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Creative and intellectual expatriates

by Nancy Swarbrick

Film-maker Jane Campion and physicist Ernest Rutherford are just two of the many New Zealand artists and scholars who have been drawn overseas by exciting opportunities.

Why people become expatriates

What is an expatriate?

Since the 19th century, many intellectuals and creative people born or educated in New Zealand have chosen to go to other countries to study or work. Some, such as novelist Jane Mander and space scientist Ian Axford, have spent much of their productive lives overseas, returning to New Zealand to retire. A few, such as opera singer Īnia Te Wīata and journalist Robin Hyde, may have intended to return but died prematurely while away. But a large number have quite deliberately never come back to live in New Zealand, thus becoming permanent expatriates.

Limited opportunities

In 2014 US-based medical engineer Catherine Mohr pointed out that New Zealand could never ‘be like the US where you can choose what you want to work on and might have a choice of seven or eight different places where you can do that’. She herself identified as a proud New Zealander, eager but unable to return: ‘The kind of work I do would be pretty much impossible to do anywhere else in the world, let alone in New Zealand’.1

Reasons for expatriation

People who depart overseas for creative or intellectual reasons have different motivations from those who leave to seek adventure, a better lifestyle, or more money (though they may share those goals). They often need to test their skills against international standards of excellence in their chosen field, and to learn from and compete with the best of their peers. They may want to exhibit their talents to a wider audience than is available in New Zealand, or obtain greater recognition for their achievements. Many go to join an intellectual or artistic community that is located in a specific place, but they may also move between such communities in many different countries.

World-wide expatriation

Creative and intellectual expatriation is a world-wide phenomenon. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, for example, English poets Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning opted to live in Italy; Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen spent many years in France and Italy; German poet Heinrich Heine chose Paris and French philosopher Voltaire went to Prussia. In the 19th and early 20th centuries American artists and intellectuals such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein relocated to Europe. Closer to home, many Australian creative people and academics have departed to live elsewhere.

Expatriates in New Zealand

Global expatriation can work in New Zealand’s favour. The country benefits from an influx of talented expatriates from other countries, such as US-born political scientist Stephen Levine, Malaysian plastic surgeon Swee Tan, Dutch photographer Ans Westra and Finnish violinist Vesa-Matti Leppanen. Such people are often drawn to New Zealand because of its relatively unspoiled environment and relaxed lifestyle, its anti-nuclear stance, its unique Māori culture and its ties with Polynesia and the Pacific.

A big fish in a small pond

When internationally successful singer Lorde was harassed by media on her return to New Zealand in 2014 after winning two Grammy awards, former Crowded House singer Neil Finn advised her to move to New York. He commented ‘it wouldn’t be a bad move to get among the centre of operations’, and suggested she would do better if she was a smaller fish in a bigger pond.2

Why people leave New Zealand

These attractions also often lure expatriate Kiwis back home. Nevertheless, there are some specific reasons that drive creative and intellectual expatriation from New Zealand.

The country’s geographic remoteness from other major centres contributes to a sense of isolation from current ideas and movements. The internet and modern communications and travel have lessened but not entirely eliminated this problem.

New Zealand’s small population in comparison with other countries of the same size has consequences including:

  • tiny audiences for some art forms
  • fewer peers and therefore less local competition for gifted people
  • a less highly developed cultural and intellectual infrastructure
  • less public and private funding for artists and researchers.

Many New Zealanders (including influential leaders) continue to place higher value on practical pursuits and outstanding performance in sports than on creative or intellectual achievement.


Historical reasons for expatriation

19th-century ‘expatriates’

In the 19th century many Pākehā who had been born in Britain thought of themselves as exiles from ‘Home’. They imported British and European culture and intellectual values, and tried valiantly to reproduce aspects of their familiar way of life. However, this often paled beside what they had experienced in the northern hemisphere. It was common for ambitious individuals to leave in search of opportunities they had left behind. They thought of this not as expatriation, but as a return to the motherland. Immigrants such as writers Samuel Butler, Mary Anne Barker and Alfred Domett spent time in New Zealand, only to move back to England within a few years. Others, such as novelist George Chamier, moved on to Australia or another part of the British Empire.

London life

Having experienced London while attending Queen’s College from 1903 to 1906, young Kathleen Beauchamp – who later became writer Katherine Mansfield – bitterly resented being taken back to New Zealand. ‘London – it is Life’, she wrote in her journal. She nagged her parents until they allowed her to return in 1908, this time permanently.

Colonial ideals

New Zealand’s origin as a colony of Britain influenced popular opinion for years after the country became first a dominion in 1907 and then an independent nation in 1947. One pervasive colonial attitude was that Britain was the centre of all intellectual and cultural activity and New Zealand was on the periphery. To move to England, especially London, was to be at the heart of where things were happening. Another widespread belief was that New Zealanders, particularly Pākehā, were ‘British’, and therefore heirs to British thought and culture. But later generations of ‘colonials’ born and raised in New Zealand – for example, writers Katherine Mansfield and Frank Anthony – often found themselves treated as outsiders when they went to Britain. They were caught adrift between the distant land they had always idealised and the birthplace to which they were bound emotionally. Some reasserted their allegiance to New Zealand, but for others, the solution to this conflict was to assimilate.

Māori expatriates

Perhaps because of their strong ties to kin and the land, only a small number of gifted Māori became permanent expatriates. But, often with British ancestry, and thus influenced by the colonial world view, some were keen to expand their horizons. Anthropologist Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) worked first at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii and later at Yale University in the United States. Fellow anthropologist Mākereti Papakura was, at the end of her life, a student at Oxford University in England.

Changing attitudes to expatriation, 1945 onwards

The gradual disintegration of old empires and the struggles towards autonomy of many previously dependent colonies and dominions following the Second World War, together with technological and social developments, changed attitudes. New Zealanders were less likely to perceive Britain as the hub of the world, and looked to other countries such as the United States for opportunities.

At home, the slow growth of cultural and intellectual infrastructure – for instance more universities, museums and art galleries; professional theatre and opera companies; and a national orchestra – may have encouraged some artists and academics to stay, but expatriation, either temporary or permanent, remained attractive for others. They saw the exchange of ideas and acquisition of overseas experience as important for their professional development.

From the 1960s jet travel made it easier for expatriates to maintain links with New Zealand while living overseas. But for some people it was still impossible to advance in their chosen field in New Zealand, and long-term relocation was the only option. Forming relationships in a new country helped loosen the ties with New Zealand and make the move permanent.

Expatriation to Britain

Historically, Britain has been the main destination for expatriates from New Zealand, with good reason.

Academic study and research

New Zealand’s university system was modelled on British institutions and at first staffed mainly by British academics. Britain was therefore the obvious place for postgraduate study.

Not a fair exchange

Writer and academic C. K. Stead drew attention to the irony of the Rhodes Scholarship system, whereby the best New Zealand brains were sent to Oxford to be cultivated and then absorbed into English intellectual life, while at the same time second-rate Britons were sent out to fill the gaps in New Zealand academia.

From 1891 a scholarship funded by profits from the 1851 Great Exhibition in London enabled outstanding science and engineering students throughout the British Empire to study in Britain. Physicist Ernest Rutherford and chemist Joseph Mellor both left New Zealand on this scholarship. From 1904 Rhodes scholarships were available for study at Oxford. Rhodes scholars Kenneth Sisam, Norman Davis and Robert Burchfield became part of a so-called ‘New Zealand mafia’ of experts in English language and literature studies and lexicography at Oxford. Other scholarships were established specifically for study at British universities, and University of New Zealand postgraduate scholarships also encouraged study overseas. Recipients of such scholarships included mathematician Alexander Aitken and classicist Ronald Syme.

Nurturing New Zealanders

Sometimes well-established New Zealanders attracted people to study in Britain. For example, pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Gillies mentored his younger cousin Archie McIndoe and other New Zealanders who came to London.

Visual arts

Although artists from continental Europe such as Petrus van der Velden and Girolamo Nerli made a considerable impact, immigrant English artists were prominent in the art world in New Zealand from the 19th century. In the 1920s the La Trobe scheme of advertising technical teaching vacancies in Britain brought a further influx of British art teachers. They encouraged promising students to train in Britain. Between 1951 and 1962 the National Art Gallery Travelling Scholarship enabled young artists to study overseas. The Royal College of Art, the Slade School of Art, or the Central School of Art and Design in London were invariably chosen by successful candidates, including sculptor Bill Culbert.

An impressive record

The British publishing industry has attracted many talented New Zealanders. They held key positions at Oxford University Press from 1923, when Kenneth Sisam joined. He was followed by John Mulgan before the Second World War and Dan Davin and Robert Burchfield after. More recently, Liz Calder was a founding director of Bloomsbury Publishing, which produced, among other things, the Harry Potter books.

Performing arts

Many performing artists began by sitting exams set by British institutions. From the 1890s, graded music qualifications were conferred through the Royal Schools of Music and Trinity College, London, after trips to New Zealand by English examiners. Speech and drama students could also sit Trinity College exams, while from 1936 ballet students gained qualifications through the Royal Academy of Dance. With bursaries from the Culture Fund of the Department of Internal Affairs, established in 1946, outstanding students headed overseas.

Not surprisingly, musicians such as pianist Colin Horsley and soprano Kiri Te Kanawa furthered their studies at British institutions, including the Royal College of Music and the London Opera Centre. Dancers, including Bryan Ashbridge and Alexander Grant, studied at Sadler’s Wells Ballet (which became the Royal Ballet School). Until professional training became available in New Zealand in 1970, actors often went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – Barbara Ewing and Terence Bayler among them.

Expatriation to other countries

Although the attraction of Britain was strong, New Zealanders went to many other countries, Australia and the United States in particular.


Australia could be a destination or a stepping stone to some other country. In the 19th century New Zealand and Australia were economically, politically and culturally close – they were often referred to jointly as Australasia. Melbourne and Sydney, like London, offered metropolitan scope for people such as writer Arthur Henry Adams and composer Alfred Hill.

International expatriate

Although in the past some expatriates moved from country to country, jet travel made this easier, and in fact allowed people to pursue a career in a number of countries. Operatic tenor Simon O’Neill is one: he is a principal artist with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Royal Opera House in London, Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, the Bayreuth Festival in Germany and the Salzburg Festival in Austria.

Trans-Tasman links persisted in the 20th century and New Zealanders made their mark in Australia in writing (novelist Ruth Park), entertainment (comedian George Hanna, country music singer Tex Morton and pianist Terence Vaughan), radio, television and film (broadcasters Frederick Baume and Myles Wright, and film-maker Cecil Holmes), and art (painter Roland Wakelin and mixed-media artist Rosalie Gascoigne). More recent creative expatriates include satirist John Clarke and film-maker Jane Campion.

Australia provided more options for arts training and employment. For example, dancers were drawn to institutions such as the Australian Dance Theatre in South Australia. Many academics were lured to Australia by better pay and conditions. There were also specialist research facilities – in 1965 eye surgeon Fred Hollows became associate professor of ophthalmology at Sydney’s University of New South Wales, which became a vision research centre, attracting other New Zealanders.

United States

From the earliest days of Pākehā settlement American culture and ideas were highly influential in New Zealand.

Before the end of the Second World War America attracted a few New Zealanders keen to work in innovative creative industries, including movie actress and radio broadcaster Nola Luxford, kinetic artist Len Lye and industrial designer Jo Sinel. Academic opportunities also tempted some: William Pickering, later famous for his rocket science work at NASA, was persuaded by an uncle to study at the California Institute of Technology in 1929, and economist J. B. Condliffe chose to become a professor at the University of California in 1939.

Unknown expatriate

An expatriate who virtually unknown in New Zealand but a household name in France was singer-songwriter Graeme Allwright. Signed by Sonogram Records in the 1960s, he translated into French and performed many of the songs of Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton and Leonard Cohen. Allwright’s voice was a backdrop to the 1968 student protests in Paris.

From 1948 the Fulbright scholarship scheme enabled more New Zealanders to study in the US. One Fulbright scholar who moved there permanently and went on to achieve world renown in chemistry was Alan MacDiarmid; another was eminent educational psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith. Other New Zealanders relocated to take advantage of superior research facilities and funding: for example, cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley, evolutionary biologist Allan Wilson and sexologist John Money.

Creative opportunities in art, music, dance, industrial and fashion design and film continue to attract New Zealanders to the US, with film-makers such as Lee Tamahori and Roger Donaldson, and actors Anna Paquin, Melanie Lynskey, Russell Crowe, Martin Henderson and others pursuing careers there.

Attitudes to expatriation

New Zealand ‘legends’

Expatriates who have achieved fame are revered by New Zealanders. Many national heroes – Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Rutherford and Frances Hodgkins, for instance – left New Zealand permanently in their youth. Websites such as NZ Edge, with its lists of New Zealand expatriate ‘legends’, echo the celebratory view.

Desperate definitions

The tendency to hero-worship high-achieving expatriates has led to the ‘claiming’ of people who were born in New Zealand but moved to another country when still children – lexicographer Eric Partridge and country music star Keith Urban are two examples.

Luke-warm welcome

However, many high achievers have not been welcomed back from overseas. In the 1930s returning scholars seeking government employment had to start at the bottom, alongside staff years their junior. One Rhodes scholar of that time, Percy Minns, returned to England after trying fruitlessly for six months to obtain a public service post in New Zealand. Even in universities there was insufficient stimulus for brilliant scholars: in 1982 Dan Davin wrote that 40 years previously the New Zealand soil ‘was fertile in talent but not adequate to nourish that talent when fully matured.’1

Rejection of new ideas

Lack of understanding of complex or obscure research or avant-garde art was dispiriting. During her lifetime Frances Hodgkins’s modern paintings aroused little enthusiasm in New Zealand. When works by her were displayed in Christchurch in 1948, the year after her death, the Canterbury Society of Arts refused to purchase any, and after subscribers bought one – ‘Pleasure garden’ – the city council declined it for their collections.

In exile

Jack Bennett, an Aucklander who became professor of medieval and renaissance English at Cambridge University, said ‘The reason so few of us returned in the Thirties, is that there was nothing to return to’.2 Nevertheless he pined for New Zealand, especially the Coromandel coast, all his life, saying once ‘I have never stopped longing to return’.3

Narrow attitudes

Before the 1960s New Zealand’s prevailing conservatism and puritanism encouraged expatriation. Brian Sutton-Smith’s decision to move to America in the early 1950s was influenced partly by the pettiness of educational authorities, who demanded that he remove from his PhD dissertation on children’s play in New Zealand some of the outrageous children’s jokes and rhymes he had collected.

Undervaluing artists

The low monetary value New Zealanders put on creativity was also a sore point: turning down an opportunity to lecture in Wellington in 1968, Len Lye wrote ‘The stipend … is not worth it … If people are mean on the art stuff in NZ, like they were when I left the place, they’d better begin to learn that it’s not good enough. The place is marvellous, of course, and that’s why we’re making a visit; but I’m not educating anybody.’4


All these factors led some expatriates to distance themselves from New Zealand. Having lived in England for 10 years, in 1943 scholar and writer John Mulgan declined to join the New Zealand Division and return to New Zealand. He explained, ‘I thought about it a lot and decided against it, for I do not think I am a New Zealander any longer. I can talk with them and live with them more easily than I can with the English, but I am not one of them any longer.’5

Remembering New Zealand

However, many expatriates continued to see themselves as New Zealanders, taking an interest in New Zealand politics, supporting sports teams, and yearning for the bush and beaches. In the view of DNA scientist Maurice Wilkins, New Zealand was ‘a paradise’, where the opportunities for exploration and discovery helped produce artists and intellectuals who could confidently take on the world.

    • Quoted in James McNeish, Dance of the peacocks: New Zealanders in exile in the time of Hitler and Mao Tse-tung. Auckland: Vintage, 2003, p. 362. Back
    • Quoted in Dance of the peacocks, p. 270. Back
    • Quoted in Dance of the peacocks, p. 385. Back
    • Quoted in Jill Trevelyan, Peter McLeavey: the life and times of a New Zealand art dealer. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2013, p. 86. Back
    • Quoted in Dance of the peacocks, p. 242 Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Creative and intellectual expatriates', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 October 2014