BROWN, Helen

Auckland Harbour

1969
Oil
700 x 900mm

Helen Brown lived all her life in Auckland. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, while employed at the Banks Box Company as a packaging designer, she trained for a period of eight years at Elam School of Art evening classes where her teachers included the school’s principal, A.J.C. Fisher, and the well known painter John Weeks. She often went with other Weeks pupils on painting holidays in the King Country where they all specialised in the production of sombre hilly landscapes devoid of human subjects. Like Vida Steinert, Frances Hunt, Jack Crippen, Blanche Hazelwood and others in the group, Helen Brown’s work gradually began to display the particular brand of soft Cubism with which all Weeks pupils experimented as a means of achieving a more modern conception of form than was practised by landscape painters like Ida Eise, who also taught at Elam. So pervasive was Weeks’ influence on his pupils at this time that in later years Helen Brown and Vida Steinert were quite unable to distinguish between each other’s work.

Weeks also encouraged his pupils to paint urban scenes in Grafton and Ponsonby. These usually displayed a rather grim urban realism far removed from the nostalgic neo-romanticism of Eric Lee-Johnson’s dilapidated rural cottages. For a period between 1944–1950 these urban scenes formed the basis of Brown’s work exhibited with the Rutland Group. This was an association of Weeks pupils which attracted favourable critical attention as the result of their efforts to dissociate themselves from current conventional landscape painting exhibited at Auckland Society of Arts exhibitions. In 1951 Helen Brown spent a year in Europe where she was so overwhelmed by what she saw that she gave up painting altogether for one year upon returning to Auckland. The unpublished letters she wrote to Weeks from Europe are a fascinating record of her thoughts and feelings during this time. After she had assimilated her overseas experience Helen Brown’s art took on a new vigour; her landscapes became bolder in design and more adventurous in colour.

From 1961 she single-mindedly turned her attention to the headlands and quiet stretches of water of the Hauraki Gulf, drastically cooling her palette (disliking bright colours, she never painted in summer and only rarely on sunny days) and pursuing a geometric structural rigour which took her far beyond anything imagined by Weeks. This painting, Auckland Harbour, one of her very finest works, was first shown in 1969 at the John Leech Gallery where the artist regularly exhibited during the period 1961–1974 when her work was at its peak. In her 1961 exhibition at the John Leech Gallery Helen Brown changed direction, showing thinly painted shimmering images of estuaries, headlands and islands in the Kawau-Mahurangi area of North Auckland. During the late 1960s and early 1970s her landscape work became broadly abstract in treatment though latterly she concentrated on watercolours, usually painted in the cool colours of winter light.