Story: Arts education and training

Page 1. Visual artists

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In colonial New Zealand, being good at watercolour and other painting, and particularly drawing, was socially desirable and economically useful. Builders’ plans, surveyors’ maps, family news, weekly newspapers and advertising (among other things) relied on artistic ability.

From the 1840s private lessons were available, and by the 1850s those who wished to learn to paint or draw could buy books on the subject (Weigall’s Art of figure drawing, Penley’s Elements of perspective, Merrifield’s Practical directions for portrait painting in water colours), along with brushes, palettes, chalks, crayons, oil and watercolour paints.

New Zealand’s first art teacher

William Bambridge arrived in New Zealand in 1842, one of a group of Anglican missionaries. An accomplished artist, Bambridge had come to teach, and along with reading, writing and arithmetic, he taught drawing.

Publicly funded art schools

Because drawing was useful, publicly funded art schools were set up, making art the first of the fine and performing arts to be taught in this way. The first art school opened in 1870 in Dunedin, followed by Christchurch (1882), Wellington (1886), Auckland (1889) and Whanganui (1892).

Auckland’s art school was known as Elam (after its founder, John Edward Elam). The art school in Christchurch, later known as Ilam (after the suburb it was located in), was set up in association with the Canterbury College of the University of New Zealand.

Several of the early art schools were started by or received funding from boards of education. The boards needed a supply of teachers able to teach children to draw.

Art for education and industry

Some art schools became the base for technical schools as these developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the technical college-based art schools were widely attended, some students preferred private lessons, providing artists with a source of ready cash and students with personal tuition.

Centennial sculptor

William Thomas Trethewey was the first New Zealand-born and-trained sculptor to become nationally known. He studied at Canterbury College School of Art and Wellington’s School of Design. His ‘Kupe group’, made in plaster in 1940 for the centennial celebration, was cast in bronze 60 years later and stands on Wellington’s Taranaki Wharf.

Further training

After studying at art school or with a private tutor, many New Zealand artists went overseas for further training. Britain and France were the places they were most likely to go. Margaret Butler spent 10 years in Europe; her study with leading Parisian sculptor Antoine Bourdelle earned her critical praise. Archibald Nicoll studied in London and Edinburgh, where he won prizes and had paintings accepted for exhibition, and went on painting excursions to continental Europe.

Extending the range of art training

In the 1950s and 1960s art in schools was radically extended, requiring specialist teachers trained in a broad range of art practices. This training, done by teachers’ colleges, produced significant artists, including Ralph Hōtere, Marilynn Webb and Paratene Matchitt.

Fisher’s children of nature

Archie Fisher, Elam’s director, described ‘a measure of indifference’ in the University of Auckland’s attitude to the art school. ‘I discern still, even in academic circles, a tendency to regard art as being a wholly irrational and largely unnecessary activity, the province at best of the simple child of nature’.1

In the 1950s Ilam and Elam art schools moved into the university mainstream. Ilam became a full department of the University of Canterbury; Elam joined the University of Auckland. Bachelor of fine arts degrees were offered at Elam from 1967 and at Ilam from 1982.

From the 1960s, as student demand increased beyond the facilities available, private art schools opened.

The 2000s

In the 2000s the three kinds of fine art education – private, technical institute and university – continued side by side.

  1. Quoted in Elam 1950–1983: an Auckland University Centenary Exhibition, Auckland City Art Gallery, 26 August to 25 September 1983. Auckland: Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, 1983, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook and Caren Wilton, 'Arts education and training - Visual artists', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by Megan Cook and Caren Wilton, published 22 Oct 2014