Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History November 2011
By David Famularo
I had always thought Pumpkin Cottage might have been a bit of a myth, or more accurately an exaggeration – a New Zealand version of the romantic notion of an artistic clique rebelling against the mainstream with a radical approach to painting.
But after viewing Bohemians of the Brush, I’m inclined towards the opinion that the reputation which has accrued around this tiny settler’s cottage at Silverstream is well and truly worthy.
Pumpkin Cottage had an interesting history even before Scottish émigré James Nairn made it his summer holiday hang out from teaching duties at Wellington Technical School in the 1890s, attracting a coterie of mostly young art rebels impressed (excuse the pun) by the new way of painting which Nairn and others like the Italian Girolamo Nerli brought from Europe.
The cottage, not much more than a small rectangular box with a veranda, and lean-to added later, had been the residence of Ngati Tama chief Te Kaeaea when he visited Whirinaki Pa from the 1850s.
Least we be too hard on this collective of artists by seeing them as isolated and well behind what was going on in Europe, it is worth remembering that Impressionism was just as foreign to the English art establishment as it was in New Zealand, and New Zealand’s first wave of Impressionist-influenced artists were being elected on to the boards of New Zealand art societies as early as 1891.
Nor should it be thought that the different regions of New Zealand were artistically isolated from each other.
There seems to have been an exciting dissemination of ideas from Dunedin to Nelson to Wellington to Christchurch etc, with Pumpkin Cottage acting as a yeast in this bake.
Radical shifts in art are usually accompanied by radical shifts in philosophy, and one of the things that makes this exhibition so interesting is the picture it paints of a social schism running through the artistic community.
Many of the personalities represented in the show embraced bohemia to the fullest extent, with sections of society following suit to the point where “lovers of the weed” were allowed to smoke at exhibitions between 12.30pm and 2.30pm every day.
And before we belittle such radicalism as quaint and mere art school affectation, one should remember artists like Frances Hodgkins went on to make huge personal sacrifices for their art.
The longevity of Pumpkin Cottage as a significant artistic retreat is also interesting.
Long after Nairn died of a perforating bowel ulcer in 1904 at the age of 44, Pumpkin Cottage continued to attract significant talent.
An oil painting by Sydney Higgs from 1934 (pictured) shows a still charming interior with a changing gallery above the fireplace of works by resident artists.
Aside from the interesting history, how do the works themselves stand the test of time – pretty well, really.
All of the artists represented seem to have settled into a reputation more or less deserving of the standard of their work.
Along with the better known artists, it’s good to see lesser-known artists of the era remembered and represented, along with some of the other personalities of the era such as the art critics who are most often largely forgotten.