It was a long time coming. Three years ago art historian Jane Vial curated the exhibition Bohemians of the Brush: Pumpkin Cottage Impressionists, a comprehensive look at what is now considered an important period and place in the history of New Zealand art.
Pumpkin Cottage was a colonial cottage built by a settler in rural Silverstream in Upper Hutt between 1850 and 1860 on what is now Fergusson Dr. In 1895 it was rented by Scottish painter James Nairn and it became an artists' retreat until 1949.
Nairn, who originally used the cottage as a place to dry his paintings, had embraced Impressionism, which began in Paris in the 1870s. The movement was revolutionary and it included the then-radical idea of artists painting outdoors. The rural setting of the cottage and the bright New Zealand light galvanised Nairn.
The artists at Pumpkin Cottage - which over the decades numbered in the hundreds - established and developed a distinct New Zealand style of Impressionism. In 1917, it was being called the ''Silverstream School'' of Impressionism and international art magazine The Studio singled it out as the most significant art movement in the British Empire.
Bohemians of the Brush, shown at Expressions in Upper Hutt, won a New Zealand Museum award for best exhibition at a small museum. It toured the country.
But Vial says that exhibition told only half the story. The new show, Pumpkin Cottage: Preserving Our Artistic Heritage, looks at the artists who gathered at Pumpkin Cottage after Nairn's death in 1904 through to the campaigns to save the cottage before it was demolished in 1980.
''It focuses on the cottage itself and the various tenants, owners and occupants and is as much the history of the cottage as the painting that went on there,'' she says.
Vial, who is based in Blenheim, says she was surprised at just how much information was available despite the fact ''it was just a simple little colonial cottage''.
There was a lull in activity for a few years after Nairn's death, but the New Zealand Impressionist movement continued with artists not wanting to be studio-bound. Vial says that, for a while, some were based at a cottage in Paremata, Porirua, but from about 1911 until 1921 Pumpkin Cottage was ''hugely popular''.
''I hadn't appreciated that. It was almost a nostalgic desire to recreate what had happened in the Nairn period and also that this was happening as a sort of refuge during the war. They were soldiers coming back, they were people who didn't go away. There were so many people during that period that they had a second cottage that was close enough to take the overflow of artists coming out.''
Vial says one reason the cottage continued to be popular was that the area surrounding it continued to look relatively rural, even as the Hutt Valley and Wellington were increasingly urbanised. On her own visits to where the cottage stood, Vial says she was surprised at just how rural it remains.
The paintings on show in the new exhibition include several from the collection of Ernest and Shirley Cosgrove, who donated about 40 Pumpkin Cottage paintings to the Upper Hutt City Council in 2009. It includes a work from the Wellington actor and artist Grant Tilly, who died last year, and Sydney Higgs, who painted the cottage's interior in 1934. Higgs's daughter, 92-year-old Wellington artist Avis Higgs, was able to tell Vial directly about her own experiences of visiting the cottage.
''She told me a wonderful story of her taking refuge as a 12-year-old, along with her parents and her sister. Twelve people in total spent a night on a haystack after being flooded out of Pumpkin Cottage in 1930. I defy anybody to come forward and say that they can recall being at Pumpkin Cottage prior to 1930.''
Vial says the cottage was prone to flooding. While there were several reasons for why it was demolished, despite a campaign to save it, she says it did nt help that Impressionism was out of fashion in the 1970s.
''It wasn't architecturally significant and there were bigger battles going on [at the time] in Wellington. This was just 'a funny little cottage'. It wasn't deemed significant enough in so many areas. So they lost the battle to save the building. It wasn't a movement that our art history or our institutions particularly favoured.''
Pumpkin Cottage: Preserving Our Artistic Heritage, Expressions, Upper Hutt, until March 17.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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