Margie Beautrais

Snapshots in watercolour

Snapshots in watercolour

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: info@wrm.org.nz

Also, Museum admission is free for everyone now.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2011 and reproduced with publisher’s permission.

Pressing Business

Proofing press

Some of the items we feature in From the Vaults are stored somewhere in the giant labyrinth beneath the museum, catalogued and carefully kept in temperature-controlled conditions until needed for display or research. Others are presented proudly behind glass, under lights or on models as part of a current or ongoing museum exhibition. Seldom do we find something that is in use, still doing the same job it was designed to do more than a century ago.
The museum is in possession of an ancient proofing press, once part of the Wanganui Chronicle plant and equipment, and now a working exhibit in the Whanganui Regional Museum tactile collection. When it was in daily use as a newspaper tool, printing staff would use it to print each page for proofing purposes, enabling a practised eye to be cast over the newsprint before going to press.
Museum educator, Margie Beautrais uses the machine as an educational tool at the museum. “We have the wooden poster type,” she says, “which is very old and very precious, and we feel really lucky to be allowed to use these with kids.”
The wooden type comes in many sizes and is stored in their original type drawers, also sourced from the Chronicle. Unfortunately, the museum does not possess a full complement of any particular font.
Included among the carved wooden letters is an array of logos and graphic art, once used in newspaper advertising. Margie has arranged all the letters in sizes so posters can be created with differing font styles of the same size. It works well and the posters look great.
“It’s all good learning for kids,” she says. “They find out that this stuff is called ‘furniture’ (wooden blocks used for line spacing) and these things are called ‘quoins’ (metal wedges) and they have to learn the writing goes backwards.”
Margie showed me some of the old Chronicle art she has used to create themed posters. There are ads and logos for long gone Wanganui companies, pictures of riverboats, Christmas art, the Wanganui District Council crest – all stamped in metal and glued to wooden blocks.
“Every child gets a tray, they get to choose a picture and they have to think of a word to go with it. It’s really good for supporting literacy,” she says. “I do a demo for them and they help me find the letters, working in pairs or by themselves.”
Margie holds up a mirror for the children to check their work before they move over to the press to ink it up and print a copy. The posters are then hung to dry and given to the school the following day.
When the proof press was given to the museum it went straight to the education programme, where it has been retained. “The value of it as an educational tool is high,” says Margie. “It’s not getting damaged. It’s fairly robust.”
To see it used as it was intended in a museum context is refreshing. “It’s old and it’s cool and it’s still being used,” she says. “I would love more schools to come and do this programme. It doesn’t get used as often as I would like. I’d like to run this programme every week.”
Teachers interested in any of the educational programmes on offer are urged to contact the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 2nd May 2 2012. Reproduced with permission from the publishers.