Douglas MacDiarmid has always been an individual with a flair for the unexpected. In 1946, the war over, he wanted a change, something cleansing. Obviously, a gipsy escapade was in order, with his Christchurch landlady Blanche Harding, and her young son Buddy in tow. As he recalled more than 50 years later:
“Next came an adventure hatched from my desperate need for the antithesis of fighting spirit, gear, machinery. I had been able to lay hands on the last covered wagon in the South Island, also to hire a fine white mare. Off we drove in a flourish then for a month, Blanche, Buddy, me. We were headed for the rolling country where the Canterbury Plains are not yet hills finishing as Alps. At no more than clip-clop pace it is possible to approach with peaceful observation, meditation merging as no motor vehicle will allow. I marvel now at the perilous innocence of the whole proceeding. I had mounted horses since boyhood, but not driven one between shafts. What panic when the entire earth lurched off axis in the first stretch of loose gravel. Then undressing Lady Mare at that day’s end. Piece by piece we laid her harness out on the ground, respecting scrupulously her horse form and proportions. She was a dear, patient beast, only ceding to agitation when too close to railway racket, or should a sheet of newspaper blow into range from any quarter.”
“Also, I can’t say that she was entirely in agreement when, on long smooth roads I sat on the reins to seduce her with tunes played on my recorder. She humoured me at least but threw a terrible tantrum the day I first rode her into a village to get provisions, not needing the wagon. I arrived with her bucking and kicking like some rodeo vision, which, if nothing else, served to raise opinions of me in farms passed. It could be the evidence of odd people camped nearby that brought us visits from farmers’ wives, invariably bearing good things to eat and, as often as not, a photo of ‘my boy whom I lost in the war. Could you possibly paint his portrait?’ Never could I have imagined a reward of tears shed over each portrait done. Or their effect on me. But it stands apart, this whole experience of doing little more than paint landscapes, write poetry, discuss. Blanche and Buddy too were happy with this taste of life just being, and without possessions. The reality of sheltering a night here or there in an abandoned pig sty or ruined house, actually contributed to some unknown dimension of beauty. We arrived home with some slight adjustment of appreciation. A certain luxury in our lives was apparent. We had what we needed, and extra exhilaration from gifted friends. The rich artistic climate of post war Christchurch was nowhere equalled in New Zealand at that time.”
Douglas painted the picture a year later in London, from one of only two photographs taken on the journey. He was in a nostalgic mood when strict food rationing, and the persistent cold of bomb-damaged houses with pea soup fog seeping into every crack, sometimes threatened to overwhelm him on his first overseas experience. The freedom of the road was a heady memory to fix upon. The painting is reproduced in Chapter 3 of his biography Colours of a Life, on Page 79. It had a rare public outing for the night when the book was launched in Auckland at the Wallace Arts Trust’s The Pah Homestead, Hillsborough. Yes, this painting might be tiny, but even today it packs a punch.
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 all good bookstores across New Zealand. Published by Mary Egan Publishing (July 2018)