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.