Peter McIntyre was born in Dunedin on 4 July 1910, the son of Peter McIntyre, a lithographic artist, and his wife, Isabella Edith Cubitt. His Scottish father had been one of the founders of the Caxton Printing Company, Dunedin, where he became a pioneer of lithographic techniques in New Zealand. He subsequently worked as a graphic artist for the Otago Daily Times and also exhibited work with the Otago Art Society. This mixture of popular and high art later became a characteristic of his son’s painting.
Peter McIntyre was educated at Otago Boys’ High School. In addition to his father’s painting advice, he received lessons from the Dunedin artist Alfred O’Keeffe. As a youth he painted watercolours of his family home and of popular American movie stars, and earned pocket money illustrating fashion for display in drapery stores.
In 1930 he attended the University of Otago, intending to complete a BA and become a journalist. During this time he drew cartoons for university capping publications and continued to paint for friends and family. His commitment to the visual arts saw him abandon his degree and travel to England, where from 1931 to 1934 he studied for a bachelor of fine arts at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. The Slade emphasised classical draughtsmanship based on the art of Raphael and Ingres, and McIntyre achieved notable success, graduating with prizes in composition and figure drawing in his final year.
From 1935 until 1939 he worked as a free-lance commercial artist in Britain, illustrating popular magazines. However, he also exhibited more demanding contemporary work that was influenced by the English avant-garde and French cubism. McIntyre’s practice of these modern traditions placed him alongside expatriate New Zealanders Frances Hodgkins and Len Lye as one of the country’s most innovative artists exploring European modernism. On 19 May 1937, in London, he married Lillian Welbourn, an English portrait painter and model.
In 1939 McIntyre enlisted with the 34th Anti-tank Battery, a New Zealand unit formed in London, and was sent as a gunner to Egypt, where he was reunited with his fellow countrymen after almost nine years. During the war he discovered that his interest in painting did not lie with the avant-garde, but with romantic realism. In Egypt he provided illustrations for the war magazine Parade: as well as doing advertisements he sketched members of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF).
In January 1941 McIntyre was appointed New Zealand’s official war artist and promoted to the rank of captain by Major General Bernard Freyberg. Between 1941 and 1945 he recorded the activities of 2NZEF in Crete and North Africa, and at Cassino in Italy, where he became a major. His work was exhibited in Europe and New Zealand, and reproduced in magazines such as the Illustrated London News, Studio, Parade, and the New Zealand Listener, making him a household name in New Zealand. His war art defined the New Zealand soldier’s experience of the Second World War. Images such as ‘German parachutists landing on Galatos, Crete’, ‘28th Māori Battalion moves up’, and ‘The wounded at Cassino’ were subsequently reproduced in numerous publications. McIntyre’s work from this period belongs to the collection of war art at Archives New Zealand in Wellington.
He also became accustomed to popular attention through film and public appearances. This distinguished role as an artist meant that when he returned to New Zealand in February 1946 he was, in many ways, removed from his less prominent contemporaries. He initially intended to provide a lead in the arts by gathering artists around him who would develop a national school. However, this proved a formidable task as there was a lack of professionalism in galleries and limited critical knowledge among painters and writers. As arguably the country’s only full-time painter, and its best known, he worked from a studio in Princes Street, Dunedin; modestly listing himself in 1947 as a cartoonist, he secured an income as a portrait and landscape painter.
Peter and Lillian McIntyre were divorced, by mutual consent, in January 1949, and in Dunedin on 12 February McIntyre married Patricia Marie Emmeline Miles. The couple moved to Wellington and rented a home in Macfarlane Street, Mount Victoria, where McIntyre exhibited his work. In the late 1950s he built his own house in Hoggard Street, Vogeltown, from a do-it-yourself manual.
In the post-war years New Zealand society demonstrated a growing curiosity in its own culture and McIntyre’s reputation began to flourish. He maintained his association with Freyberg, who, as governor general, provided patronage and valued support. From 1959 to 1964 McIntyre served on the council of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. Although he experienced difficulty as a full-time painter, the well-publicised voyages he made to Antarctica in 1957 and 1959 were indicative of a more secure position as an entrepreneur for the visual arts. By the early 1960s he had won a number of national art competitions: the Kelliher Art Award (1959), the watercolour section of the National Bank Art Awards (1960) and the Hay’s Art Competition (1962).
By the early 1960s modern New Zealand art had become more confidently established, and although McIntyre’s work was enormously popular with the general public, which also regarded him as a knowledgeable cultural commentator, he was increasingly at odds with many art critics. After he was awarded first prize in the Hay’s Art Competition, a critic described the winning painting as ‘rich in the qualities which make a good calendar picture’. For his own part, McIntyre frequently voiced his objections to local contemporary painting.
In 1962 McIntyre published The painted years, the first of eight books he would illustrate and write between then and 1981. The book was a success and it was followed in 1964 by Peter McIntyre’s New Zealand, which contained high-quality reproductions of the artist’s paintings. It sold out in six days and remained a best seller for the next 20 years. In 1966 McIntyre expanded his market into Australia with Peter McIntyre’s Pacific. However, a greater audience existed in the United States: in 1970 he published Peter McIntyre’s West, and 27,000 copies were sold by January 1971. Within a few years he was a popular painter there.
In December 1970 McIntyre was made an OBE. In the 1970s and 1980s his work continued to draw attention through record prices, gallery attendances and controversy. In 1981 the poor care of his war paintings over the previous 30 years by the Department of Internal Affairs made the headlines. He held a highly successful exhibition in Auckland in 1983 when his paintings of Venice reached record sales of $110,000. In 1985 he was awarded the Governor General’s Art Award for his contribution to the visual arts. A retrospective exhibition of McIntyre’s war paintings was held at the City Gallery in Wellington in 1995. Opening on 22 July, the show had been visited by more than 22,000 people when the artist died in Wellington on 11 September. He was survived by his wife and their two children.
Although McIntyre’s work has often been derided by the art establishment, his achievements were noteworthy. His serious work in Britain before the war demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of contemporary art shared by few artists in New Zealand in the 1930s. As a war artist he followed the traditions familiar to artists trained at the Slade, yet he interpreted these conventions, making them a part of popular New Zealand culture. When he returned to New Zealand after the war he built a career that saw the development of further significant artistic achievements. Peter McIntyre’s New Zealand was many people’s earliest experience of a local art. Its publication, and McIntyre’s conspicuous role as a well-known artist, provided the rare example of a high-profile working professional in the visual arts.
As a painter McIntyre articulated a familiar definition of his country, its landscape and its people. Although this vision owed much to nineteenth century European romantic realism, McIntyre rejuvenated it by selecting up-to-date images and motifs that could be related to effortlessly. While modernism in the post-war period represented a challenging and positive response to the changing beliefs and values of many New Zealanders, the popular reception of McIntyre’s more conservative art was a unique and significant phenomenon that represented the outlook and aspirations of a substantial number of the country’s population.