About 35 Friends heard Justine Olsen, Te Papa’s Curator of Decorative Art and Design, talk about the ‘enigmatic Helen Hitchings’ on Sunday 16 August. Helen Hitchings was in her late twenties when she opened, in a Bond Street warehouse in Wellington, New Zealand’s first dealer gallery devoted to modernism. This was in 1949, only four years after the end of World War Two, during which Helen had worked as a ‘land girl’ and had also had a long period suffering from tuberculosis – making her achievement in opening the gallery all the more remarkable.

Helen knew or got to know many of the modernist artists, architects, designers, musicians and other ‘cultural leaders’ of the time. The Austrian émigré architect Ernst Plischke designed her gallery space in the warehouse and also exhibited his furniture designs in her gallery. The gallery was set up like a large living room, with chairs, mats, small tables and a bookshelf used to exhibit ceramics, fabrics displayed on the walls, as well as sculptures and paintings. It was truly a mix of art and design – textile designers included A R D Fairburn, Avis Higgs and May Smith. A young Len Castle exhibited his pots and Helen commissioned her own designs from Timaru Potteries. Justine explained that Helen seemed to have a good knack for picking emerging young talent – she had an exhibition of Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston paintings. She was also the subject of a portrait by Rita Angus (on display in level five) and another by her close friend Douglas McDiarmid.

After two years, in 1951, Helen closed the gallery and took a selection of paintings by 15 New Zealand artists to show in England. When she returned, the Bond Street building had been sold and she never reopened the gallery. Luckily Te Papa has acquired a number of the works that were displayed in Helen’s gallery. She also donated her archive of photographs, letters, etc.

Justine gave a very informative talk, then took some of us up to Level 5 to look at the exhibition on the Gallery of Helen Hitchings. The exhibition will be on display until mid-2016 and is well worth a detailed look. In particular, if you study the historic photographs of her gallery closely, you’ll see some of the works (or similar) that are on display nearby.

Vivienne Morrell, Friend of Te Papa

Read Justine Olsen’s blog post on Helen Hitchings

Feature image: left to right, Cherie Jacobson, Jacqueline d’Ath and Justine Olsen, Curator Decorative Art & Design