Arthur Gordon Tovey, the eldest of three sons, was born in Wellington on 23 January 1901 to Arthur Oliver Tovey, a telegraphist, and his wife, Catherine Jane Youmans. His early years were spent in Wellington and Napier. By 1917 his father was postmaster in Palmerston North, where Gordon (as he was known) attended Palmerston North High School, excelling in art and sport.
Encouraged by his aunt, the artist Charlotte Youmans, Tovey enrolled at Wellington Technical College where in 1921, with fellow student and friend Len Lye, he was tutored by the English artist and art teacher H. L. Richardson. His artistic talents blossomed and in 1922 his first paintings, which included ‘Where shadows dwell’, a watercolour in subdued tones, were accepted by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. By 1924 he was employed by the Railways Advertising Branch as a senior artist; this work led him to London in 1927, where his series of posters for the Southern Railway Company won particular commendation.
In 1928 Tovey fell in love with a secretary, Heather Campbell. However, after finding that secrecy and subterfuge surrounded her birth, and because at 19 she required parental consent to marry, he feared they would be parted by her guardian. Consequently, they were secretly married in London on 2 March 1930. The following month the couple left England on the Baradine and came to New Zealand, where they stayed with Gordon’s parents in Plimmerton.
The effects of the depression forced Tovey to work on a road gang. But in 1932 his application for the position of commercial art tutor at the Dunedin School of Art at King Edward Technical College was successful, and he began teaching alongside J. D. Charlton Edgar and R. N. Field. There he developed his own teaching style, which was less bound by tradition than his colleagues’, while expressing his love of landscape through paint and poetry. His leadership qualities and skills in education were recognised in 1937 – two years after his only child was born – when he was appointed head of the art school at its new Dunedin location.
In this role Tovey formulated innovative programmes, integrating art, drama, music and movement. The results were encouraging, and in 1937 with the New Education Fellowship Conference sparking national debate, he continued to expand his vision of creative arts being pivotal to education. Students of distinction who studied with him during this period included Colin McCahon, Doris Lusk, Dick Seelye and Anne Hamblett. While teaching, Tovey served as president of the Otago Art Society, was awarded life membership of the Dunedin Photographic Society, and continued to paint. His favourite work thus far, an oil entitled ‘Winter sun, Lake Hayes’, was included in the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art in 1940.
With the advent of the Second World War, Gordon Tovey volunteered for service overseas but was turned down due to his flat feet. Infuriated, he insisted on doing camouflage work, and was consequently seconded to Dunedin army headquarters as an intelligence officer on 20 February 1942. In 1941 he had become an art lecturer at Dunedin Training College, but because of his military service it was not until the end of 1943 that he was able to work in this position full time. At the college Tovey introduced programmes to encourage the expression of creative imagination, which he believed held the key to both children and society fulfilling their potential. His reputation grew and in 1946, despite his lack of academic qualifications, he was appointed the first supervisor of art and craft for the Department of Education in Wellington.
For the next 20 years Tovey’s charismatic style of leadership inspired a national network of specialists who transformed drab schools into environments ablaze with life and colour. Given full support by C. E. Beeby, the director of education, Tovey revolutionised art teaching within New Zealand and the South Pacific. By the mid 1950s his northern Maori project had proved the worth of incorporating Maori legends, craft and song into the general curriculum, and in 1959 he published Art and craft for the South Pacific.
Tovey saw vitality in the art of Maori, and shared with them a reverence for the past and a belief in the importance of mythology. His deep respect and affinity with Maori, as witnessed by a landmark course on arts and craft at Ruatoria in March 1960, resulted in his publication, The arts of the Maori (1961), being issued to every school. By the mid 1960s, despite controversy, he ensured New Zealand teachers and children were aware of and were participating in their bicultural heritage for the first time. Influenced by Tovey to develop their own creativity, many of his students, such as Cliff Whiting, Para Matchitt and Ralph Hotere, became leading artists and craftspeople.
Gordon Tovey retired in 1966, resumed painting, and by 1972 had published a book, Children’s painting , as well as his epic poem ‘The twice born seed’. In these years, suffering ill health, he became a Catholic. In 1973 he was made ‘Man of education’ by the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Educational Institute. He died at Wellington on 3 May 1974 and was buried at Pauatahanui; he was survived by his wife and daughter. In his eulogy, Beeby said of Tovey: ‘He was a man who had fire in his soul and it was a flame that spread – and lasted’.