John Drawbridge

Painter and printmaker inspired by the New Zealand land- and seascape
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Working in a variety of media, notably intaglio prints, oils and large murals, over a 50-year career John Drawbridge developed an abstract art which encapsulated elements of New Zealand land- and seacape. His work attracted international recognition, while informing the reception of Modernism in New Zealand, and of New Zealand art overseas.

John Drawbridge was born in 1930 in Wellington, the son of Samuel Drawbridge, the Wellington City Treasurer, and Elma Wylie. He initially trained at Wellington Technical College and Wellington Teachers' Training College. Winning a National Art Gallery travelling scholarship, in 1957 he came to the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, where he studied and worked for three years, notably with Merlyn Evans and Mervyn Peake, before moving to Paris in 1960. The same year he married the sculptor Tanya Ashken, then a student silversmith at the Central School, who is the subject for his 1960 etching Seated Woman, as well as later works.

At a time when printmaking as a skill was at a low ebb, Drawbridge was introduced to mezzotint by Evans and developed his skills in Paris with Stanley William Hayter and Johnny Friedlander, where he frequented Lacourière's workshop watching the printing of Picasso, Braque and Chagall.

Returning to London, Drawbridge worked at a boys' comprehensive school in the East End and then had a part-time job at Isleworth Polytechnic, where he found himself teaching drawing in the former mansion of Sir Joseph Banks (Cook's botanist on the Endeavour), where New Zealand and Pacific plants were still growing. The climax of this period came in 1963 with a successful exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in London, signifying his growing acceptance on the London artistic scene.

A large mural had been commissioned from him the previous year for New Zealand House in Haymarket, then under construction. This was installed in 1963. The 50ft mural, on 10 large canvas panels, caused Drawbridge to analyse what might represent New Zealand and he conveyed a non-representational feeling for place, encapsulating land- and seascapes, largely expressed in blocks of colour. Working on it prompted his return to New Zealand with Tanya. In 1991 the mural was removed and sent to Wellington and it is now housed at the National Archives Building. It was a dominant feature of the major exhibition of Drawbridge's work at the City Gallery, Wellington in 2001-02.

In Wellington, early in 1964, the Drawbridges set up home in a spacious house on the coast at Island Bay, looking out over the Cook Strait, where, for over 40 years, surrounded by varying examples of their works and work in progress, they became a vibrant and active focus of the New Zealand cultural scene. In 1964 John Drawbridge started to teach at the Wellington Polytechnic School of Design; he continued teaching until 1986, and only resigned from the School of Design in 1990.

After New Zealand House, Drawbridge's public works included a succession of large-scale murals which adorn various New Zealand public buildings. Notable among these are the Expo 70 mural (now rebuilt in the National Library, Wellington), a mural commissioned for the IBM Centre in the AMP Building (now in the foyer of Radio New Zealand) and the Beehive Mural in the Parliament Buildings, Wellington. Others were in Auckland University School of Architecture Library and the CML building, Wellington. The latter, only completed in 1985, was destroyed when the building was refurbished in 1994, much to the artist's despair.

Drawbridge started as a textile designer, then moved to prints, then oils, water colours and multimedia, but all were informed by his characteristic feeling for light and texture. Notable among his early prints, Long Landscape (1959) is an amazingly busy panorama in black, the shadowed landscape almost seeming to be a study for his drawing teacher's novel Gormenghast.

While his was an abstract art, it was an art celebrating light and the sea and even before he returned to New Zealand, his oil painting Pacific Lagoon (1962) created an iconic image which would later feature as the cover of The Wide-Open Interior (2001), Gregory O'Brien's book about Drawbridge. Abstract evocations of sea and skyscapes across the Cook Strait can be found in paintings such as Sea-Element (1963-64), Sea Window No 2 (1984) and Pacific (1995).

When my wife and I last stayed with the Drawbridges in Wellington, the enormous painting Sea and Sky (1971), the Shaw Savill Shipping Company mural, a wonderful impression of sea textures and sky, dominated one wall of their sitting room. This had been rescued by Tanya from storage in the UK after the shipping company went under. With the light coming through the large windows, it was easy to understand the impact of the marine panorama outside.

When Drawbridge's painting Coastline, Island Bay (1967) was chosen for presentation to the Canadian government to mark their centenary in 1967 it was the subject of a local newspaper campaign against its non-representational character. Even more in his watercolours, Drawbridge was able to create glowing colour effects, as in Bluescape (2000). He constantly experimented with a range of techniques and one remembers with affection the almost childish delight, the twinkling eyes and shy smile, as he demonstrated his Expo 70 mural in the National Library, with its use of fibre optics to give a rippling effect.

When I visited John and Tanya in Wellington, I was taken on a personal tour of his work in situ round the city - in buildings from the Parliament Building to the British High Commission. He was like a father fondly visiting his children, his softly spoken commentary and youthful enthusiasm contagious. The high point was the Beehive mural, painted on both sides of 16ft fins of aluminium set at right angles to a very long curved wall, the whole nearly 140ft long, with a remarkable effect of changing perspectives and colour as one walks round in either direction.

Stained glass was a new challenge for him in the 1990s, and in 1991 he accepted a commission for a suite of windows for the rebuilt Our Lady Chapel at the Home of Compassion, Island Bay, and produced an expressive composition in textured glass and varied colours. He also designed the stations of the cross which were cut in steel by laser, backed with large panes of coloured glass.

That year, too, he started collaborating with Dilana Rugs of Christchurch, not only producing new designs, but also some taken from his watercolours. An enormous rug, to commemorate the bicentenary of Captain Cook's observation of the transit of Mercury, was chosen for the new British High Commission building in Wellington in 1996.

Perhaps the climax of this period was a remarkable family show in 1995 at which John, Tanya and both their sons, Tony and Cameron, simultaneously exhibited. And in 2001, John Drawbridge's career was crowned by a solo exhibition, "The Wide-Open Interior", at the City Gallery, Wellington and the publication of Gregory O'Brien's book of the same title.

In recent years, although he was suffering the early stages of motor neurone disease, Drawbridge was still very active and in full flood of creativity, painting and exhibiting, and he died unexpectedly from an unrelated acute episode.

Lewis Foreman

Comments