MacDiarmid – the art history

The notion of capturing Douglas MacDiarmid’s diverse work in print surfaced way back in 1990. And who better to do so than his dear friend Dr Nelly Finet.

Nelly knew and understood his painting, the underlying influences and philosophies, more acutely than anyone else. Her family was his family in France, she had grown up with it, he had painted her several times. Now she had a doctorate from the Sorbonne and professional standing as a respected Paris art historian, lecturer and archivist.

Although her speciality was Renaissance art, she felt strongly that it was time to establish a comprehensive illustrated catalogue of MacDiarmid paintings.

Initially, Douglas was unconvinced. In his late 60s, he was at the height of his powers, an established painter of diverse output with a dedicated following of collectors in Europe, New Zealand and elsewhere. Naturally, he could see the value of a book to consolidate his life’s work and create a significant retrospective record, yet he was almost superstitiously wary of appearing conceited or egotistical.

Once he warmed to the idea of a scholarly monograph, they began their “labour of cooperation” late in 1990, after Douglas returned from his official Sesquicentennial visit to New Zealand, working on it with “sporadic intensity” ln their spare time.

Douglas set about unearthing titles, specifications and whereabouts of the 80 paintings Nelly chose to represent his effort over a 50-year period. All this delving was unexpectedly interesting: he had no idea it would entail such a severe self-examination…“Quite a new experience raking about over the past – whether in terms of pictures or not makes little difference – a weird amount of material surfaces, requiring sorting and selecting,” he wrote at the time.

Regular bundles of French text arrived from Nelly, to be translated into English, for dual language editions.

A year later he wrote to a cousin: “…this blooming catalogue — yes, we’re not talking about some obscure, diminutive variety of Hallucigenia (an ancient, extinct creature) whose fossils have to be dug from the mountain schist, but something smaller, still waiting to be born, but requiring no less digging for that. (It will finally be shot through the press at some wonderful, propitious moment immediately following some conjunction of paper, inks, God knows what all together for something else, thus enormously reducing the cost.)” Progress, obviously, was slow, but steady.

By mid-1993 the art history manuscript was finished but in financial limbo… “shipwrecked by the last (global) petrol crisis, on the eve of publication…”

Another six years elapsed before there was a chink of light. Ferner Galleries in New Zealand were enthsiastically exhibiting his work. They were keen to retrieve the art history project from its lonely shelf and dust it off.

A flurry of paperwork, research and faxes whizzed between New Zealand and Paris as Nelly and Douglas updated the text and images to the present, ultimately to cover the period 1944 to the latest work of 2002.

‘MacDiarmid’ by Nelly Finet was published that year in French and English language hardback editions, through her husband Claude’s design company Société Technique d’Art et Realization (STAR), to coincide with Douglas’ 80th birthday exhibitions in Paris and New Zealand.

MacDiarmid by Dr Nelly Finet (2002). An art history book available from

The French edition was launched in Paris at an intimate at-home exhibition at 12 Rue Cavalotti on 14 November 2002, Douglas’ birthday, with the painter and Nelly in attendance. On the other side of the world, the English edition supported two ‘Celebrating Douglas MacDiarmid – The artist at eighty’ exhibitions at Ferner Galleries in Parnell, Auckland and Wellington in late November and early December 2002.

After the shine of successful exhibitions in both hemispheres they were rocked by one final disappointment. The promises to fund publication of those English copies of the book never eventuated. Once again, Claude Finet came to the rescue and covered the cost.

The book traverses Douglas’ career from New Zealand to London to Paris, through portraits, landscapes, figures, abstracts, narrated in insightful, often lyrical detail. As an art history, it is as relevant today as it was when newly minted nearly twenty years ago – both as a stand-alone volume, and companion book to the 2018 illustrated biography ‘Colours of a Life: The Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid’.

Indeed, art blogs on this website regularly include extracts from Nelly Finet’s narrative as a specialist reference to particular paintings or series.

Until recently it was assumed ‘MacDiarmid’ by Finet was long out of print, until a small supply of unopened books was found in the storage cellar beneath Douglas’ Montmartre apartment. In September 2019, the International ISBN Agency retrospectively assigned unique 13-digit international standard book numbers to the French and English versions at the request of the MacDiarmid Arts Trust to comply with contemporary publishing practice. These numbers are essential for identifying, sourcing, selling and cataloguing books and are applied to existing ‘MacDiarmid’ books as a barcode sticker.

Visit our shop to buy a copy of MacDiarmid by Dr Nelly Finet from the MacDiarmid Arts Trust.

The author Dr Nelly Finet...Portrait of Nelly 1965 by Douglas MacDiarmid, oil on canvas. Finet family collection, Paris
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Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid biography
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