Samuel Lamorna Birch & Kitty Airni Vane – Two artists on tour in New Zealand, 1936
In 1936 the British artist Samuel Lamorna Birch, accompanied by his wife Houghton, came to New Zealand to paint and give a lecture tour sponsored by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts.
At the time of the tour Birch was just shy of 70 and enjoying success as an artist in Britain. But the promise of adventure in New Zealand was too much to turn down, so despite suffering from acute rheumatic pain he signed on to the 9 month tour.
His driver and travelling companion was Kitty Airini Vane, who Birch had painted with in Cornwall the previous year.Born in Wainuiomata in 1891, Vane was a well-travelled artist who had exhibited at the Academy in Paris in 1924 and had visited Canada, America, Africa, Britain and had nursed in Malta during the Great War.
The pair were a disastrous match. Samuel Lamorna Birch already had a reputation as ‘a poor travelling companion’ and Kitty Airini Vane was ‘bustling and demanding’ as Birch described her in one letter. The two were in constant argument. On one occasion Kitty compiled a list of all of Samuel Birch’s shortcomings on the tour and read them out to him after dinner.
The clash in personalities was exacerbated by the busy travel itinerary which zig zagged around New Zealand and made three separate journeys between Wellington to Dunedin.
The two artists often argued over locations to visit and paint. In the debate between Birch’s preferred rivers, waterfalls and fishing spots, and Vane’s desire to paint mountains, it appears Kitty Vane was more often winning the argument. After all, she was the one driving.
The Pohutukawa Tree, Dairy Bay, Mahurangi Heads
Vane’s love for her most famous subject matter – Pohutukawa trees can be seen impacting Birch’s tour paintings. In December 1936, Birch and Vane both painted the Mahurangi Heads, with Samuel Lamorna Birch painting this scene of a ‘New Zealand Christmas tree’ in full bloom.
Death Narrowly Avoided
In Feb 1937 whilst Kitty was driving the tour through the Awakino gorge a car careened towards them from around the corner. Kitty swerved and braked just in time to avoid a head on collision, their car came to a stop with one wheel hanging off the edge of the gorge.
A Successful Exhibition
Birch’s exhibition at the National Art Gallery, Wellington, opened on April 9th, 1937. The 58 New Zealand 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.