Museum educator Margie Beautrais shows us a collection of paintings by Christopher Aubrey. This is an exhibit not to be missed. You’ve entered the museum through the automatic glass doors, nodded “hello” to the front counter person, convinced them you live here so you’re entitled to free admission, and you’re now advancing to the Maori Court. Before you descend to the level of the waka, look to your left. There’s a small side room, softly lit, and therein hang a small number of framed water colours. They’re worth a look, truly.
Margie says these paintings – dated around the turn of the century (not the last one, the one before) – are that era’s version of amateur photography. Those with enough talent could paint a scene to record it. The paintings on show here are Mr Aubrey’s impressions of early Wanganui; detailed pictures of places, topographically accurate and charming in their execution. “They’re very different from photographs, because photography was around then, but you get a much better sense of the feel of what the place was like and a much stronger connection with the person,” says Margie, a painter herself. She calls herself ‘a closet painter’ but says she doesn’t paint closets, which just confused me. She says she paints but does not exhibit, or hasn’t for ages, anyway. She says she uses watercolour, but not in the traditional way like Mr Aubrey does. “These are painted in the correct watercolour technique,” she says, “where the artist uses a bit of pencil to draw their scene or outline, then uses a wash to build up the different colours and then puts the details on.” Finally, she says, the white is added last. She says she thinks Mr Aubrey’s work has been painted outdoors.
The first of Mr Aubrey’s paintings Margie had ever seen was one of Portal St, Durie Hill, when it was just an unpaved walking track. The view is looking down behind two men walking toward the river from about halfway up the hill. It has been on display before.
“There’s something very charming about his work … the buildings that he paints are beautifully done, the perspective is wonderful, the ships are marvellous, ‘cause they’re boy things.” Then Margie pointed out the amateur aspects, the marks of the self-taught artist. “The cows are wobbly,” she says, “he’s someone who used watercolour painting to record what he saw and it was obviously his hobby.” She used the term ‘naive art’. “They’re delicate,” she says, “and they appeal to me because they’re a record of how someone saw Wanganui.” A couple of his paintings show the same scene at different times of the day. His subject is industrial but the moods are almost poetic.
There is not a lot known about Christopher Aubrey apart from what he allows us to see through his paintings. “He’s a bit of a mystery man,” says Margie. His paintings are held in various galleries and museums throughout New Zealand and show he lived an itinerant life, travelling through the South Island, painting as he went, before moving north through Wellington, Wairarapa, Manawatu, Wanganui, eventually making his way to Auckland.
Watercolours fade relatively quickly, so they’re not exhibited for long periods of time. “If Christopher Aubrey lived now, he would be showing his paintings in the Open Studios, and people would be admiring and buying them,” says Margie, and I’m inclined to agree.
Please note the Aubrey exhibition is no longer on display but the works are available to view by contacting the Archivist, Sandi Black: email@example.com
Also, Museum admission is free for everyone now.
Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2011 and reproduced with publisher’s permission.