Peter Siddell: keeping it real in the face of death

07:58, Jul 31 2009

IN NOVEMBER of 2007, Peter Siddell received a letter in the mail. It told him he had been offered a New Year's Honours award. He said: "Why me?"


In December of 2008, his doctors found an aggressive brain tumour. He said: "Well, I thought something like this would happen."

Siddell, 73, is a pragmatic man facing an incurable illness. His wish is to see his 50th wedding anniversary which is a year away, on May 7. He is dying, but doesn't want his family to suffer.

"It was devastating at first. It's much harder on them than it is on me. I'm not the one who is going to be left to grieve, I'll just be gone.

"At my age, one year wouldn't be too bad, and two years would be a bit of a bonus."


Siddell is one of New Zealand's most prominent artists, renowned for his realist paintings in a career that has lasted more than 40 years. He has had numerous solo exhibitions, was a featured artist during the Benson and Hedges art awards in the 1970s, and his work is still popular today. His pieces are held in most collections nationwide private, public and corporate.

The Auckland artist is talking publicly for the first time about his illness, allowing the Sunday Star-Times into the Victorian villa he has shared with wife Sylvia for 23 years. The home doubles as a studio as Sylvia is also an artist; it is covered wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with works by the family.

The Mt Eden house is only a few suburbs west of where Siddell grew up on Scanlan St. The house is similar to what appears commonly in his works, reminiscent of a childhood spent wandering Grey Lynn streets.

Siddell's last painting before his diagnosis and operation was called Graveyard at Sunset and features a chapel overlooking a beach covered in rocks.

"Graveyards have figured as a subject matter for a long while," he says. But he doesn't believe in an afterlife. "I would be a bit worried if there was."

Siddell's elder sister, Ngaire, reminded him that during the Second World War their mother would escort people to take flowers to local graves. A young Siddell and his sister would play among the gravestones: "She used to scare me with any cracks in the concrete and what would come up beneath."

One wall of the Siddells' living room is dominated by a painting he did, split into five framed pieces, of the expanse of west coast beaches from Muriwai to Whatipu. His childhood summers were spent at Kare Kare beach, where he has a bach atop the cliff. It's where he spent the last Sunday in November before his diagnosis.

"I was surfing at Kare Kare, and took my five-year-old grandson to the top of the cliffs there so that he could look down the steep slope. I took him right to the edge and showed him the waterfall I shudder now to think what could have happened."

A week later he got sick; he had a headache and couldn't move the left side of his body. His GP suspected a stroke, so sent him to Auckland hospital for a scan to see if it was a clot or a bleed, but they found a tumour.

"So that was a learning curve we didn't want," his wife adds. "I was sitting right next to Peter, and the doctor asked him where his wife was and he said, `Oh, she was here'." He couldn't see Sylvia because the tumour was squashing his brain causing disorientation.

He had surgery the next week. "I think the term is debulk," Siddell says. The biopsy taken by the medical team came back; the tumour was a glioblastoma multiforme an aggressive, incurable form of cancer.

"What if we do nothing?" his daughter, Emily, asked. The answer was "two, maybe three weeks". The side effects of the operation to remove the tumour were potentially severe, with paralysis, blindness, loss of other functions and possible death.

Siddell remembers the anaesthetist, remembers waking up in bed thinking they hadn't operated but put his hand to his head and "felt a big turban there and thought, `oh, yes they have'.

"The tumour was larger than a golf ball, they took out a round piece of my skull you can still see the stitches they opened that up, pulled the flesh back, cut out a piece of skull with their `jigsaw' and pumped out most of the tumour, what they could, and closed it up with some titanium screws."

His scar today is barely noticeable, a thin line of raised skin in a semi circle on the right of his skull. He says the radiation therapy burned some of his hair off, so he has kept it short since. "It's fortunate," Sylvia says, "that hats and bald heads are in fashion."

Siddell doesn't think he is a fighter "you hear about this thing cancer that people battle, but I don't know how you battle it" he says the medical staff are the ones fighting. "I was a good boy, I swallowed whatever I was given.

"I am so grateful for the wonderful treatment that I received from the world class neuro surgical unit at Auckland Hospital under Dr Bok, and the ongoing treatment from the oncology department under Dr Stevens."

His sangfroid post-diagnosis did surprise him somewhat, but, he says, "at least I've got time to sort things out you don't want to leave your family with all sorts of bothersome things to do".

"If I'd been asked before this, how would you feel if you were given six to 12 months to live, I would have thought I would be quite devastated, but when I got the prognosis I thought, I've had a good life and at my age you expect something like this to happen."

THE SIDDELLS have two adult daughters, Avril and Emily, and three grandsons; Avril has a five-year-old and Emily has a 16-year-old and a five-year-old. It's a very close family; Siddell says it is most important to have the people you love handling you at such a time.

"I realised that it was an opportunity to tell all my family just how much I loved them. Which is a thing you don't tend to go around doing all the time because it all seems a bit soppy, but I was able to say that to all the family because wheeling into the operation, I didn't know what I would wake to."

Now Siddell is home, he wants life to go on as normal. He's seen all he wants to see and done everything he wants to do. His final months will be spent living a "normal" life, painting and reading books.

As normal as life can be for a family that has three artists; Emily followed in her parents' footsteps to nationwide acclaim. The Siddells agree that having an artistic family is great for sharing materials and talking about colours. Sylvia says they rarely speak on the content of the painting because their art is just so different. Peter Siddell's work is notable for its stillness and paucity of life-signs, while Sylvia's work exudes warmth, a medley of colour and movement. "His are very still, and mine are far from still," she says.

"A lot of my painting relates back to childhood memories," he adds, "that, and a lot of it are about places I know, certainly the vistas of Victorian villas and volcanic hills are just the sort of stereotype of Auckland that I remember from my childhood."

His paintings are noted for their lack of human interference no telephone poles, cars, pollution or graffiti mar his work. His art is a monument to the memories of his childhood, featuring significant images held by a young and inquisitive mind.

"I certainly didn't want to clutter a painting up with power lines, things like graffiti, you would be making a political statement." Putting things such as cars in a painting would set it in time, he says.

Siddell has a painting at the Auckland City Art Gallery featuring a volcanic cone. It is a sparse image, a grass hill with some terraces on it, but the education staff at the art gallery say that children recognise it as the hill closest to their home Mangere children see the Mangere Mountain and North Shore children see Mt Victoria.

Siddell says his upbringing didn't lend itself to a career in the arts. When he first began painting he kept a timesheet, a hangover from his tradesman days which allowed him to keep a log of the time spent actually working.

After leaving his job as an electrician in the 1970s, he trained as a primary school teacher. Teaching afforded him time to pursue painting, something he had wanted to try since childhood, but had not been a proper career for a wharfie's son up to that point.

Siddell vividly remembers his mother taking him to the Auckland City Art Gallery, and that seeing Frank Bramly's piece For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven was a seminal moment in his artistic development.

"It was a painting I always liked over the years. I still love it because it has a gradation of tones through it and it is just wonderful."

There was also one of Moses being found in the bulrushes "I think it was probably the naked women that got me at the time."

Noel Moller, the owner of a Queen St gallery, saw Siddell's work and decided to offer him space in a Christmas exhibition. His first painting to be sold was Girl at a gate in 1971.

Moller offered Siddell his own show so he worked tirelessly, all day as a teacher and then painting during the evenings. He had a show on a Sunday afternoon which picked up a few sales enough for him to commit to the idea that he could be a fulltime painter at 37.

Siddell sees painting as "an exercise in controlled disappointment you start off at the beginning with a brilliant idea and think `oh, this is going to be a great painting', but as soon as you make a few marks on the canvas then you find that what is planned is going to be affected by the initial brushstrokes and the painting ends up very different from its original conception.

"A painting is a movement of areas of colour across a flat surface. If one of those colours is out, it can make a clash through the whole thing, it often requires only a little change but it's purely a thing of judgement, there is no formula for how to do it right."

Siddell is not worried about how his work will be judged in the future. He faces death with dignity, preferring to spend the time with his family, and in his studio. His New Year's honour, the DCNZM, was a pleasant surprise and he wears the medals on Christmas Day for his grandsons, along with Sylvia's Order of New Zealand medal she received for services to art.

"There was almost a hesitation in accepting it [the award] but I think the family insisted. I was a bit nonplussed about it when I realised it was the equivalent of a knighthood. It's not false modesty, it just is."

Sunday Star Times