Oil on canvas
786 x 680mm
Inscriptions: Dona nobis pacem [u.] ; Rita Angus [l.r.]
This painting, one of Rita Angus’s largest, features a portrait of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. His connection with Aotearoa 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 Angus, first in the suburb of Clifton, near Sumner beach, Ōtautahi, and later in Thorndon, Te Whanganui-a-Tara.
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 parts of this work but used a photograph for the portrait of the composer.
The apple evokes the Riverside Community, founded by Christian pacifists in 1941 at Lower Moutere, where Angus picked apples between February and May 1944, and where she conceived the idea for Dona Nobis Pacem. The derelict pioneer house 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 1930s, 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.
In Dona Nobis Pacem, images of fertility and growth, as well as oriental symbols of peace and harmony, fill the painting. What may well be an idealised self-portrait, showing Angus walking along Sumner beach as a young girl, occupies the centre of the painting. At 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 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’.
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