Catherine Olivia Orme Spencer Bower, known as Olivia Spencer Bower, was born in St Neots, Huntingdonshire, England, on 13 April 1905, with her twin brother and only sibling, Marmaduke, arriving 20 minutes later. Her mother, Agnes Rosa Marion Dixon, had been brought up on a sheep station in Canterbury, New Zealand, and had travelled to England where she met and, at the age of 38, married Anthony Spencer Bower, a civil engineer in his 50s.
Olivia's love of painting and drawing became well established in her childhood with encouragement and influence from Rosa Bower, who, after her husband's retirement, supported her family by painting and teaching. The family lived in St Neots until 1914, when they moved to Boscombe, Dorset. Olivia attended St Oswald's School, where she learned the techniques of watercolour painting from her art mistress, A. T. Coles, who insisted on three washes only, all subject matter being resolved at that stage. 'What it did for me', Olivia said later, 'is that with a brush full of paint I had to think before I put it down'. It was the start of a lifetime discipline in the control of paint.
Rosa Bower took her reluctant husband and children to New Zealand where, because her family had landed assets, she could afford to send the twins to better schools. They travelled to New Zealand on the Athenic, a ship carrying soldiers returning from the war, and arrived in Wellington on 5 March 1920. Marmaduke went to Christ's College and eventually took over the family farm; Olivia went to Rangi-ruru and to the Canterbury College School of Art, initially only on Wednesday afternoons. She attended for the following eight years, taking classes with Cecil Kelly, Richard Wallwork, Leonard Booth and Archibald Nicoll. Free scholarships were awarded to her for modelling (1922), advanced art (1923), advanced day art (1924), and pure art (1926). In 1929 she passed preliminary examinations for the newly instituted diploma in fine arts. She left the college at the age of 24, well versed in all the technical art disciplines.
Olivia Spencer Bower travelled to England to study drawing and painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London. From there she made an extended painting trip to France and Italy, visiting Capri, and Assisi and its environs. After her return to New Zealand in 1931 she continued to travel and to explore her adopted country, painting at every opportunity. Spencer Bower's 'Punakaiki' works, painted at the Pancake Rocks in the years 1935 to 1943, intricately depict the movement of the seas and the forces of nature. The West Coast provided distinctive subject matter: goldminers' huts, nikau palms and the luxuriant bush.
In 1933 Spencer Bower for the first time exhibited with The Group, a collection of artists who reacted against the way the Canterbury Society of Arts catered for popular taste and excluded the younger, more adventurous painters. It initially included such artists as Louise Henderson, Ngaio Marsh and Evelyn Polson (later Page). Spencer Bower remained a member of The Group, exhibiting with them regularly.
During the war years she painted in both the North and South Islands, including Kaikoura, the West Coast, the Hauraki Gulf and Auckland, where in 1943 she also attended the Elam School of Art. In 1948, because of suspected rheumatic fever, and on the advice of her doctor, she stayed at Rāwene for a change of air. Here she met G. M. Smith, the backblocks doctor who allowed her to sketch and paint in the hospital, initiating a series of drawings and paintings of Māori mothers and their babies.
During the next decade Spencer Bower alternated travels to Queenstown and Kaikoura with minding her aged mother, who died in 1960. She then visited Tahiti, Samoa and Fiji for three months, and 57 island paintings were exhibited at the Canterbury Society of Arts on her return. Spencer Bower was a friend of Minta Brittan, who ran a spinning bee at Mt Enys, and a 'Spinners' series of paintings evolved from 1959 through to the 1970s. It is the most significant group of figurative acrylic and oil paintings in her oeuvre. From 1963 to 1965 she revisited Europe.
In 1969 Olivia Spencer Bower moved to a modern house at 15a Leinster Road, Merivale. Sympathetically designed for her needs, it had a studio with running water and storage areas for paintings. The development of her garden, where native plants coexisted with exotic, became a metaphor for her landscapes, the genre for which she was most famous. Here she painted native flax and tussock which, together with her favourite irises, reflected her English and New Zealand backgrounds.
In 1971 Spencer Bower won the watercolour section of the National Bank Art Awards and for most of that decade continued to travel the South Island, painting the Mackenzie Country, Mt Torlesse, Greymouth, Queenstown and the Waimakariri River. With the help of Barry Cleavin, she developed her printmaking skills using imagery never before seen in her work – imaginative compositions with winged and floating figures.
From 1926 the Canterbury Society of Arts was her main exhibiting gallery and she served as a member of the society's council in the years 1940–46, 1959–62, 1967–68, 1978, and 1980, when she became president. In 1977 a major retrospective exhibition of 98 paintings was held at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch. A biographical catalogue of her life and work accompanied the exhibition. After its success and the demise of The Group in 1977, she continued to work and exhibit. In 1980 she received the Canterbury Society of Arts' silver medal for services to the visual arts.
Olivia Spencer Bower established her reputation as one of New Zealand's most gifted practitioners of watercolour early in her career, but she also painted major works in oils and acrylics as well as producing woodblock and linocut prints. She was one of the few women artists of her time who supported herself financially to pursue her painting career with professional purpose. A legend in New Zealand art circles, she could be easily recognised at gatherings and openings by the picture hats she favoured and the cheroots she habitually smoked. She died of lung cancer at Christchurch on 8 July 1982. She had never married, and before her death she established a foundation to finance artists' scholarships, to be funded from the sale of art in her estate. Her work is represented in both New Zealand and overseas public and private collections.