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William Sutton

20 July 2023

Well-known for his landscape paintings that veer between abstraction and realism, William Sutton dedicated his life to painting and teaching in Christchurch. Learn more about this local hero.


W.A. Sutton, painter, needs little introduction to Cantabrians. They know well his landscapes, with their distinctive nor'westerly and spiralling easterly skies; his grasses, wild and cultivated; the Plains, pine-tree striped and terraced; and the little wooden churches, so desolate and decorative. All who see them, marvel at the paintings' familiarity and majesty.

A true local, Bill was born in 1917 in the working-class suburb of Sydenham, Christchurch. His antecedents, the Sutton and McGorman families, were immigrants from England and Ireland: hard-working people who brought with them the typical moral and labouring attitudes of the times. Grandfather John Sutton purchased a modest property in Devon Street and the family lived there for many decades.

Lecturers at the Canterbury College School of Art (now the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts) were a virtual roll-call of New Zealand artists – Ivy Fife, Florence Akins, Colin Lovell-Smith, Archibald Nicoll, Richard Wallwork, Cecil Kelly, Elizabeth Kelly, Eve Page and sculptor Francis Shurrock. They gave Bill an academic grounding in all aspects of art – paint, perspective, drawing and anatomy, along with a rather lightweight plein-air version of French Impressionism. However this way of seeing the landscape – as nature suffused with light – left him unsatisfied. Plein air and its seeming spontaneity was not enough. But at this stage of his painting career, he didn't have the insight to break away.

After graduating, Bill began his long teaching career with junior classes at the Art School and at Christ's College on Saturday morning, whilst also exhibiting in Canterbury and Otago. Conscripted into the Army Territorial Service in 1941, he worked in many parts of New Zealand, mainly with the camouflage unit and then on an Army Education and Welfare publication, Korero.

Travelling to England in 1947 to attend the Anglo-French Art Centre, London, and to visit the Continent, he saw the great European artists' works in the original for the first time. It shocked him away from his "rather broken-down" form of Impressionism and he realised, on his return to New Zealand in 1949, that his traditional art school training, from English-trained teachers, was now inappropriate. With a more analytical approach, he painted Dry September in 1949 and Nor'wester in the Cemetery in 1950. Both became in time part of the lexicon of New Zealand's national art. And so did other works that followed – the various Church paintings 1953–62, the idiosyncratic Homage to Frances Hodgkins 1951, St Sebastian 1951, and the Spaniard and Grasses series started in 1960. In Grasses, his most abstract venture to date, paint was released from subject matter, and texture and pattern were explored as ends in themselves. Grass became canes, bent in rhythm with the wind.

Bill enjoyed the challenge of abstraction, but the lure of reality pulled him back from this dalliance, at least for the time being, to paint a larger view. Four works, the Four Seasons in Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer 1968–70, gave to a spur of the Port Hills, a stilled, almost awe-inspiring presence. Timelessness had now replaced rhythm.

Hard on the heels of this representational analysis of land and sky, Bill again played with abstraction in the Composition and Landscape Elements, 1962–73 series, making light, shadow and hill into a jig-saw of colour, plane and angle.

Completely captivated by the physical and meteorological nature of Canterbury, Bill turned its reality into abstract bands of horizon-and-cloud fragments in the major Threshold 1972–73 series – random impressions of Nature given splendid visual order.

Helped by this increased sense of mathematical harmony (or the Golden Mean of Renaissance painters, reinforced by 300 days leave in Italy 1973–74), Bill continued to veer between abstraction and realism. The explicit depiction of Castle Rock in the Te Tihi O Kahukura 1976–77 series was followed by the abstract and semi-abstract Landscape Synthesis 1980, and the Land and Sky series of 1984. The culmination of these painterly explorations (all reconstructed in the studio) was the Plantation Series 1986–88, vast works of pine-patterned Plains under cloud-patterned skies – surely masterpieces in the pantheon of Canterbury art.

All the while, Bill was busy painting commissioned portraits of the famous, and studies of friends. As an academic in the Department of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury, he displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge in his chosen area of art history. He tutored untold numbers of New Zealand's successful artists and made long-lasting friendships with many of them. He gave generous hospitality in his Templar Street home to colleagues, students and friends, in fact to all who were seriously interested in art. At the University for 40 years, he took early retirement in 1979, to become at last a full-time painter.

Bill was appointed to many boards, committees, advisory boards and was granted life membership to Art Societies around New Zealand. His extra-curricular pastimes included socialising, gardening, calligraphy, travel, music, collecting books (including rare and beautiful publications) and cooking; he was found champion of many a stray cat – and would-be protector of the fair name of art, scholarship and Christchurch, in hundreds of witty and provocative letters on a wide range of subjects, to editors of local newspapers.

During his life Bill gave unstintingly to good causes, he donated artworks to the Robert McDougall Art Gallery (now the Christchurch Art Gallery) and he bequeathed all his books to the University of Canterbury's library. He died in 2000.

After a lifetime of painting and teaching in Christchurch, Bill has surely earned a double A credit rating – A for Art and A for Academia.

By Pat Unger (Copyright © March 2009 Local Heroes Trust)

Pat Unger, artist and art critic, co-authored with W.A.Sutton, "W.A.Sutton: painter", 1994 (Hazard Press); she was an essayist for "W.A.Sutton / A Retrospective", 2003 (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu) and author of "Bill's Story. A Portrait of W.A.Sutton", 2008 (Canterbury University Press).

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