Woman and child in a room at night 1946

Woman and child in a room at night 1946 has a mysterious sort of expectancy to it, and has continued to surprise as the layers of its story unfolded. This small oil on board (47.7x 36cm) is one of those remarkable Douglas MacDiarmid paintings that simply defies its age – so fresh and vibrant it could have been painted yesterday rather than more than 70 years ago.

Woman and child in a room at night, London (1946) by Douglas MacDiarmid. Lark Family Collection, Wellington. www.douglasmacdiarmid.com
Woman and child in a room at night, London (1946) by Douglas MacDiarmid. Lark Family Collection, Wellington.

Very little was remembered about the painting in New Zealand when it came up for auction as part of the late Tim and Sherrah Francis’ vast art collection in 2016. Then called ‘Children in a room at night’ it achieved a personal record price for MacDiarmid works at auction that is yet to be surpassed.

Those ‘children’ are in fact mother and daughter, Marjorie and Juliet Mitchell, with a very clear link to Douglas, New Zealand and his early travels. This painting lived for many years on the walls of his close friend Helen Hitchings in Wellington before being bought by the Francis’, dedicated art collectors and diplomats, in 1984. But the giving and gratitude associated with the painting extends back much further to Douglas’ university years in Christchurch during World War II.

Mother and daughter

Marjorie was a young British biologist who came out to New Zealand pregnant on a brief research exchange visit to study a particular seaweed. Stranded in Christchurch by World War II, she realised she could not get home to her family to have the baby and needed help to continue to work. She was taken in by Jewish refugee friends of Douglas, Paul and Otti Binswanger. The middle-aged couple had always wanted children and adopted them as family. Marjorie was a vivacious part of their social circle of European migrants and avant garde artists, musicians and poets until she could return to London with her little one three years later after peace was declared.

Douglas painted Marjorie several times in Christchurch. He was desperate to see the world, and sailed to England in 1946 as tutor to his landlady Blanche Harding’s son Buddy. Accommodation was impossible to find in bomb-razed London, but Marjorie returned the hospitality she received in New Zealand by giving them the top floor of her large house in Hampstead for as long as they needed. The walls were badly cracked; the cold and yellow pea-soup London fog seeped in, food was scarce and rationed, furniture too expensive to buy, so they made do with the little they had and were thankful for a dryish roof over their heads.

The travel cases next to young Juliet in the painting are Douglas and Blanche’s trunks, used as storage, seating, tables in good resourceful Kiwi fashion. When the Binswangers later left New Zealand they lived in the Mitchell household in London for some years, and continued to make the family complete. When Otti and Paul resumed their lives in Florence, Juliet had many happy holidays with her adored godparents there for the rest of their lives. That little girl in the painting grew up to be Dr Juliet Mitchell, a leading English psychoanalyst, feminist and author on sexuality. She was charmed to hear of the painting when it came to light at the auction.

A new generation of admirers

In a strange quirk of fate, the picture is now owned by a psychologist, and usually hangs on her office wall for inspiration. It was bought as a surprise birthday present, after the current owners kept coming back to it in the auction catalogue…

“It is hard to attribute the appeal of Douglas’ painting to one dimension,” her husband said.

“We felt the painting had an air of mystery, serenity and simplicity. We wondered about the relationship between the woman and the young girl. We also found we would notice different things when we kept looking at the catalogue picture. My wife was overjoyed on her birthday to unwrap the painting! She had no idea that I had purchased it.”

Currently that surprise present is part of the Colours of a Life: Douglas MacDiarmid exhibition at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington, supporting the launch of his biography, and will be on public show until 23 September 2018. It is also reproduced in Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid (page 84) by Anna Cahill.

Buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018) online or purchase it in person from the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington, Jonathan Grant Gallery in Auckland, or from all good bookstores across New Zealand. Published by Mary Egan Publishing (July 2018).

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