Story: Canterbury region

Page 15. The arts

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19th century

Writing

The Canterbury Association had a vision of Christchurch as a place where culture, literature and art would flourish. Verse appeared in the Lyttelton Times in the 1850s. In the 1860s, the Press published some of the earliest writings of Samuel Butler, whose satirical fantasy Erewhon (1870) drew on his New Zealand experiences.

Mary Anne Barker published factual accounts of life on a high-country sheep station in the 1860s. George Chamier’s novels were based on his experiences in Canterbury around the same time. In 1898, poet and politician William Pember Reeves produced the first comprehensive history of New Zealand.

Art and architecture

Many early artists of Canterbury’s distinctive landscapes – among them Nicholas Chevalier, J. B. C. Hoyte and C. D. Barraud – were wayfarers rather than residents. But a regional art movement gradually emerged, foreshadowed by masters such as Petrus van der Velden.

From the 1850s architecture flourished under Benjamin Mountfort and his successor Samuel Hurst Seager. Mountfort’s magnificent Gothic Revival public buildings, notably the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings, Canterbury Museum and Canterbury College, gave central Christchurch a distinctive architectural flavour.

Music

A strong tradition of local choirs began in the 19th century. The all-male Christchurch Cathedral choir, founded in 1881, is one of the oldest cathedral choirs outside England. But not all musical tastes were highbrow: more popular musical and theatrical entertainments were offered regularly by touring companies, and brass bands gained a strong following in working class areas.

20th century

The 1930s and 1940s

Christchurch’s press, university and art school all fostered creative expression in the early 20th century, and by the 1930s the city had a leading place in New Zealand arts. Two important small presses, Caxton and Pegasus, were founded then, and leading literary figures included the poets Denis Glover, Allen Curnow and Ursula Bethell.

In visual art The Group, a Christchurch-based art association, included some of the most progressive painters: Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann, Olivia Spencer Bower, Evelyn Page, Rata Lovell-Smith and Doris Lusk. Between 1927 and 1953 the Little Theatre played a critical role in the development of drama in New Zealand, particularly under the directorship of Ngaio Marsh in the 1940s.

But by the 1950s Christchurch had lost its literary and artistic leadership, especially once painter Colin McCahon, poet Allen Curnow and composer Douglas Lilburn left for the North Island. For a time, its cultural life was seen as stuffy and conservative.

Writing about the region

Author Stevan Eldred-Grigg has examined Canterbury and its people in many publications. Histories such as Southern gentry (1980) and A new history of Canterbury (1982) give fresh perspectives on the past. Novels including Oracles and miracles (1987), The siren Celia (1989), The shining city (1991) and Gardens of fire (1993) are set in Christchurch and Canterbury and often draw on historical episodes.

New developments

Staff of the Canterbury School of Fine Arts, including Doris Lusk, William A. (Bill) Sutton, Don Peebles and Rudolf Gopas, were influential as teachers and practitioners between the 1950s and 1970s. They inspired major artists such as Philip Clairmont, Philip Trusttum, Tony Fomison, Buck Nin and Bill Hammond.

In architecture, Miles Warren’s clean-lined concrete block structures were designed for the Canterbury climate, while Peter Beaven’s imaginative public buildings paid homage to an earlier Christchurch architect, Benjamin Mountfort.

Performing arts

Professional theatre began in 1971 with the Court Theatre. In 1975 the old central-city university buildings were renamed the Christchurch Arts Centre and became home to the Court Theatre and other arts groups, including in its early years the new Christchurch School of Instrumental Music. The Arts Centre was severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake and in 2014 was being strengthened and restored with the aim of recreating the amenity as a vibrant hub of culture, arts and education. 

Not in harmony

In the late 1970s Christchurch had two rival orchestras – the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the Canterbury Trust Orchestra. They were linked to opposing political factions, and their disputes created a long-running public controversy. In the end, only the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra survived.

Popular music

From 1973, Radio Avon catered to the wide audience for popular music. Performing at venues such as Dux de Lux in the Arts Centre, alternative bands, including The Bats and The Jean Paul Sartre Experience, gained a following in the 1980s. The award-winning band Salmonella Dub formed in Christchurch in the early 1990s.

21st century

In the early 2000s Christchurch had a professional or semi-professional ballet, opera, theatre, orchestra and choir. The School of Music at Canterbury University includes a well-regarded jazz school. In popular music, rapper Scribe dominated New Zealand’s hip hop scene.

An exciting development was the 2003 opening of the Christchurch Art Gallery/Te Puna o Waiwhetu. This replaced the Robert McDougall Art Gallery as the home of the city’s art collection. The gallery was damaged in the 2011 earthquake and was closed for repairs until 2015. Exhibitions were still being held at off-site venues.  

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Canterbury region - The arts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/canterbury-region/page-15 (accessed 22 August 2018)

Story by John Wilson, published 14 Sep 2006, reviewed & revised 6 Jul 2015