In the 1940s the artist Colin McCahon met Toss Woollaston, who had moved from Taranaki to Riwaka to work on an orchard when he was 18. For seven decades Woollaston painted modernist landscapes of the region, such as ‘View from Takaka Hill’ (1976). Along with McCahon he pioneered New Zealand modernism. McCahon did not spend many years in Nelson, but he began to flourish there with works such as ‘Takaka: night and day’ and ‘The promised land’ (both 1948).
Other artists attracted by seasonal employment on tobacco farms in the 1940s were Rita Angus and Doris Lusk. Lusk created such works as ‘Two tides at Onekaka’ and ‘Tobacco fields’. Born in Tākaka and descended from German immigrants, Leo Bensemann painted the karst landscapes of his birthplace from the 1960s to the 1980s.
In the early 1960s potters such as Harry and May Davis (from Cornwall, England), Jack Laird, and Mirek Smisek (originally from Czechoslovakia) established Nelson’s reputation as a pottery centre. Nelson has since become home to many artisans. Danish silversmith Jens Hansen settled in Nelson in 1968, setting up shop and teaching students.
By 1985 around 400 people in the region were working as artisans, with annual earnings of close to $3 million. In 1987 the first World of WearableArt show – the vision of sculptor Suzie Moncrieff – was held in Spring Grove. In 2005, the show moved to Wellington.
The Suter and Nelson Provincial Museum
After Andrew Suter (bishop of Nelson for 25 years) died in 1895, his wife Amelia gifted land, money and the couple’s art collection as the basis of a public gallery for the city, which opened in 1899. Important works held there include 19th-century rural Nelson landscapes by John Gully, a portrait of Huria Matenga by Gottfried Lindauer, and many of Toss Woollaston’s modernist landscapes.
The Nelson Provincial Museum has an extensive photographic collection dating from the 1860s. The Tyree Studio Collection includes over 100,000 images taken and collected by Nelson photographers the Tyree brothers.
School of Music
A Harmonic Society was active from the 1860s. In 1894 a School of Music was set up after the society advertised for a full-time conductor. The gifted young German string player Michael Balling took the job and stayed for three years. In 1901 a 360-seat auditorium was constructed, with funding from generous locals. In the 2010s the school taught students and the auditorium hosted about 70 concerts a year.
Once were Gatherings
Starting on 31 December 1996, a large outdoor dance party (alcohol-free but not drug-free), known as The Gathering, was held each New Year’s Eve on Tākaka hill (at an altitude of 600 metres), attracting thousands of revellers. After a cold, wet 1999/2000 party, the last two gatherings were held at a lower altitude in the Cobb River valley. The last party was on New Year’s Eve 2001/2.
Jim Henderson grew up on Tākaka hill and wrote many non-fiction books chronicling rural life. Gunner inglorious, about Henderson’s Second World War experience (in which he lost his left leg), is one of the few New Zealand publications to have sold over 100,000 copies.
Initially producing books of landscape photography and photographic calendars, Nelson photographer and publisher Craig Potton diversified into non-fiction and fiction in the 2000s.
Renowned novelist Maurice Gee returned to Nelson to live in 2006. He had lived there from 1977 to 1989 and set some of his novels in Nelson, which he fictionalised as ‘Saxton’.
Scientist Ernest Rutherford was born at Spring Grove, near Brightwater, in 1871, and went on to make outstanding contributions to atomic physics. Nelson’s Cawthron Institute is the largest non-government science research organisation in the country, set up in 1914 with a £240,000 ($39 million in 2020 terms) bequest from businessman and benefactor Thomas Cawthron. Much of the institute’s early work contributed to the success of horticulture in the region. More recently it has focused on aquaculture.