(for a painting by Douglas MacDiarmid).
Even upon the deceptively green, the candid lawns
there is terror behind the children, in waiting hills,
and loneliness in the dark trees where the small
fancies shape gnomes or giants as fancy wills;
a hunger, waiting to pounce – something that is not all
in the picture’s focus; something suspended without that fawns
with dog-uncertainty certain to deceive. And children play –
simulate unawareness – but falter – and each suspects
the others know of the fear that’s beyond, but speak,
frightened, in still-shrill voices of pretence – detects
the awful outer silence, turns back, tiny and weak
within the scope of the frame – warm orbit of the known day.
Will be abstract or lost from the noise a moment; resume
More eagerly, play, to escape and be driven wilder on
From tormenting vagueness, knowing it can’t be seen
In the solid lawns or pond; and not believe in
Anymore, safety, for “nothing is what it seems” will be seen
more true, more terrible, in the dark part of the room.
Will day come like a flower and open silently? What hides
In the corner was what, out of sleep – haunting sleep –
was overheard – beyond touchpoint – realisation,
in the playground. Secret, will darkness weep,
and dreams gather and seep, and consternation
gather in pools and wait – wait there – outside.
While ‘Papa Cliff Pool with Bathers’ has been exhibited at Te Papa Tongarewa, and reproduced in books, ‘Recreation Ground’ 1947 was for decades the ‘missing’ companion, only known from a scratchy, little old black and white photograph Douglas carted around in a bundle of early painting images.
It was not until 2018 that the painting was located back in London, a much-loved piece of memorabilia in the collection of another expatriate New Zealander, an art lover who brought the painting on a visit home in 2006. As a child, his family used to stop off in Taihape on the way up to Taupo from Wellington, and visited the sports ground. Although he has never met Douglas, he is drawn to his paintings because they are “not only painted very well, but also resonate well with underlying feelings, memories and emotions.”
Finally, more than 70 years after his nostalgic episode, the painter again saw a colour photograph of this little gem. It was a welcome emotional boost, all the more so to know both paintings were well-loved and in good condition.
Douglas brought them back to New Zealand in 1949, with other recent paintings. Later in 1950, they appeared in his first solo commercial exhibition at Helen Hitchings Gallery in Wellington (Nos 11 and 12, £8 each). Helen, then Douglas’ lover, cherished them in her personal collection for decades until ‘Papa Cliff Pool with Bathers’ was sold when downsizing to the National Gallery, in its pre-Te Papa Tongarewa days.
Its twin surfaced in Helen’s estate clearance at a Dunbar Sloane art auction, Wellington in September 2002 (Lot No 150), snapped up by Ferner Galleries, for their catalogue: “Recreation Ground, at first glance a cheerful scene of children playing, has an ominous quality lurking in the background. Barren hills surround and entrench the children, a sheer grey cliff rises from the playground and a thick mass of dark trees seems to lean over and close in on the children below.”
There has been some confusion about the year these paintings were made. Douglas listed both as 1946 works in his 2002 art history, but Papa Cliff Pool is clearly dated 1947. He agrees the pictures were done at the same time, early that year before he moved to Paris, so to clear the matter up for once and for all, 1947 it is.
It’s been fascinating to observe the outpouring of happy childhood memories from people who grew up in Taihape, when shown photographs of these paintings…they remember the very spot on the river where children slid down the papa clay cliffs and swam, and the memorial gates of the recreation ground, with its dark bush beyond. One man was overjoyed to see his old playground, and recognised it immediately: “The painting depicts the back right of the ‘REC’ looking from the grandstand and shows the entrance to the bush walk. Just terrific, as I scored a lot of tries and won many races at the Rec! It has a special place in my past.”
A third painting, a watercolour from Helen’s 2002 estate sale (Lot 151), which also came to light in 2018, belongs in this same memory vein.