Mary Elizabeth Richardson was one of several successful artists to emerge during the 1890s, a period of creativity in New Zealand art. As M. E. R. Tripe she became a portrait painter of national importance, as well as a teacher and formidable influence on Wellington art for over 30 years.
Born on 14 September 1870 at Opawa, Christchurch, New Zealand, Mary – or Mollie, as she became known – was the daughter of Edward Richardson, a civil engineer, politician and runholder, and his second wife, Frances Mary Elizabeth Corke. Mollie was educated at Miss Povey's school, Opawa, before attending Christchurch Girls' High School in 1884. Her father was re-elected to the House of Representatives that year, and, on becoming minister for public works, moved the family to Wellington. Mollie entered the Wellington School of Design's art department in 1886, graduating in 1890 with an art class teacher's certificate, the first person to complete this advanced training solely in Australasia. The certificate qualified her to operate her own art school.
In 1889 Mollie Richardson was appointed drawing instructor at the Wellington School of Design, which was renamed the Wellington Technical School in 1891. She was awarded the art master's certificate in 1894. At the school she worked alongside the director, Arthur Dewhurst Riley, and staff members Mabel Hill and James Nairn. During the 1890s this was the most progressive art department in the country, and its teachers were well known – and sometimes controversial – artists. Richardson was known for her vital and vigorous personality and for the warm sympathy and understanding she showed towards all students, regardless of their ability.
Initially, Richardson painted in the new impressionist style and exhibited with the breakaway group, the Wellington Art Club. However, she soon distanced herself from the prevailing avant-garde atmosphere of the school. Writing in Art in New Zealand in 1931, she clearly proclaimed her scepticism concerning many modernist developments in painting; her preference for more conservative styles based on draughtsmanship is evident in her portraits. Yet her late work also shows a readiness to experiment with modernist ideas of colour and form.
At St Peter's Church, Wellington, on 21 November 1900, Mollie Richardson married Joseph Albert Tripe, a barrister and solicitor. Although she resigned her position at the technical school, Mollie Tripe continued to paint and to teach from a studio at her new home at 11 Selwyn Terrace. From 1900 she signed her paintings M. E. R. Tripe, or MERT.
The Tripes travelled frequently to England and Europe and Mollie studied portraiture in London with Frederic Whiting. Over the years she became a leading New Zealand portraitist. She painted prominent Wellington citizens Dorothy Kate Richmond, David Gray Young, Zoe La Trobe and Alison Kirkcaldie (as the Queen of Sheba), as well as national figures Sir Robert Stout, Sir Frederic Truby King, Sir Michael Myers and William Edward Sanders VC.
Tripe often represented her female sitters as chic and modern women. Claribel Williams, who began work as a cleaner for Tripe during the 1920s and later became her model, recalled that a steady flow of sitters and students passed through the Selwyn Terrace studio. Tripe always spent considerable time in conversation to relax her sitters, and in preparing to paint landscapes. However, once she began to paint she 'worked rapidly with a clear vision'. Her basic artistic philosophy could be summed up in her comment, 'it all boils down to hard work and good drawing'.
Tripe exhibited her work throughout New Zealand and overseas at the Paris Salon of the Société des artistes français, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, London. She was a long-serving council member of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, having been the first woman appointed to the council in 1893. She was also influential in the formation of the National Art Gallery and its collections, especially the National Portrait collection. After she was widowed in 1926, she continued to undertake painting trips to Europe and also to Canada, despite suffering severely from arthritis in later life. Her self-portrait at an easel was painted in her London studio around the time she was awarded the Coronation Medal in 1937.
M. E. R. Tripe died at her home in Wellington on 21 September 1939, survived by two sons. Her work is held at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and in most other public collections. She is often dismissed as a reactionary to modernism, but this view is too simplistic and ignores her sensitivity as a portraitist and the intelligence of her work.