Lay Your Sleeping Head I

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Acrylic on paper
450 x 640mm

Lay Your Sleeping Head I derives from a 1937 poem, ‘Lullaby’, by the openly homosexual W. H. Auden. It was introduced to Douglas MacDiarmid by his first great love, the composer Douglas Lilburn. The two formed part of what Peter Simpson has termed ‘Bloomsbury South’, a progressive artistic and literary circle based in Ōtautahi between the 1930s and 1950s. Other members included Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann, Allen Curnow, and Denis Glover.

MacDiarmid had a lifelong passion for poetry, initially nurtured by his mother. His biographer, Anna Cahill, notes, ‘While some verse has its season, then fades from memory, ‘Lay your sleeping head’ stayed with him through thick and thin. Finally, he made his own translation so his French-speaking partner, Patrick, could enjoy it fully with him.’ In 2012, MacDiarmid himself wrote to a friend:

‘I set out on this poem fully aware that a translation mustn’t become a betrayal; but in all things, if enough love gears heart and mind to a commitment, the labour is multiplied and so is the pleasure. It does contain a lot. My French judges have been generous, and my reward has been a painting which then took over. Just for the hell of it, I’ll enclose a copy. I’ve called it Sleep, and hope it doesn’t bring you a nightmare.’

Sleep was later retitled Lay Your Sleeping Head I.[1] As with other works by MacDiarmid, form is reduced to the essential, the colour applied in blocks, creating a patchwork or poster-like quality. However, where paintings like Landscape, Southern France tend to evoke the effects of intense sunlight, Lay Your Sleeping Head I suggests a visionary space, still in the process of coalescing, or perhaps on the verge of dissolution.


[1] A pastel of the same size and date, Lay Your Sleeping Head II, was also produced. The reclining figure in this work bears a strong resemblance to Patrick.

Further Info Hide Info


2012. / MacDiarmid. [l.l.]

Exhibition History

Douglas MacDiarmid: An Artist Abroad, Jonathan Grant Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau, 10 October to 4 November 2013


Purchased from Jonathan Grant Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau, October 2021