Helen Hitchings – trailblazer, muse, steadfast friend

Several Helens have figured in Douglas MacDiarmid’s life, but none more so than Helen Hitchings, who today is still regarded as one of New Zealand’s most influential cultural pioneers. She was certainly instrumental in furthering Douglas’ career, in ways that are not widely known.

The tall, dark haired, angular artist and traveller and the vivaciously elegant, stunning slip of a blonde with a fine aesthetic sense were constant companions in the months Douglas spent in Wellington while back home from abroad during 1949-50. Such an eye-catching couple, they created a flurry of interest wherever they went. Helen was then doyen of the local art scene, as owner of the first contemporary commercial art and design gallery in New Zealand.

Blue Helen 1950, watercolour, 46 x 31.5 cm. Collection of Mr G. Simons and Ms M. Almao, Wellington. New Zealand

The Gallery of Helen Hitchings occupied the upper level of a converted warehouse at 39 Bond Street, in the oldest part of the city centre. It was an adventurous, almost playful space unlike anything else in the country at the time – showing the work of emerging painters in living room style with designer furniture, textiles, sculpture and pottery. Rather than the stand-off approach of traditional galleries, people were encouraged to touch and feel, to smoke and relax over coffee and conversation. It became the place to hang out, a lively scene of poetry readings and new music as well as original art and handcrafts in an otherwise dreary city.

Helen first became aware of Douglas when he showed some of his paintings at the Wellington Public Library and gave him his first commercial dealer exhibition in May 1950, a successful one-man show of 55 diverse oils and watercolours that sealed his arrival as a creative force.

Photograph of Helen admiring her portrait in the gallery during Douglas’ exhibition, May 1950. Collection of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington. Ref: CA 000124/001/0060.

Among the paintings displayed were several portraits of Helen, or works modelled on one or both of them. These included some of Douglas’ best-known early paintings – the arresting Figures at Night 1950, showing a man and Helen leaning on a bridge, looking up Parliament Street, Wellington, and Landscape at Night 1950, a moonlit scene with figures of Douglas and Helen, inspired by a line from William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’: “….And the stars threw down their spears/ And watered heaven with their tears.”  It was very rare at the time for figures to appear in New Zealand landscape painting, and urbanscapes such as these were also something of a novelty.

Figures at Night 1950, oil on hardboard prepared with aluminium paint, 90.7 x 60 cm. Collection of Alexander Turnbull Library, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Wellington, New Zealand. Ref: G-388
Landscape at Night with Figures 1950, oil on hard board prepared with aluminium paint, 91.5 x 60.7 cm. Collection of Alexander Turnbull Library, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Wellington, New Zealand. Ref: G-387.

The pair had an exceptional circle of friends, including fellow artists John Drawbridge, Juliet Peter and sometimes Helen Stewart who met every week at Douglas’ Wadestown flat to sketch and share ideas. They drew one another as they experimented with line and form to perfect their figurative technique. A number of sketches from that happy camaraderie are preserved in the Alexander Turnbull Library art collection in Wellington.

John Drawbridge and Helen Hitchings sketching 1949, ink on paper 26.8 x 43.8 cm. Collection of Alexander Turnbull Library, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Wellington, New Zealand. Ref: A-135-035.
Study of Helen’s hands 1949, pencil. Collection of Alexander Turnbull Library, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Wellington, New Zealand. Ref: A-135-036.

Comfortable as Douglas and Helen were with one another, it was not to be a lasting intimate relationship. There was simply too much working against them becoming an enduring ‘power couple’ of Kiwi art. Douglas still finding himself as a bisexual man couldn’t commit, and increasingly he felt the pull of Europe to nurture his art. Helen, while highly organised and tenacious, was plagued by the after-effects of tuberculosis, contracted as a land girl herd testing on farms during the war. It was during her long convalescence that she decided to turn her innovative talent to art dealing.

Girl with Foxgloves, undated 1949, watercolour and ink 30 x 49 cm. Private collection Wellington, New Zealand.
Helen on a Sunny Afternoon, Tinakori hills 1950, watercolour 37 x 30 cm. Private collection, New Zealand

However, like so many of Douglas’ deepest relationships, the connection with Helen lasted a lifetime. When he returned to France to settle permanently in 1951, Helen soon took leave of her gallery and followed on her next audacious enterprise – to introduce a selection of New Zealand painters, MacDiarmid included, to the London art world. Friends at the time were convinced that Helen was still desperately in love with her painter.

While Douglas gradually established a life in France, teaching English before taking the plunge to dedicate himself solely to paint, however precarious that might be, Helen tenaciously overcame stifling bureaucracy, indifference and recurrent illness across the channel, to mount a successful exhibition at Irving Galleries, Leicester Square, London, 15 New Zealand Painters, in June 1952. The show ran for a month, well received and widely reported back home. In the company of other now-iconic artists such as Rita Angus, Colin McCahon, Louise Henderson and Toss Woollaston, Douglas’ work was reviewed as the ‘most forceful’ of the selection. For one frail but courageous woman, working almost in isolation, it was a landmark achievement for post-war New Zealand art.

They drew strength from one another through that time, writing often, supporting one another as best they could and meeting up occasionally. “You have a genius for tackling the sort of problems that all lesser people leave, and truly your courage is magnificent.” Douglas wrote to encourage her in the face of difficulties organising the London exhibition.

Helen hoped to bring her exhibition on to Paris but for all Douglas’ assistance and the support of the New Zealand Embassy, it proved impossible, so she turned her entrepreneurial sights towards home, with the idea of gathering major English and French contemporary art collections to tour throughout New Zealand.

She took office jobs to support herself in London while working on her art projects…scrimping and saving to send food parcels to Paris, where Douglas was existing hand-to-mouth with another struggling artist – often too broke to even post letters. When he could, Douglas sent her paintings to sell to support them all…“It’s the only commodity I can assure you of.” Aware that he was painting well for little return, Helen volunteered to organise a solo exhibition – which he gratefully accepted.

Once again Helen delivered a brilliant result, inviting 140 high-profile guests to sip sherry at the unveiling of 35 MacDiarmid paintings at Chelsea Private Gallery in January 1953. Douglas couldn’t afford to go, then read the awful news in a British paper that 17 of his pictures were stolen after opening night. This was the pick of the bunch, but uninsured and, despite the best efforts of Scotland Yard, the thieves and their haul of paintings were never found.

Both were shattered, and the anxiety made Helen chronically ill. Finally, she took medical advice to recuperate in the south of France, hitch-hiking across France to where Douglas was squatting in Cannes, on the French Riviera. She lived nearby for weeks, staying on after Douglas returned to Paris until she was well enough to return to London and pick up the pieces of her grand scheme to tour a French exhibition. Douglas negotiated the diplomatic arrangements and pulled together the work of 16 well-known Paris artists while she worked on the New Zealand schedule.

Helen wedged between two burly blokes. Ref 1995-0011-coll-1/2-6
Smokers’ seats – riding at the back of a truck. Ref 1995-0011-coll-1/3-6
The downside of hitchhiking. Ref 1995-0011-coll-1/4-6
Helen ‘armed’ with a tiny dagger at her waist, at a market. Ref 1995-0011-coll-1/6-6

These ink and watercolour sketches are from Douglas’ series of six evocative scenes of Helen hitch-hiking in France 1953, each 16.4 x 26.7 cm. She had intended to use them to illustrate a travel article once back in New Zealand. Collection of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington. Gifted by Helen Hitchings 1991.

When her health failed again, he stepped up to finalise arrangements for a national adult education group in New Zealand to manage the exhibition road show from Dunedin to Whangarei. But it came at huge personal cost to Helen as the new organisers demanded exclusive control. She returned to New Zealand after two and a half years of visionary effort, without any role or acknowledgement in the tour she had planned to celebrate her return to the local art scene.

That 1954 tour was ground-breaking, the first time people in small Kiwi communities were introduced to the range and possibilities of modern French art without travelling abroad.

“No one knows better than me the torment and frustration of illness,” Helen wrote to Douglas. “It is not only the bloom that goes off things but the terrible interruptions to one’s life. …I feel few pangs for London, but many a one for France.” To add insult to indignity, she was unable to reopen her Wellington gallery, the building had been sold in her absence and she was not yet fit enough to find another.

Helen largely faded from view, working behind the scenes at the fringes of the art world between bouts of illness. Her much loved collection of MacDiarmid paintings was gradually sold off, often to major public galleries, to support various causes – including making sure their old friend Rita Angus had a functioning stove in her Wellington cottage.

Helen reclining in orange scarf 1949-50, oil. Private collection, Sydney, Australia

Helen and Douglas continued to keep in touch for years and met up on the rare occasions he came home. He never lost his admiration and affection for this brave, passionate woman who deserved much more than life dealt her, although he didn’t mince words when she dyed her lovely long blonde hair red in middle age.

During 2002, Douglas was working on a nostalgic tribute…painting himself as a young man, standing at a window, with Helen lying nearby. The 2002 art history MacDiarmid by Dr Nelly Finet describes the scene:

“In this painting, memory evokes a moment of anguish with the young woman lying face down, hands in hair. The corner she occupies is cut off by a luminous arc, which also isolate, come between her and living. The room’s atmosphere is ardent with graduations of red, the window wide open onto Wellington harbour. Powerless before the despair of his companion, the young man moves toward the outside world. The personal nature of this theme made it harder to take hold of. It was begun in March 2002 and at first called A room with two views, a title which changed as by degrees the concept grew more definite. When, on July 9, MacDiarmid learned Helen had died on 4 July it became clear the picture he was finishing was simply ‘For Helen’. It can hardly be seen as portraiture. Rather, in retrospect, a deepening compassion for Helen’s intuition that for her, happiness did not stand much chance.”

For Helen 2002, acrylic on paper, 77 x 56 cm. Private collection, Paris, France.

Fortunately, contemporary art historians have ensured Helen Hitchings’ role as a catalyst for modern New Zealand art is not forgotten. Her influence has been the subject of several exhibitions and articles, including installations at the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, where her letters and personal papers are archived … https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/about/past-exhibitions/2016-past-exhibitions/gallery-helen-hitchings


Cover Image: Portrait of Helen Hitchings 1950, oil over a base of aluminium paint, 87 x 59.5 cm. Seated on a divan in Douglas’ flat at Barnard Street, Wadestown. The ‘tapa’ cloth on the wall behind was also painted by MacDiarmid. Collection of Alexander Turnbull Library, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Wellington, New Zealand. Ref: G-390. Donated by Helen Hitchings in October 1975.

To read more about Douglas MacDiarmid’s fascinating journey through life Buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018)

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