More than 80 years ago, when Gordon MacDiarmid chose a boarding school several days travel away for his sons he set a chain in motion that continues to this day. By the mid-1930s, Timaru Boys High School in the small coastal Canterbury city, south of Christchurch – already had a distinguished reputation for academic excellence, and was then considered the best school in New Zealand to equip young men mentally and physically for life as exemplary citizens. It didn’t bother young Doug MacDiarmid a bit to be sent from the centre of the North Island to the middle of the South Island for his secondary schooling. He was always in trouble at home in Taihape for pushing boundaries. Besides, he liked learning…selectively, in subjects he enjoyed.
Although bright and highly imaginative, school records show he was never an award-winning boy. An astute rector saw through the nonsense he orchestrated and tempered his antics with responsibility rather than punishment. Having to redirect his energies to be an example to others was a wake-up call Douglas is eternally grateful for. It tested his social skills and taught him a lot about self-reliance and discipline – valuable skills as it happens out for a somewhat solitary future existence living on his wits as a painter. It was at Timaru Boys High School that he honed the letter-writing skills that made him an inveterate correspondent for life, and where he first realised the true value of friendship. When Douglas scrapped through his exams and left without a backward glance, he didn’t appreciate the sense of community this particular school engenders in its pupils. With its motto ‘Knowledge is power’, Timaru Boys prides itself on following the careers of past students and profiling their efforts as part of life’s lesson in finding the best you can be. In Douglas’ case, he presents a perfect illustration of a talented, indifferent student who made good his potential.
Timaru Boys’ High School Old Boys’ Association keeps tabs on pupils’ past, maintaining a wide network across generations. Not just a shelf of dusty records, the association has a magnificent Memorial Library in the school grounds with pull-out racks of more than a century of old class photographs, climate-controlled archives room, digital facilities that would be the envy of any history society, even a kitchen.
Light streaming through a huge commemorative stained glass window into the library, playing colours on polished tables, bench seats and wooden panels around the vast hall, gives the interior a sense of ‘foreverness’ and calm. Formally listed as a historic place, museum and information centre, the building lends itself to quiet contemplation as much as to study or research. A prominently placed photograph acknowledges Douglas here as a distinguished expatriate painter. In the files are record cards with details such as his weight and height (at 6ft 3in, 1.9 metres he was the tallest boy in the school), assorted newspaper clippings of painting milestones and a handwritten ledger noting his attendance. Search ‘MacDiarmid’ in the computer database and up pop details of Douglas the artist, and his older doctor brother Ronald.
But it is in the school foyer that Douglas is celebrated most visibly – his painting Hand game – until night 1990 commands attention as a visible expression of what the school stands for in sport and wider achievements. This was one of two vigorous action paintings produced for Douglas’ official 1990 Sesquicentennial Light Release exhibition at Christopher Moore Gallery in Wellington, as part of New Zealand’s 150 anniversary celebrations. The painting was donated to the school in March 1996 by another old boy, his classmate the late Sir Gordon Tait, who went on to become Rear Admiral of the British Royal Navy. The boys were good friends and shared the stage as student actors in school musicals. There was a nice synchronicity in this gift, as Gordon was the son of the perceptive headmaster Alan Tait who recognised in Douglas a troubled soul, rather than just a rabble-rouser.
Douglas was in New Zealand at the time and visited the school to address students and staff at assembly. He talked about his life, how art develops and changes as a mirror of life itself, and urged the boys to follow their passions and always aim for excellence in everything they did. Then aged 73, it was his last trip to New Zealand. Art was not a major subject in Douglas’ day, but it pleases him immensely to know that nowadays there is equal emphasis on academic, artistic, and sporting development, rounded out.by cultural and social experiences. Timaru Boys’ has a thriving arts program, with students regularly winning awards at Canterbury art shows. An old building students old boys would remember as the armoury has been converted into a sculpture studio. The school shares co-curricular activities such a French language studies (including the French edition of Douglas’ art history MacDiarmid by Dr Nelly Finet) with Timaru Girls High School and does not shy away from discussing sexual orientation as part of relationship learning. In the 1930s, when Timaru was a three-day train and ferry ride from home, pupils jokingly dubbed North Island boys as outlanders. “I remember once, somebody had written on the walls ‘South Islanders, be kind to North Islanders. Remember they are our allies, like the Chinese,’” Douglas recalled with a laugh. Now international students give the roll a diverse edge, with students from as far afield as the Pacific Islands, Asia, India and China drawn to its good name as the school continues to meet parents’ expectations and student aspirations in an increasingly complex global world.
Read more about Douglas MacDiarmid in his the recently released biography Colours of Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, written by his niece Anna Cahill.
The book is available to purchase here and at selected galleries or ask for it at all good bookstores throughout New Zealand