountain landscape harsh as destiny.”

Douglas’ first painting of Blanche has yet to reappear, but will surely materialise one day in New Zealand. If anyone has seen this painting, the MacDiarmid Arts Trust would love to hear from them. Until then, it remains another photographic memory, waiting for the original to be found.

Image: Mrs Harding 1944, Christchurch. Black and white photograph of Douglas’ first portrait.

Buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018) here or purchase it in person from the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington, Jonathan Grant Gallery in Auckland, or from all good bookstores across New Zealand. Published by Mary Egan Publishing (July 2018).

Portrait of Blanche Harding (1945) by Douglas MacDiarmid, as told by biographer Anna Cahill

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