Stories that take you on a journey

A slice of New Zealand art history…

The Collection of Dame Judith te Tomairangi o Te Aroha Binney and Sebastian Black

Auction Art+Object – 4 June 2015

This is the first art auction collection I have viewed since the small collection my ex-husband and I acquired together was catalogued, valued and re-distributed as part of our divorce settlement. Many of you may think so what, others will understand how attending auctions, viewing art and occasionally finding a work of art, which gets into your head and somehow gets purchased, is a huge part of a life spent together and therefore, takes time to revisit.

The Collection about to be auctioned at Art+Object this week is the story of Dame Judith Binney and Sebastian Black’s life they shared together from 1973 to 2011. Now nearly four years after Judith’s death, Sebastian has passed away. Unlike other collections, which are often left to museums this one is to be sold, the proceeds going “towards the establishment of ‘Judith Te Tomairangi o Te Aroha trust’ at the Royal Society of New Zealand, where she was one of the first historians to be elected as a fellow.” “The aim,” said Ben, “is to establish prestigious and well-funded fellowships for scholars working on any aspect of Aotearoa/New Zealand history.”

Their Collection (Binney and Black’s) was built on “associations, stories, friendships and emotions”, which as Ben Plumbly, Director – Art, Art+Object explains in the catalogue of this collection “dissipate[s] when the art object resurfaces outside of its custodian’s immediate habitat.” This been the sole reason Art+Object produced a catalogue that presents the Collection in its original setting.

The catalogue also lets the would be buyer, the amateur art historian or the curious into the life Dame Judith and Sebastian shared, through articles and recounted conversations bearing witness to two individuals who, as Ben Plumbly explained “supported, emotionally and financially, a generation of artists at a time when there was little or no market for their work.” Friends whose work form part of the collection include Ralph Hotere, Greer Twiss, Pat Hanly, Claudia Pond-Eyley and Bob Ellis.

Before his Dunedin years Ralph Hotere (1931–2013) flatted with Sebastian. Then in September 1978 during a European holiday Ralph and his family stayed at Sebastian’s Villa Stella whitewashed house in Binisaufa, a tiny seaside village on the southwest coast of Menorca. Peter Simpson’s article informs us, “Hotere worked on several series in Menorca, including Return to Sangro, Window in Spain and Le Pape est Mort.” Included in the auction are two White Paintings, one with faded blue fishes above houses of Binisafua was left behind on the wall of the house, perhaps a way of making the creativity such a place generates. The other he bought back as a gift.

Among Dame Judith Binney’s university friends were Dee Twiss and Gil Hanly; Dee married the sculpture Greer Twiss and Gil the artist Pat Hanley.

There are several Pat Hanley’s in the Collection but there are two that resonated with me. The first Mid-Summer Garden, the subject is his wife’s renowned garden planted on rich volcanic Mt Eden soil. There is nothing static about the artist’s painting, as it captures the unseen electric energy of plant cells in motion while the colours are both earthy and psychedelic. Perhaps this is why Mid-Summer Garden is esteemed and revered as one of the most important in Hanly’s Energy-series and as such there is an expectation of the hammer coming down between $80,000 and $120,000.

For the more modest collector, perhaps reaching at the top of their price range Pat Hanly’s Tamarillo (screenprint, 8/14) $3,500-$5,000 is an iconic work, which also seeks to capture the unseen cellular activity of nature and yet through the punctuation of tree-tomato red within the egg-shape conveys the sheen and vibrancy of this fruit.


My own personal criteria for purchasing a work of art, subject to monetary restriction’s, a sense of the painting getting inside my head. Bob Kerr’s Crossing the Murupara Plain, a sliver of a painting at 110 x 900mm depicting a car journey in 1916; Police commissioner John Cullen’s expedition to arrest Rua Kenana, achieved this. I could picture myself behind the wheel of the car, plains where the vegetation is dry, brittle and the colour of liquorice; as the car races towards the lumpy hills I wonder what lies on the other side. The indicative price range is $1,200 – $2,000.

Black and Dame Judith Binney belonged to a different generation of collectors and artists, today there is a new generation who collect as art groups where investment rather than supporting an artist is the criteria.  In honour of  this Collection I wanted to finish with an artwork that speaks of an artists community; Greer Twiss
Your tongue.
Touching on song.
Darkens all songs.
Your touch is almost a signature.
The plague, fabricated lead with a curtain half drawn, gathered and slightly moving reminding me of another great New Zealand artist Rosalie Gascgoine’s corrugated iron curtain Pink Window 1975, is inscribed Bill Manhire, Hotere. For Judy and Sebastian. $5,000-$9,000 work combines both poetry and art in a homage to two well known and respected New Zealander’s and is a touch of our history, which hopefully will be purchased by one of our institutions such as Te Papa.


Postscript – 5 June 2015

I thought that you might like some feedback on the auction. Despite the rain and lack of parking near the auction house there was a great turn out. I had forgotten that sitting to close to the rostrum meant you couldn’t keep an eye on the bidding action. Thankfully though our sitting still allowed us to get a sense of the sporadic nature of the bidding and also feel involved when it heated up.

As this was my first auction in years I’m not up with the market so either the pricing on the top tier bracket of paintings was too high, or there are not many high rollers currently in the art market. The Binisafu and Menorca canvases fetched under 50% of the estimated top price, each going under the hammer at $70,000. Pat Hanly’s Mid-Summer Garden (blog-post cover picture) went for $68,000 and Tamarillo $3,000. The other two works I featured attracted a lot of attention and bidding; maybe I haven’t lost my ‘eye’. Bob Kerr’s Crossing the Murupara Plain fetched $1,850 and Greer Twiss plague went under the hammer at $5,900.

Now that I have a new auction buddy and remembered how much fun they are I will be opening a new bank account for an art fund; alas building it will give me plenty of time to do field research.

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