Page 1: Biography
Butler, Grace Ellen
This biography, written by Julie King, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Grace Ellen Cumming was born on 23 December 1886 at Richmond Grove, Invercargill, the daughter of Jane Cameron and her husband, William Forbes Cumming, a carter and contractor. After her father's death in 1889, the family moved north. Grace was educated at Norsewood School, and from around 1903 until 1907 she attended Napier Technical School, where she received tuition in art and also worked as a teacher.
Seeking to pursue her artistic ambitions and to study with Sydney Thompson, Grace enrolled in 1910 at the Canterbury College School of Art. At the end of her first year she was awarded the Advanced Art Scholarship. On 1 March 1911, at Gisborne, she married Guy Raphael Butler, a law clerk from Poverty Bay. The couple settled in Christchurch. Grace resumed her studies at the School of Art from 1911 until 1914; her teachers included Leonard Booth and Cecil Kelly, as well as Richard Wallwork, who had replaced Thompson as the life master at the end of 1910.
Butler became a working member of the Canterbury Society of Arts in 1915 and from around this time began to exhibit regularly at the main art societies in New Zealand. Two of her landscapes were acquired for the permanent collection of the Canterbury Society of Arts in 1916 and 1920, and in 1922 one of her major works, 'Glaciers, Rolleston Mountains', was presented to the Auckland Art Gallery. Butler's mountain landscapes were keenly admired: 'No artist in New Zealand', said the critic James Shelley, 'had quite the same sympathy with our alpine scenery'.
Butler was well known for her many paintings of the landscape around Ōtira. Her connection with the area began in 1916 when she travelled through the gorge by coach. In 1923 she and her husband purchased Jack's Hut, a roadman's cabin at Arthur's Pass, where she regularly stayed on painting expeditions. She was a keen naturalist with an intimate knowledge of the region and its distinctive vegetation. Her commitment to painting out of doors sometimes meant working under adverse weather conditions at remote sites, and frequently involved arduous tramps with painting gear. Her work was based on close observation, yet her early paintings express a romantic response to nature. She once described her artistic aims as 'an attempt to capture something loved intensely; a response to piled-up clouds, or soft mist breaking the contour of rugged hills…There's an inner vision you yearn to express'.
Butler always acknowledged the importance of the teaching she received from Sydney Thompson, and in 1923–25 she attended classes he gave while on a brief visit from France. She shared his commitment to plein air practice, and her close observation of the relation of light to tone and colour constituted unifying factors in her landscape art. From around the end of the decade she increasingly responded to impressionist influences: her palette became noticeably lighter, her paint handling freer and looser and she worked on smaller canvases. From the late 1920s her still-life paintings of flowers were regularly featured at art exhibitions. She exhibited at the Canterbury Society of Arts until 1960.
Butler and her husband had three daughters, and she stands out in this period for the way she combined painting with her role as wife and mother. However, domestic constraints prevented her from travelling to Europe and she did not explore modern directions in her art.
Grace Butler died at Wellington on 23 November 1962, survived by her husband and daughters. She contributed to the tradition of landscape art begun by Petrus van der Velden and forms a significant link with a younger generation of regional painters who belonged to the Canterbury School. By painting spectacular scenery, frequently on a large scale, she succeeded in establishing her career within what were previously masculine domains and expanded the boundaries of women's art practice early this century. She was remembered by the painter Olivia Spencer Bower as 'one of the first women who bothered about New Zealand scenery'.