Page 1: Biography
Lough, Ida Mary
This biography, written by Fiona McKergow, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Ida Mary Withers was born in Wellington on 1 May 1903, the daughter of Elizabeth Robins and her husband, John Talbot Withers, a decorator. She grew up at Duvauchelle on Banks Peninsula and was educated at Christchurch Girls’ High School. Her early aspirations centred on becoming a writer. One of her poems, ‘Questionings’, was included in Kowhai gold , the 1930 anthology of New Zealand verse, and a children’s book, Long ago in Rouen , was published by Oxford University Press in 1937.
An enthusiast for French culture, she spent three years during the early 1930s as a governess in France, seeking to become fluent in the language. At the Musée National du Moyen-Age Thermes de Cluny, Paris, she viewed the Mille Fleurs tapestries, which she later described as ‘the most beautiful things I had seen’. They were created using a technique known as tapestry weaving, in which Ida was later to achieve distinction. She returned to Christchurch in the mid 1930s, but little is known of the next two decades of her life. On 30 August 1947, in Christchurch, she married John Harold Welsh Lough, a 66-year-old clerk; he died in the J. Ballantyne and Company department store fire three months later.
Around 1953 Ida Lough visited Scandinavia, where she became fascinated by the work of contemporary weavers. Back in Christchurch, while working as a librarian at Burwood Hospital, she resolved to learn to weave, despite the limited number of teachers and the short supply of looms and yarns. With the help of an occupational therapist at the hospital, and borrowed books, she achieved some technical success. Using coloured cotton and linen thread Lough made hundreds of sets of table mats and, owing to a vogue for such furnishings, found them lucrative. She began to experiment with wool, learning to spin her own yarns and dye them using flowers, leaves, bark and lichens. This led to the production of larger items such as cushion covers and floor and travelling rugs. Although she continued to use linen and cotton, and occasionally silk, wool became her fibre of choice.
Interest in handcrafts in New Zealand was revitalised during the 1950s. Department stores, including Ballantyne’s, retailed Lough’s weaving, as did newly established dealer galleries such as Several Arts in Christchurch and the New Vision Gallery in Auckland. Through the Handweavers’ Guild, founded in Auckland in 1954, she exchanged ideas and techniques with other weavers from around New Zealand. She helped establish a weaving room at the Canterbury Sheltered Workshop for intellectually disabled people in the early 1960s, and taught there for 11 years. Although gentle and patient with her students, she was also determined that they should strive to produce their best work.
Ida Lough exhibited widely. In 1959 the Auckland City Art Gallery showcased the work of New Zealand craftspeople, and she was represented along with other weavers such as Zena Abbott and Ilse von Randow. For at least 10 years she exhibited regularly with The Group, a long-standing association of Canterbury artists. Her weaving was exhibited internationally at numerous Crafts Council of New Zealand shows, the 1965 Commonwealth Festival in London, and Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. Significant pieces were purchased by art galleries, museums and private collectors in New Zealand, Europe and the United States.
Among Lough’s most exceptional work of the late 1960s and early 1970s are her ‘Hagley Park’, ‘Water grasses’ and ‘Princess Zalia of Khelima’ tapestry weaving series. These were followed by a major commission for the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch, titled ‘Earth with heaven united’, which measures 274 by 244 centimetres and took a year to complete. In 1976 she was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to produce another piece in the ‘Water grasses’ series.
Lough was a founding member of the New Zealand chapter of the World Crafts Council. Although unable to weave towards the end of her life, she maintained her interest as patron of the Christchurch branch of the New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society. She was a member of the Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand, hosted a French language study group and had a lifelong appreciation of music.
Described as ‘a quiet presence in a room’, Ida Lough was a tall, calm, thoughtful woman. Although modest about her achievements, she became one of Canterbury’s most notable craftswomen. She died at her Christchurch home on 13 August 1985.