Remembering Rita Angus: The pioneer of modern painting in New Zealand

Black and white photograph of Rita Angus painting Self portrait

Best known for her pioneering and personal modern art, painter Rita Angus was a creative with a complicated story. We look back at her legacy.

Following a period of anxiety and isolation, Rita Angus was found wandering the streets at Sumner in October 1949, obviously disoriented. She was promptly dispatched to Sunnyside Mental Hospital.

Shattered by the news of Rita’s collapse, her mother, Ethel Angus, left immediately for Christchurch. Years later she recalled the shock of seeing her eldest child in Sunnyside: “I just looked at poor Rita and I thought, this is my daughter, we’ve got to get her home.” Ethel was advised that Rita needed to be stabilised and would possibly be ready to be released into her family’s care in January. She was initially diagnosed as suffering from “toxic exhaustive psychosis”.

Sunnyside, first established in the 1860s, was a fortress-like complex of Gothic Revival buildings on the outskirts of Christchurch, beyond Spreydon. Rita was more fortunate than some patients in that she was housed in the hospital’s Reception Home and did not encounter the more seriously disturbed long-term residents. She responded quickly to treatment, and by late October was able to go on afternoon outings with friends Douglas Lilburn and Roy and Joyce Milligan.

In November she was transferred to Hornby Lodge, a gracious two-storey house with extensive grounds that was used to accommodate convalescing patients, and from there she wrote to Lilburn: “I shall probably be here until mid-Jan. & my being sent is good news. It seems enjoyable here, the country, lovely home, music room. I am much better & the Dr. is pleased with my recovery to date.” Her doctor, who had noted her confusion and memory loss when she first arrived at Sunnyside, reported, “She now feels herself again & has regained most of her confidence. Doesn’t feel yet like taking up her work again & still seems a little bemused.”

New Zealand’s psychiatric hospitals of the 1940s and 1950s have often been described as bleak and harrowing places: understaffed, overcrowded, and with only the most primitive methods of treatment. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), introduced at Sunnyside in 1942, was believed to be the new wonder cure for depression and schizophrenia.

The procedure involved passing an electric current through the patient’s brain, inducing convulsions and short-term coma, and in the early days at least it was administered without the use of anaesthetics or muscle relaxants. The writer Janet Frame, who had been at Sunnyside for four months in 1948, was traumatised by repeated courses of ECT. Rita had 12 treatments between October 14 and November 28, but nonetheless seems to have regarded hospitalisation as a mainly positive experience. She praised the staff, who encouraged her to draw again during her recovery, and enjoyed the weaving course that she attended as part of occupational therapy.

A Goddess of Mercy painting by Rita Angus showing girl wearing white t-shirt, red floral patterned skirt, holding yellow flower and surrounded on either side by two deer
A Goddess of Mercy, 1945-47 (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, purchased 1957)

Most importantly, Rita’s period in hospital gave her the chance to reflect on the recent past and to consider the factors that had led to her breakdown. For a divorcee and a pacifist, the 1940s had been stressful, but Rita’s situation had been exacerbated by her total focus on painting.

Always admiring of self-sacrifice in others and determined to give everything to her art, she had to some extent sacrificed the solace of everyday human contact for her self-appointed role
as a “full-time painter”. In hospital she was helped to understand that her obsessiveness had damaged her health. Later she tried to share this wisdom with the similarly driven Lilburn: “[Y]ou could receive so much more of your family & friends if you wanted & work too. I was taught this when convalescent recovering memory at the Lodge.”

Sun Goddess artwork by Rita Angus, showing woman sitting in flower field holding white flower
Sun Goddess, 1949 (private collection). Part of a series, this is a peaceful watercolour that depicts the goddess in a lush and fertile landscape.

She was clear about what had led to her physical collapse – “The cause was starvation over a period”– and quick to reassure her mother, “I’m not going to do that again.” Rita weighed 50kg on her admission to hospital, which was thin, although not dangerously so, for a woman of 158cm. She told hospital staff that she had been living on a diet of vegetable soup, coffee and biscuits.

Such meagre fare can scarcely be blamed on poverty: after all, only months before her breakdown she had gifted the substantial sum of 12 guineas to the Frances Hodgkins subscription fund. It would have been typical for her to see the Hodgkins cause as a greater priority than groceries, but she did in fact have a choice. Even if she did not have much money, she did not need to go hungry.

Rita’s weight loss was probably due to a combination of factors. She was proud of her figure and, according to brother-in- law Fred Jones, “may even have been a bit neurotic about eating”. Perhaps more crucially, for years she had pursued an ascetic philosophy in which everyday bodily needs were increasingly neglected in the cause of art.

Rita would try anything if she felt it might enhance her creativity. In her reading about different cultures, she had learned about religious practices in which fasting was used to induce higher consciousness and visionary experience, and in 1958 she told the young artist Jeanne Macaskill that she liked to “starve herself a little” when she was preparing to paint a major work because she felt it heightened her awareness. Completely absorbed in her work during the late 1940s, her willingness to “starve herself a little” had become a health risk.

Schoolgirl artwork by Rita Angus showing portrait of girl sitting with two braids with yellow bows and a school uniform
Schoolgirl, 1950 (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on loan from the Rita Angus Estate). This luminous portrait of an Indian girl was painted during Rita’s time in Waikanae.

There is no mention of Rita’s self-medication with bromide in her hospital file, but this may also have been a factor in her breakdown. Today the risks of bromide intoxication, or bromism, are well documented. Bromide tends to be retained in the body, and its long-term use can cause symptoms such as delusions, confusion and loss of memory. After Rita’s hospitalisation she never took it again.

In December 1949, a month earlier than the doctors had initially anticipated, sister Jean Jones and her mother arrived to take Rita home to Waikanae. Jean recalled, “We had signed the papers to look after her. But when we picked her up she didn’t want to go home. She loved it. She had a lovely time.” After years of tension, Rita had been secure in hospital, surrounded by people concerned for her welfare. The relief was profound, and it is perhaps not surprising that she didn’t want to leave.

Rutu artwork by Rita Angus, showing woman sitting in garden wearing red and blue outfit holding white flower and wearing rounded brown hat
Rutu, 1951. This painting was sent to Waikanae where Rita was recuperating; weaving was a new passion, and Rita said she would continue working on the painting after she had designed and woven the back of her chair. (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds)

In her family’s care

Rita was released from hospital on “trial leave” under the condition that she would remain in her family’s care for a year. She was happy with the security and constraints that this provided: “With 12 months, I can get well more leisurely.” Newly absorbed by her discovery of weaving, one of the first things she did after arriving at Waikanae on December 7 was to purchase a loom. Weaving, as she informed Leo Bensemann, was one of the traditional sources of Scottish painting; moreover, with the onset of rheumatism, she found it helped to keep her fingers supple for painting.

Self-portrait painting by Rita Angus, showing Rita Angus wearing red robe, paint brush and paint palette
Self-portrait, 1966 (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, purchased 1967 from Wellington City Council Picture Purchase Fund).

Anticipating her stay at Waikanae, Rita had asked for a number of paintings to be sent up from Christchurch, and she was able to inspect the still unfinished Sun Goddess (Rutu) on the day of her arrival. “Seeing the Sun Goddess again yesterday,” she wrote to Lilburn, “I shall be able to continue with the painting in time after I have designed & woven the back of her chair.”

During the following year Rita alternated between staying with her parents at Waikanae, and then, when they made their frequent trips to Napier, with the Joneses, who had relocated to Wellington in 1949. She took heart from the many “kind enquiries” she received from well-wishers. At Waikanae, her days passed in a quiet and undemanding routine: rest and regular meals, including meat and fish; walks on the beach; and periods of reading, weaving and painting. As always, she found affirmation for her vocation and way of life in books and articles, quoting from an English journal in a letter to Lilburn:

“To-day many of our well-known lady authors, historians & scholars may be found living peacefully for the sake of their work, in picturesque rusticity, in remote villages, up & down England. But no one considers this in the least odd or singular. The battle for feminine independence, for choosing one’s own individual way of living, married or single, was fought for & won long ago …”

By February Rita was well enough to accompany painter Evelyn Page on a sketching trip to a nearby farm. “I loved it,” she reported to Lilburn, “the hills, sea, Kapiti Island, South Island & the bush; sun, wind sound & colour, the pines, sheep & cattle. Passing through Paekakariki last Friday evening was lovely, the village lit up, the moon was shining on Kapiti. The Paekakariki Station was rich dark purple-red, against the hills.”

Waterlilies artwork by Rita Angus showing painted lily pads with white and red lily flowers
Waterlilies, 1950 (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds).

Lilburn had asked if she was being “lazy”. She replied:

“I don’t know about being lazy. I am living leisurely, I know it takes time to recover & I am contentedly living within my limitations. I remember some things that I had forgotten with the years, & they are worthwhile to me now, while other things are forgotten. (It is a great relief to me to know that my stand, some years ago with the Manpower is genuinely appreciated by a few, for what it was, I was told recently.)

“Yes, I have thought “of how much good painting already” I’ve done for others to enjoy, & this is well cared for. I am free to begin again slowly, a little at a time …”

Four months later she was able to report, “The pressure, confusion & strain of those years has quite gone.”

Rita Angus: An artist’s life by Jill Trevelyan
Edited extract from the new and revised edition of Rita Angus: An artist’s life by Jill Trevelyan (Te Papa Press, $60).

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