Doomed climbing film sketches re-surface

03:09, Nov 10 2012
drawbridge sketches 1
Acclaimed New Zealand artist John Drawbridge's paintings.
drawbridge sketches 1
Acclaimed New Zealand artist John Drawbridge's paintings.
drawbridge sketches 1
Acclaimed New Zealand artist John Drawbridge's paintings.
drawbridge sketches 1
Acclaimed New Zealand artist John Drawbridge's paintings.

It was a collaboration that should have combined the words of James K Baxter with the images of Brian Brake, the art of John Drawbridge, and music of Douglas Lilburn.

1949 film The Ascent of Aspiring – a joint project by some of New Zealand’s top names in their respective artistic fields – was scuttled by the death of climber and bad weather.

Now the Alexander Turnbull library has been gifted an album of 45 watercolour and pastel drawings containing Drawbridge’s storyboard.

Turnbull drawings, paintings and prints curator Marian Minson said the album, gifted by Drawbridge’s widow, sculptor Tanya Ashken, had never been seen publicly in their entirety.

‘‘It’s a very significant album because of the people who are involved  and the event it represents – the only record of what the intent was of this event.’’

Envisaged by Brake, who had recently shot a black and white film of ‘‘strong young men’’ scaling the mountain to build Aspiring Hut – the dramatic documentary was intended as a ‘‘cinematic poem’’.


Brake enlisted Baxter as scriptwriter, Lilburn as composer, and Drawbridge as artist.

The group started shooting in  January 1949, staying in the Matukituki  Valley near Gibson.

But of the three climbers involved, one died. Bad weather packed in around Easter and the project was abandoned for good.

Baxter, Brake, and Lilburn were relatively young, yet already well-known, but Drawbridge – who would go on to become one of New Zealand’s most well-known artists – was just 18 and starting out at the time.

Drawbridges’s storyboard was designed to secure financing for the film.

It shows three young climbers progressing up the mountain, and the surrounding landscapes, including views below and above the bush-line, the glaciers and summit of the mountain.

Turnbull chief librarian Chris Szekely said the images related to ‘‘a remarkable project involving some of New Zealand’s most iconic cultural luminaries’’.

Ashken’s donation is timed to coincide with the establishment of Massey University’s John Drawbridge Ambassadorial Scholarship, which will help the university’s students in in international exchange programmes.

The scholarship will be launched at Massey in Wellington on Monday night with a charity auction including works by Drawbridge, photographs by Brake, a piano recital of music by Lilburn, and a reading of Baxter’s poetry.

A 2001 documentary on the making of The Ascent of Aspiring will also screen.

The Alexander Turnbull Library is part of the National Library of New Zealand. The Library building in Molesworth St is due to reopen to the public on November 27 after a major refurbishment.

James K Baxter was one of New Zealand’s finest poets. As a dramatist, literary critic and social commentator, Baxter often judged New Zealand society harshly, yet always from the perspective of one intimately involved in the social process. Baxter was legendary for his appearance – barefoot and bearded – and for establishing a spiritual commune at Jerusalem, near Whanganui. He died in 1972.

*Source: NZ Book Council

Douglas Lilburn studied music at Canterbury University College in the mid-1930s, discovering his talents as a composer. While in his third year, and before he had seen a symphony orchestra perform, he won a national composition prize – the first of many he would win. Through the 1940s he was the only serious professional composer in New Zealand. He died in 2001.

* Source:

Brian Brake , born in Wellington in 1927, but raised in the South Island, showed an interest for photography from a young age. From 1945 he worked as an assistant in the Wellington studio of portraitist Spencer Digby. He started working for the National Film Unit  in 1948 before heading overseas where he worked for the likes of Magnum and Life. He returned to New Zealand in 1976. He died suddenly in 1988.

* Source: Te Papa.

John Drawbridge , born in 1930, had a 50-year period in which he created more than 200 limited edition mezzotints, etchings, drypoints and lithographs. He also worked in oil and watercolour, large public murals, printmaking and stained glass. His murals include the New Zealand House Mural in London, now housed at National Archives; and a 42 metre-long 4.8 metre-high mural in the Banqueting Hall in the Beehive. He died in 2005.

* Source: The Arts Foundation.

The Dominion Post