From MTG: the director leaves an incredible legacy


Interestingly, Rooks and Rain is one of many works of British art held in the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection. Photo/NZME

Inspired by Arthur Rimbaud’s poem The Rooks, Rooks and Rain seems relevant with the last pangs of winter causing weather such as slips and floods in the Nelson and Wellington areas.

Rooks and Rain, 1950 is a gustatory vision by British wood-engraver Gertrude Hermes. Hermes was an illustrator at Penguin Books for a time and exhibited at the British Royal Academy and the Venice International Exhibition in the 1930s.

The art of woodcutting had enjoyed a revival among English artists around the turn of the 20th century until the 1950s. Scenes like this of birds and animals, imbued with a nostalgic or romantic mood, were like the British wood engravers who forged their own style, unique both in design and technique.

Interestingly, Rooks and Rain is one of many works of British art held in the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection. Many other works by British artists such as Paul Nash and the famous potter Bernard Leach were acquired for the museum in the 1950s.

They were purchased by the brilliant Leonard Bestall, a man from Napier who has been credited with being the founder of the museum as we know it, due to his fundraising efforts to build the first iteration of MTG Hawke’s Bay, Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery – the first museum, which opened on the current MTG site in 1936.

Upon completion of the construction project, Bestall assumed the role of honorary director and the rest, as they say, is history. Well, not quite. With the outbreak of World War II, Bestall joined the Church Army and was posted as a captain in Cairo in May 1942.

Returning at the end of the war in 1944 to Hawke’s Bay, Bestall resumed his role as director and remained director of the museum until his death in 1959.

However, before Bestall left for the war, he had identified art and history as the main collecting areas of the museum. Following this on his return he wrote in 1949 “We are doing far too much and should…decide to be art and history.” All collection of natural history at the museum therefore ceased.

Bestall acquired Rooks and Rain during a trip he and his wife made to Britain as director of Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery and Museum.

Following a ‘stretched-in-the-arm’ private donation and professional scholarship awarded to him, Bestall again traveled with his wife abroad in 1950 to purchase contemporary British and European works for the museum.

This print by Hermès is more than likely the result of this expedition. A leading wood engraver and star of British art at the time, Hermès is said to have caught the eye of Mary and Leo Bestall during their trip and this shrewd purchase.

Hermès’ work is also held in many public collections, including the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery in London, and in many private collections, including the collection of the late David Bowie.

Bestall was himself a creative soul. He was a renowned architect, painter, photographer and designer. Upon his death, his wife Mary left an accomplished and elegant collection of his work to the museum upon his death, much of which can be seen in the MTG Online Fine Arts collection.

It is this director’s passion for the arts that has earned him an incredible legacy, not just of his own work, but of those British and European artists who are a real highlight of the Hawke’s Bay Museum Trust Collection.

This work of Hermès is a fabulous asset for the region. If you need a little winter cheer, browse MTG’s online collection. There you can thank Leonard Bestall for his insightful collection and beautiful prints and drawings. And if that doesn’t help, well, there are only five sleeps left until spring!

The author acknowledges Culture of Collecting: 60 Years of the Hawke’s Bay Museum, 1996, by Elisabeth Pishief as the primary source of information on Leonard Bestall and Hawke’s Bay Museum.

Toni MacKinnon is an art curator at MTG.

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