Robert Nettleton Field was born in Bromley, Kent, England, on 3 March 1899. His father, Horace Banks Field, was an insurance clerk and would have liked his eldest son to follow suit, but Robert showed artistic ability from an early age and his mother, Constance Emily Field (née Nettleton), nurtured this interest. Her grandfather had been a portrait painter and provided an early role model for Robert.
After winning various scholarships to art schools at Bromley and Southend-on-Sea between 1914 and 1919, Field was awarded a Royal Exhibition and entered the Royal College of Art in London in September 1919. He spent five years there and made the study of the figure his chief aim in whatever medium he was using. He gained an associateship of the Royal College in decorative painting on 21 July 1922 and a second associateship in sculpture on 18 July 1924.
Field's years at the Royal College coincided with a period of revitalisation and change after the appointment of William Rothenstein as principal in 1920. Long-standing heads of departments continued to ensure a conservative, academic grounding but the younger drawing instructors introduced a more progressive approach to form. The presence in class of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore and exhibitions of modern sculpture around London also helped steer Field to a modernist course as an artist.
Despite receiving glowing testimonials on leaving the college, Field failed to secure more than temporary work at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley and as an assistant to his former teacher, Gerald Moira, and the sculptor Gilbert Ledward. He decided to emigrate to New Zealand in 1925, along with fellow Royal College graduate William Henry Allen, in order to take up a teaching position at the Dunedin School of Art, a department of King Edward Technical College.
Both Field and Allen came out to New Zealand on the La Trobe Scheme, designed to improve the standard of art instruction in New Zealand technical colleges, and together they transformed the old art school into a dynamic and sizeable department. In August 1925 Field began teaching sculpture and drawing full time and by 1930 was also taking part-time groups for outdoor sketching, life drawing, painting and linocuts. Field's teaching style was very informal and disorganised. Yet his austere, dreamy manner, his whimsical sense of humour and bursts of passing interests and enthusiasms sparked the older students' imaginations and his own work proved a great influence.
At first Field experienced great social and artistic isolation in Dunedin. He looked a tall, slim, bohemian figure walking up Stuart Street in baggy trousers and sandals without socks, and his work was rejected by the conservative Otago Art Society as too newfangled and modern. But on 3 January 1928, at Temuka, he married Marion Campbell Iverach, a schoolmistress from a well-to-do family of Scottish extraction and shortly afterwards they began to host a regular group of young friends from the college at their home at 109 Tomahawk Road. The group officially called themselves the 'Six and Four Art Club' and organised a number of exhibitions of their own.
Between 1928 and 1932 Field painted portraits, landscapes and still lifes in pure, jewel-like colours which demonstrated how colour, as well as line, form, design and materials, could be enjoyed for its own sake. His direct carvings in stone and general spirit of experimentation also represented a modernist reaction against Victorian naturalism.
The significance of Field's sculpture and painting was first publicly stated by Christchurch art critic James Shelley in 1928. Field made his most widely reviewed impact on the contemporary art scene as a guest exhibitor with The Group in Christchurch in 1931, when critics found his experimental paintings and sculpture the most challenging part of the show. As a result of seeing such paintings as 'Christ at the well of Samaria' and 'Miss Kelsey', Tosswill Woollaston resolved to become Field's student and found Dunedin under Field's leadership in 1932 the most artistically enlightened city in New Zealand.
Field spent 1933–34 on leave with his wife in England, researching new methods of teaching art in European schools and furthering his interest in pottery at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, London. During the voyage Field read a book on the Oxford Group and its programme of moral rearmament. He had been brought up a fundamentalist Baptist and Marion Field was a Presbyterian, but their interest and commitment to this new movement grew over the next few years. He seems increasingly to have seen his prime role in life as a teacher, dedicated to helping others rather than pursuing his own development as a sculptor and painter.
Field returned to Dunedin in 1935 'mad' on studio pottery and eager to promote the Cižek method of teaching art in local primary schools. Unfortunately, the following decade proved frustrating at the college as the new head of department, Gordon Tovey, had different goals. The Fields continued to host such promising young students as Doris Lusk, Colin McCahon and Anne Hamblett at their new home in Pacific Street. Field never lost his aura of artistic mystique but failed to recapture quite the excitement of earlier years.
The Fields' long-awaited first child was born in 1937; two more sons were born during the Second World War. Field saw his main contribution to the war effort in terms of keeping the creative forces of the arts alive in New Zealand. He published a series of articles in Art in New Zealand between 1940 and 1943 in order to improve public understanding of modern art. He opened the first exhibition of children's art held in Dunedin as newly elected president of the Otago Art Society in 1943.
In 1945, at the age of 46, Robert Field finally received due recognition of his outstanding qualifications and gained the opportunity to develop pottery more fully as an art form in schools. He moved to Auckland with his family to become head of the Art Department at Avondale College and there created the first ceramic training centre in New Zealand. Many of the pots he produced himself were tall, high-shouldered forms which revealed the influence of William Staite Murray. His pupils constituted a new generation of leading potters including Barry Brickell, Len Castle, Patricia Perrin and Peter Stichbury.
Field returned to painting and sculpting after his retirement in 1960 and continued after Marion died in 1983. Although no longer in the vanguard of modern art, he maintained a spirit of experimentation almost until his death in Auckland on 18 February 1987. Field's achievements as an artist were somewhat overlooked during the latter half of his life, partly because many of his best works remained in private collections. However, a resurgence of interest since the early 1980s has seen him generally recognised as a vital conveyor of modern European ideas on art and art education to New Zealand.