Page 1: Biography
Osborn, Daisy Frances Christina
Artist, craftswoman, art teacher
This biography, written by Penelope Jackson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Daisy Frances Christina Osborn was born in Christchurch on 27 April 1888, the only child of Emily Jane Turvey and her husband, Alfred Patterson Osborn, an engraver. Her father was Australian and her mother English. She had a religious upbringing that remained central to her everyday activities and (later) her art. She was a pupil at Richmond school from 1893 to 1902 and at Christchurch Girls’ High School in 1903.
Daisy Osborn attended classes at Canterbury College School of Art, Christchurch, from 1906 to 1911, in 1913 and between 1919 and 1921. In 1909 she won the first of many art prizes at the school: a silver medal for a study of a human head and a bronze medal for painting from still life. She began to exhibit at the Canterbury Society of Arts in 1913 and continued to do so until a year before her death. She also exhibited between 1909 and 1953 at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. From 1921 to 1927 she taught part time at the School of Art; her subjects included metalcraft, flower design, embroidery and painting.
The works Osborn made after leaving the school were mainly illustrative pieces: combinations of pen and watercolour often based on romantic fairy themes, using friends and relatives as models. She illustrated Esther Glen's Twinkles on the mountain (1920) and Edith Howes's The dream-girl's garden (1923). She also designed and made metal necklaces, brooches, silver spoons, pewter serviette rings, plates and jewellery boxes. Her jewellery designs were modern and combined silver with enamel or cloisonné.
However, Osborn is best known for her skill as a painter. Her paintings were often small studies of flowers combined with an ornament. She had a taste for Chinese and Japanese ornaments and these appeared in her work as well as figurines. She would often attach calendars to the bottoms of her still-life paintings and give them away as presents. From the 1920s she worked predominantly in oils and in the 1940s and early 1950s the still life appears to have been her major subject matter. A good example of a later work is ‘From my garden: white camellias’ ( c. 1951), which she presented to the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in 1953.
Her portraits were superior in style and execution to her still-life work. Again she used subjects close to hand, including ‘My mother’ ( c. 1936); fellow artists, as in ‘Rose Margaret Zeller’ (1936); and friends, as in ‘A little neighbour’ (1954). The subject of this last painting was paid 2s. 6d. to pose. Her portraits from the 1930s, in marked contrast to her early sentimental work, are strong, truthful and unsentimental, the work of a mature artist.
Osborn’s most powerful, and unexplained, works are her religious paintings of the 1930s. These have a moralistic atmosphere, symbolically alluding to Christian living and containing images of major Christchurch churches. ‘Gods’ (1938) comments on human vices such as drink, gambling and sport and how they become people's gods.
Osborn remained single and continued to live in the family home, 470 Worcester Street, Christchurch, throughout her life. After the death of her parents she received a small income from family investments. She was involved in the Animal Rescue Society and took in large numbers of stray cats. She was also interested in theosophy and was a vegetarian.
The only time Osborn travelled outside New Zealand was to accompany her parents to Honolulu in 1927. Even within Canterbury she did not venture far. There are paintings made in the Arthur’s Pass region, where she stayed with fellow artist Grace Butler on one occasion in the late 1920s, but the bulk of her landscapes are Christchurch cityscapes. It is perhaps because of her narrow geographic experience that her work became outdated. The strong portraits and the religious pieces of the 1930s show her introducing different ideas and making stylistic changes. However, by the 1940s she had lost this zest for challenge and was working in her traditional mode. She was scathing of the younger generation of painters, including Frances Hodgkins.
Daisy Osborn died in Christchurch on 3 May 1957. Although ‘Gods’ featured in the 1940 National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art in Wellington, and other work is held in public and numerous private collections, her contribution to Canterbury art was not recognised until she was included in the 1993 exhibition, White Camellias.