Oil on canvas
785 x 685mm (image); 965 x 865mm (frame)
This painting, one of Rita Angus’s largest, centres on a portrait of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was connected to Aotearoa 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. Angus and Lilburn were close friends and, for a time, lovers. They lived close to one another over a number of years, first in the suburb of Clifton, near Sumner beach, Ōtautahi, and later in Thorndon, Te Whanganui-a-Tara.
Angus had strong pacifist convictions. In 1944, she appeared before the Magistrate’s Court after refusing to work in a factory to support the war effort. She stated, ‘I object to direction into essential industry on the grounds that I am a conscientious objector to war, and, as an artist, it is my work to create life and not to destroy.’ That same year, she began Dona Nobis Pacem, which makes reference to a 1936 cantata by Vaughan Williams of the same name. The Latin phrase ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ translates as ‘Give Us Peace’.
Angus made many preparatory studies for parts of this work and used a photograph for the portrait of Vaughan Williams. Images of fertility and growth, as well as oriental symbols of peace and harmony, fill the picture. What may well be an idealised self-portrait, showing Angus as a young girl at the beach, occupies the centre. Above, three women violinists—the only specifically musical allusion in the painting—are placed against a typical Canterbury nor’wester sky.
The apple at lower right evokes the Riverside Community, founded by Christian pacifists in 1941 at Lower Moutere, where she picked apples between February and May 1944, and where she conceived the idea for the painting. The derelict house at top left was drawn from Herbert Helm’s Pangatōtara farm near Motueka. Angus had worked there between January and May 1941 picking tobacco in order to avoid work that assisted the war effort.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the area around Tasman Bay Te Tai-o-Aorere was frequented by a number of artists, who went in search of employment and subjects for art. Peter Vangioni notes, ‘Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon settled in the region for extended periods while others including Doris Lusk and Rita Angus had shorter stays.’ McCahon’s Pangatotara Landscape No. 1 testifies to his presence, as does Lusk’s Tobacco Fields, Pangatotara, Nelson (1943), at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
Dona Nobis Pacem is an important painting, which in a single work encompasses the artist’s deep social concern, her interest in landscape and still life, and a number of symbolic references. In 1944, she titled the work ‘Vaughan Williams’, but in her own inventory of oil paintings it is listed as No. 30 and titled ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’.
InscriptionsDona nobis pacem [u.] ; Rita Angus [l.r.]
Gathered Voices: Highlights from the Fletcher Trust Collection, New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, 15 September to 11 December 2022
Rita Angus: New Zealand Modernist | He Ringatoi Hou o Aotearoa, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa), Te Whangaui-a-Tara, 18 December 2021 to 25 April 2022
Rita Angus, National Art Gallery (later the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa), Te Whangaui-a-Tara, 9 December 1982 to 6 March 1983 (toured), cat. no. 39
Eight New Zealand Painters, Auckland City Art Gallery (later Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki), Tāmaki Makaurau, November to December 1957