Helen Priscilla Crabb was born on 24 November 1891 at Halcombe, Manawatu, the daughter of Priscilla Kennedy and her husband, Ernest Hugh Crabb, a storekeeper. Her mother had hoped to be an artist: marriage ended that dream, but she continued to paint when she could and often took her children into the bush on painting expeditions.
Helen, the eldest of six children, was a lively child, the leader of the younger ones in adventures. Her childhood was spent in the Rewa district, north-west of Halcombe, where she went to the local primary school. After attending a boarding school in Napier, she became a boarder at Wanganui Girls’ College, then helped for a time with the teaching at Kimbolton School. After her family moved to Palmerston North, she took evening classes in art and sculpture at the Palmerston North Technical School.
In 1913 Helen Crabb persuaded her parents to send her to Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School, where she remained for two years. Ashton’s emphasis on line drawing and draughtsmanship remained a permanent influence on her work. During this period she also learned about Christian Science, which became an interest throughout her life.
In 1916 Crabb travelled to England and studied for nine months at the Royal College of Art. Towards the end of the year she joined the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and managed a YMCA canteen in Southampton. She then went to France, and would later claim to have driven an ambulance there. On returning to England she worked briefly in censorship for the Australian military forces. When the war was over she fell ill, partly from a lack of food and money, but partly from a disappointment in love. In 1919 her sister Doris brought her back to New Zealand to recover.
Once she was well, Helen returned to Sydney and from 1920 to 1922 continued her studies at the Sydney Art School. In 1923 she was appointed art mistress at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Pymble, remaining there until 1930. Then, after teaching briefly at another girls’ college in Sydney, she was reduced to occasional part-time work, including journalism. During 1937 she worked as a student teacher at Julian Ashton’s school.
Crabb returned to New Zealand in 1943 after an absence of 23 years. In Australia she had come to know people such as Dorrit Black and Enid Cambridge, who were to become leading artists. More importantly, she had received an excellent training in art, as a practitioner and teacher, and had often exhibited with the Society of Artists, Sydney.
Settling in Hobson Street, Wellington, Crabb adopted the name of Barc (Crab spelt backwards) and began to take students. She held her first solo show in the French Maid Coffee House and went on to exhibit regularly at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. Her energies were also taken up with writing articles on art for the New Zealand Listener and Art in New Zealand , and in lobbying for a government travelling scholarship for artists. In 1949 she was one of a number of artists calling themselves the Group of Nine who held a joint exhibition; the others included Evelyn Page, T. A. McCormack, Cedric Savage and Helen Stewart.
By this time Barc had given up painting in watercolours and worked largely in pen and ink with the occasional oil. Her lively, evocative drawings of people (and occasionally animals) eating, sleeping, sitting about or playing, demonstrated a strong and original talent and an ability to penetrate the character of the subject with a few lines. Mothers and babies were favourite subjects, as were people on trams: she is said to have rearranged passengers to improve the composition. Her drawings, with titles such as ‘Drowsy’, ‘Coffee quickie’, ‘Cutting his nails’ and ‘Professor Hughes at table’, are held in galleries throughout the country.
Much of her time was occupied with teaching, a vocation she valued highly. She always emphasised to students the need to learn the grammar of art and had little patience with people who were not prepared to follow this advice. On the other hand, she was warm and encouraging to those she believed were ready to work hard under her direction. Her pupils included a number who later distinguished themselves, notably Betty Clegg, Joan Fanning, Avis Higgs, Veira Beattie and Patricia Fry. Her association with Fry was to last over decades and resulted in many drawings of the Fry family. Another student who became an enduring friend was Elva Bett, one of the first women gallery owners in Wellington.
Barc considered marriage a snare for artists and avoided it herself. Tall, stoutly built, and wearing flowing garments usually made from colourful furnishing fabrics, she was for years a notable figure on the Wellington art scene. In her basement flat in Aurora Terrace, to which she moved in 1953, she held soup and scone evenings for students and friends, holding something like a salon in her studio. This room for years bore a notice, ‘Please note that the word old is prohibited here’. She never hesitated to express her mind on anything and was unconcerned about other people’s feelings. As she herself wrote, ‘I am a person who does not do the tactful thing, nor the adroit thing nor the expected thing’.
A legacy enabled Barc to return to Sydney in 1959, hoping to resume life as an art student. She soon moved to Tasmania, where she attended the Hobart Technical College for nearly two years. Her stay in Hobart lasted almost a decade: she studied, drew, formed a friendship with Dorothy Stoner (a distinguished Tasmanian painter), and experienced poverty. Godfrey Miller, a New Zealand artist living in Sydney, bequeathed her his house in Paddington in 1964. However, lacking the money to pay estate duties and, in her early 70s, the energy and skill to cope with the problems of ownership, she sold the house.
In 1969 Barc returned to Wellington, bringing with her an autobiographical manuscript. She regularly visited Patricia Fry to obtain help with it. She also drew and taught, but her strength was failing. Never an easy person, she had become difficult to help or to house. Her friends, Jim and Elva Bett and Bryan and Patricia Fry, were loyal and supportive to the end.
Barc was teaching students until some months before her death in Wellington Hospital on 5 March 1972. She is remembered for the brilliance of her many drawings, her commitment to art, her forceful and quirky personality, the quality of her teaching and the work of her students. As she once wrote, ‘Our parents love us but our teachers seal our fate’.