Artwork Description / Detail
In October 1936 Lamorna Birch and his wife Houghton set sail for New Zealand in the liner Rangitata. The New Zealand painter, Kitty Vane accompanied them on the voyage and throughout the subsequent journey, serving as car driver, painting companion and guide. Birch had been elected Royal Academician in 1934 and one of his last jobs before sailing was to arrange for six of his paintings to be shown in his absence at the 1937 Royal Academy summer exhibition. On board ship, Birch met and became friends with Sir Henry Horton, managing director of the New Zealand Herald newspaper, and Sir James Parr, the New Zealand High Commissioner in London.
When the liner arrived at Auckland on November 17th, he was besieged by reporters and photographers. “What do you think of Surrealists?” he was asked. “Never met one,” came the reply. His work was already familiar in New Zealand and the press coverage was eulogistic. Some reports described him as the most distinguished painter to visit the country, while at cocktail parties and receptions he was variously described as a “master” and a “genius”. Both words were picked up and repeatedly used by newspaper reporters and broadcasters. He experienced nothing but warmth and friendliness in meeting ordinary New Zealanders, and often finding unexpected links with home.
In December 1936 Birch painted in Whangarei harbour and the Bay of Islands and, judging by the Pohutukawa trees in full bloom in the foreground of the present painting, it was on this Christmas trip to New Zealand’s most spectacular coastline that he painted this large-scale oil of Mahurangi Heads. In February 1937 their expedition nearly struck disaster in the Awakino Gorge when another car careered head-on towards them. Kitty Vane kept her nerve and swerved just in time to avoid a collision and the car came to a rest with one wheel hanging over a sheer drop.
Birch’s exhibition at the National Art Gallery, Wellington, opened on April 9th, 1937. The 58 pictures were hung in the main gallery. The Evening Post, under the headline “Wonderful Work”, thought that “to many, to amount of work done by Mr Lamorna Birch will appear amazing.” The Dominion described him as “a brilliant” artist. A few hours before the opening he met Lord Galway, the Governor-General of New Zealand, and felt like an actor before a first night in Drury Lane. “I went to the gallery in fear and trembling,” Birch confided to his diary. “Thousands of people were there, the whole of Wellington.” Four days later he gave a 20 minute wireless broadcast with Mary Murray Fuller, and another later on for student listeners. Afterwards, he wrote “I am a wreck” and went off to a restaurant to recover with a dozen oysters and a glass of stout.
An exhibition of his New Zealand paintings was opened by Lord Bledisloe, former Governor-General of New Zealand, at Greatorix Gallery in London in November 1937. In 1947 the people of Cornwall presented two paintings by Birch to HM Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh on the occasion of their marriage.
Samuel John Lamorna Birch RA (British 1869 – 1955)
(The Pohutukawa Tree), Mahurangi Heads, New Zealand
Oil on canvas, 51 x 61 cm, signed lower left & dated 1936
Framed size, 72 x 98 cm