Oil on canvas
786 x 680mm
This painting, Rita Angus’s largest work, features a portrait of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams whose connection with New Zealand came through Victoria University Professor of Music Frederick Page (his wife Evelyn Page also did a Vaughan Williams portrait) and composer Douglas Lilburn, both of whom studied with him. The pacifist Lilburn lived only doors away from Rita Angus in the suburb of Clifton near Sumner beach, Christchurch and later in Thorndon, Wellington. In 1944, the year in which Angus was prosecuted for failing to take up essential war work in the Christchurch Skellerup Rubber factory, Lilburn drew her attention to Vaughan Williams’ work for chorus and orchestra, Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace). The artist made many preparatory studies for details of this work but used a photograph for the portrait of the composer. The derelict pioneer house in the top left corner was drawn from Herbert Helm’s Pangatotara property in Golden Bay to which Angus had gone following her prosecution. There she worked alongside other conscientious objectors as a tobacco picker.
Images of fertility and growth as well as oriental symbols of peace and harmony fill the painting. What may well be an idealised portrait of herself walking along Sumner beach as a young girl occupies the centre of the painting. At the top left three women violinists are placed against a typically coloured Canterbury nor’wester sky. This is the only specifically musical allusion in the painting. Dona Nobis Pacem is a very important painting which in a single work encompasses the artist’s deep social concern, her landscape and still life interest and a number of symbolic references. In 1944 Rita Angus titled the work “Vaughan Williams” but in her own inventory of oil paintings it is listed as No.30 and titled “Dona Nobis Pacem”. It was exhibited in 1957 at the Auckland City Art Gallery’s 8 New Zealand Painters and again in the National Art Gallery’s Rita Angus Retrospective which toured nationally from December 1982–March 1983.