CHRISTIE, Bessie

Tobacco Queue, Karangahape Road, Auckland

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c.1940
Oil on canvas
410 x 520mm

Bessie Christie was an Auckland artist about whose life only the sketchiest details are known. Even her death date is uncertain. In 1933 she was an exhibiting member of the Auckland Society of Arts; she taught art at Takapuna Grammar School 1935–40 and was an exhibiting member of the Rutland Group. Bombadier Bessie Christie was a driver in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps during World War II and works by her were included in the 1944 Artists in Uniform exhibition. At a time when most New Zealand artists were recording the landscape in an attempt to create a national art, Bessie Christie devoted her talent to recording the contemporary social life of the people of Auckland.

As such her paintings are an almost unique record of a neglected subject area. Bessie (Elizabeth) Christie is an elusive figure. She was born in Wellington and received her secondary education at Elam School of Art in Auckland. Unlike her contemporary May Smith she did not pursue further studies at an art school in England but remained in Auckland where she taught art at Takapuna Grammar School. After its foundation in 1936 she was an active member of the Rutland Group which had been formed by a group of ex-Elam students in order to pursue a more adventurous line in painting than that favoured by the then highly conservative Auckland Society of Arts. During the war Bessie Christie served with the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.

Throughout the 1950s she exhibited at the Auckland Society of Arts in the company of such contemporaries as A. Lois White, May Smith, Helen Brown and Frances Hunt. Unlike many other painters of the time she struck out on an original path refusing to paint the rather gloomy, empty landscapes which were then in fashion, instead specialising in cityscapes filled with people. She made sketches at social occasions such as the annual Elam Arts balls and later worked them up into paintings in which individual characters were clearly recognisable. Ironically it was probably this very ability as a recorder of social activities which was responsible for her failing at the time to achieve the reputation of her landscape painting contemporaries. Tobacco Queue is a characteristic Christie subject.

Here she has observed a typical wartime activity taking place in Karangahape Road, painting it with dashing informality in contrast to the rather tight, studied watercolour technique which she used earlier in her career. Bessie Christie is a good example of a talented artist who managed to surmount the obstacles of a conventional art education and to maintain a fresh approach to subject matter in the face of prevailing fashion. In recent years her work, though rarely found, has become increasingly sought after because of its originality. This painting was purchased for the Fletcher Challenge Art Collection in 1978. It was formerly in the possession of the artist Charles Tole to whom it was probably gifted by the artist. It was illustrated in the Arts Year Book 1950 edited by Eric Lee-Johnson.