Celebrated artist Dame Louise Henderson’s lost paintings and her daughter’s mission to track them down

"A few weeks after the exhibition opened, no-one came forward to say they had the work and I began to worry that April may never be found," she says.
Diane McKegg Dame Louise Henderson art

If you were passing through the former Farmers car park in downtown Auckland back in the mid 1980s, there’s a chance you may have come across an elderly lady working feverishly on giant colourful canvases.

The unlikely venue had become a makeshift studio for one of Aotearoa’s most prolific modern artists, Dame Louise Henderson, as she created her monumental series, The Twelve Months.

The dame was in her 80s when she embarked on the ambitious project that depicted impressions of life in New Zealand over a calendar year on a dozen towering canvases, a scale so colossal daughter Diane McKegg (86) recalls the challenges it posed for her trailblazing mum.

“She would ask anyone who was passing to help her turn the work upside down as they were almost twice her height.

“She had to because they were huge paintings. It [the car park] was an ideal place to do it because there was plenty of room for her to work on them, but on the other hand she couldn’t manage them on her own.

“It was an enormous challenge. I remember she was very satisfied when they were finished,” Diane says, adding Louise was 85 when she completed the series in 1987.

Auckland Art Gallery’s show celebrating seven decades of Louise’s work includes paintings from her Twelve Months series.

Now, more than three decades later, 10 of the 12 paintings are on display at Auckland Art Gallery where the exhibition Louise Henderson: From Life is celebrating seven decades of the late artist’s work.

It includes her early watercolours featuring the Canterbury land-scape, still-life compositions, females depicted in cubism and lush bush scenes.

There’s an added delight for Diane, with one of the missing artworks, owned by a private collector, rediscovered at an Auckland secondary school mid-way through December last year.

“You know that they’ve found April, don’t you?” an exuberant Diane tells.

“It was at Mount Albert Grammar. It ended up there because the person who owns it couldn’t hang it in his house. He was an old boy of Mount Albert Grammar.

“It was really such a relief because there are 12 months in the year. We know that one (August) was cut down and therefore is no longer the same size as the others, however we could not find April. It became a kind of crusade really because it did exist and it was really very satisfying to find it again,” she smiles.

Louise and her art (above, on a cover of the Weekly in 1961) are a source of great joy for daughter Diane.

New Zealand art curator Julia Waite says calls for the completed series to be kept together in a public collection back in the day went unheeded, with the paintings dispersed throughout the country.

After an extensive search for the lost month, and with most of the paintings reunited for the exhibition, Julia was surprised to learn a colleague had spied it hanging in a school hallway.

“A few weeks after the exhibition opened, no-one came forward to say they had the work and I began to worry that April may never be found,” she says.

“I’ve viewed the painting and it’s an interesting interpretation of an autumn month with small shards of colour fluttering down like autumn leaves, and a crowded sky of dark storm clouds.”

Buoyed by the discovery, Diane says she can’t help but feel proud wandering through the specially curated collection that demonstrates the breadth of her mother’s impressive artistic journey.

“I think it’s a beautiful exhibition. It covers all the different periods of her work, is well documented and beautifully hung.”

Surrounded with an equally stunning selection of Louise’s paintings on the walls of her Auckland home, Diane says it wasn’t until her teenage years that she started to appreciate her mum’s talent.

“Like most children, to me she was just my mother. It wasn’t until we got to Auckland in 1949 and she had the freedom to paint as she was no longer working full time, that I started to become aware of this.

“My mother could be in her studio all day without coming out of it. She always used to say, ‘There’s so much to do.’ She was never short of ideas.”

With painting a way of life for her French-born mother, who taught art to secondary school and tertiary students and was an expert embroiderer, Diane recalls Louise’s attempts to get her only daughter to follow in her footsteps.

“She used to take me to drawing classes on the weekend but I wasn’t in the least bit interested,” she tells.

“I have three daughters and they are all talented in different ways, but none of them paint.”

Diane, who grew up speaking French at home, says her mum was pleased to be recognised for her services to art when she was awarded a damehood in 1993 at the age of 90.

With the opportunity to celebrate her mother’s work 25 years after her death, Diane speaks authoritatively about the captivating canvases that adorn her walls, telling the Weekly how much they mean to her.

“They are a great responsibility but also a source of great joy. I am always delighted when they are exhibited and I have the opportunity to share them.

“My mother said you don’t own paintings, paintings are there for everyone to enjoy, so I don’t particularly possess them.”

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