IT ALL SEEMS so long ago now, and, to be fair, in human terms, 48 years is a long time. New Zealand was a different country in 1974. Someone unafraid of courting controversy might say it had achieved “Peak Pakeha”. Although the Labour Government of Norman Kirk had struck out boldly in the direction of a truly independent foreign policy: recognising “Red China”, and sending a New Zealand frigate to “observe” (but really to protest) the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll, this was still a very “European” place. In the South Island, particularly, the two largest cities – Christchurch and Dunedin – had been built to look as though they were founded in the Middle Ages – not the mid-Nineteenth Century.
Born and bred in the South Island, I had not been back there since 1969, when the family moved to Heretaunga in the Hutt Valley. Barely 18, and in search of – well, I wasn’t quite sure – I boarded the Union Steamship Company’s inter-island express steamer, the TEV Rangatira, and sailed south to Lyttleton. Yes, that’s right, Lyttleton. Forty-eight years ago it was still profitable to run a ferry service a wee bit further than Picton. I’ve seen many beautiful places since that journey in 1974, but none of them could match for sheer wonder sailing up Lyttleton Harbour on a brisk Autumn morning as the sun came up behind the Rangatira’s stern and bathed the hills and houses in a magical golden light.
Magical, yes, that’s the word. Magic is what this essay is about. The magic of art and memory.
It was on that journey south, in the autumn of 1974, that I first encountered George Dunlop Leslie’s mysterious painting, “In A Wizard’s Garden”. It was hanging in the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, situated behind the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch’s splendid Botanic Gardens. Leslie’s painting stopped me in my tracks. The room in which it hung was deathly quiet, I was the only person in it, and I felt myself drawn to it like Edmund and Lucy in C.S. Lewis’s “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”. The melancholic gaze of the young woman, the painting’s principal subject, held me spellbound. Who was she? Where was she? And who was the dark figure entering through the garden’s narrow gate?
I can’t remember registering the artist’s name. If I did, then I soon forgot it. But the painting itself, its eerie stillness and its disconcerting sense of menace – that I did not forget. Passing through Christchurch many times in the latter half of the 1970s, I always made my way to that quiet room, and to the half-sad, half-challenging gaze of the young woman in the garden, and to the dark figure who kept her there.
Until the day came when I entered the quiet room and found the painting had been replaced by another. Not unusual, of course, for art galleries to rotate the works in their collections, but I was devastated. Leslie’s work had become a kind of talisman, a corporeal reminder of a time in my life when magic seemed very close. It’s removal struck me as both a judgement and an instruction: time to put away childish things. But, the child in me preferred Leonard Cohen’s poetry:
Magic is afoot
It cannot come to harm
It rests in an empty palm
It spawns in an empty mind
But Magic is no instrument
Magic is the end
And so the years passed, and New Zealand changed, and I changed with it. Magic seemed very far away indeed in the narrower and more materialistic nation we had become. If I thought of the painting at all, it was only as a symbol of what had been lost. Our culture had become much less European and much more global in its focus. This was thought to be a good thing. A better thing, though, was the indigenous culture of the Māori, unfurling from the cracks in the colonisers’ concrete, and shimmering with a magic all its own.
And then, just a few weeks ago, I saw it. No more than a tiny circle of colour beside Lynda Clark’s Twitter handle, but the human brain is a marvellous thing and mine instantly recognised the sad figure of the young woman in the red dress. Not hesitating for a moment, I messaged Lynda and shared with her my longstanding fascination with the image she had chosen. Turns out I wasn’t the only person enchanted by Leslie’s painting: Lynda, too, had visited it whenever she could, transfixed, like me, by the young woman’s gaze.
It was Lynda who supplied me with the artists name and the painting’s title. (I had thought it was called “The Magician’s Garden” – which was close, but not close enough for Google Images!) With the correct details, the Internet flooded me with images and information.
According to the Christchurch Art Gallery:
“In response to the adverse impacts and uncertainties of the industrial age, many late Victorian and Edwardian British artists were drawn to somewhat escapist historical or literary themes. Lavishly displaying this tendency, George Dunlop Leslie’s In the Wizard’s Garden was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1904, and in New Zealand at the 1906–07 Christchurch International Exhibition. Because the painting puzzled visitors, Leslie was asked for an explanation of its meaning. Its unhappy subject was a young medieval noblewoman who had sought an alchemist or wizard’s guidance to discover the secrets of the future. The theme originated from American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Rappacini’s Daughter’, a macabre tale featuring a garden filled with poisonous plants. The setting of the painting was, however, English rather than Italian: it is known to be based on Leslie’s own garden in Wallingford, Oxfordshire. London-based, former Dunedin merchant Wolf Harris, a friend of many leading artists, bought the work almost as soon as it arrived in Christchurch and then gifted it to the Canterbury Society of Arts.”
The secrets of the future, ah yes, that is the stuff of wizardry. For me, however, the joy of being able to look again into the wizard’s garden served only to unlock memories of the past. Like the works of those Victorian and Edwardian artists among whom Leslie’s skills shone so brightly, the New Zealand of 1974 strikes me now as an elaborate lie, designed to protect its Pakeha inhabitants from the “impacts and uncertainties” of their inescapably Pacific destiny.
The Christchurch I arrived in that autumn morning is no more, shaken to bits by the constantly moving tectonic plates upon which Aotearoa does its best to stand upright. “God is alive, magic is afoot”, wrote Leonard Cohen. “It moves from hand to hand”. And it is moving now. Perhaps, in her half-sad, half-challenging way, the young woman in the wizard’s garden is urging us to step, finally, beyond its enchanted walls, and discover who, and where, we really are.