Friendship worked to save rock art

Last updated 13:11 13/05/2014
rock art

OLD DISPLAY: Schoon Cave art paintings exhibited at the South Canterbury Historical Society in 1948.

rock art
An image of the Maori Cave Art in situ.
william vance
William Vance, depicted, far right, leads a party into Cave art territory in the late 1940s.

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A collection of paintings and photographs of South Canterbury's rock art will go under the hammer in Auckland later this month, preserved for decades by a former Timaru historian and journalist.

They were an unlikely pair.

William Vance was an historian and journalist, and, in the 1940s, an historical research officer with the Department of Internal Affairs in South Canterbury.

Theo Schoon was an itinerant Dutch painter and experienced photographer, employed by the department to record via paintings and photography South Canterbury's rich vein of Maori rock art, as there were fears at the time that the artworks could be lost forever.

Vance's role was to supply Schoon with the materials he needed and liaise with museums and the department.

They shared a passion for the rock art, and complemented each other perfectly. Vance enjoyed dealing with difficult people; Schoon needed a buffer between his visionary drive and a slow-moving officialdom.

A friendship arose, one which saw Schoon gift to Vance a considerable body of work - 25 original Schoon paintings - to accompany Vance's archive of correspondence, publications, articles and photographs.

Nearly 30 years after Vance's death, and 70 years since he was working with Schoon, his estate is offering the collection for sale. It comprises part of a catalogue dedicated to modernist art to be auctioned in Auckland on May 21.

For Art+Object managing director Hamish Coney, the Vance archive constitutes a rare window into what is regarded as a vital period in the development of New Zealand culture in the aftermath of World War II, with Schoon's work credited as being a catalyst for Modern New Zealand art.

"Theo Schoon is a figure almost lost in the shadows of the New Zealand art story. What this collection reveals is the crucial role of a pioneering figure in capturing material that was on the point of being lost.

The Maori cave art is depicted in extremely sensitive and faithful renderings by an artist who initiated a process that really got New Zealanders thinking about what it was that made Aotearoa unique in the world, and that is of course Maori art and culture."

Schoon went on to diverse artistic pursuits but never lost his grounding in Maori culture. Vance went on to write the standard history of the Mackenzie, dozens of articles and half a dozen books on Canterbury.

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- The Timaru Herald

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