Has Grahame Sydney fallen out of favour with NZ's art establishment?

by Clare de Lore / 21 May, 2017

Grahame Sydney at work. Photo/Robert Hanson

His paintings are highly sought after by collectors at home and abroad, but Grahame Sydney hasn't been included in shows of contemporary New Zealand painters for years.

His style is unmistakable: stark landscapes beneath big blue skies, almost always featuring the rugged sensuality of Central Otago’s mountains, hills and valleys. Grahame Sydney, one of New Zealand’s most successful contemporary painters, has made the region his own and has been in the fortunate and unusual position of being able to make a living as an artist virtually all his working life.

Born in Dunedin, Sydney lives and works in the remote Cambrian Valley. He’s not quite a man alone. In an essay he wrote in 2013, introducing a retrospective book of his work, he describes Fiona, now his wife, as his “dream partner”. Their dog, Milo, recently went blind. The Sydneys dote on the milky-eyed Milo – large, stiff feathers protrude at a horizontal angle from low-lying hazards, such as table legs, so Milo can safely navigate his way around their book- and art-filled house.

Now 69, Sydney has travelled the globe but loves “living in the middle of nowhere pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist”.

Is it Central Otago or nowhere, as far as you’re concerned?

I couldn’t possibly live elsewhere. Today is grey – a dull day – but normally it is beautiful. We live with the Hawkduns on one horizon – that’s the signature range for me – and I built here so I could see them every day. Mt St Bathans is to the north, with its head in the clouds at the moment. It is like living in a theatre.

Harrier Hawks at Kane’s Pond, 2017, Grahame Sydney.

Harrier Hawks at Kane’s Pond, 2017, Grahame Sydney.

You’ve painted full-time ever since what you call a “lucky break” – what happened?

Within a fortnight of my returning to New Zealand from England in 1974, Peter Webb turned up at my door in Dunedin and offered to buy everything I finished without any conditions. He was true to his word and bought everything and promoted them to sell them. That first exhibition, in Auckland in March 1975, was a sellout: it got front-page coverage. It is the sort of lucky break you can’t buy.

There have been several books about your work. What role have they played in your success?

Books are fabulously influential. They are the best thing that can happen to you, really. I was approached by Longacre Press to do Timeless Land, which came out in 1995. I never ever imagined that would happen. Timeless Land gave a lot of impetus to New Zealand art publishing, because it was very successful. Until then, a lot of publishers had stayed well clear of art. There had been big books like Gil Docking’s Two Hundred Years of New Zealand Painting and Hamish Keith and Gordon Brown did the anthologies (including New Zealand Painting: An Introduction), but in the 80s and 90s there had been very few books about the contemporary New Zealand art world. When I grew up it was Peter McIntyre, Doug Badcock and Colin Wheeler – populist middle-class books about them were on every coffee table. But once scenery painters like them fell out of the limelight, publishers didn’t do anything until Longacre did Timeless Land for us – me, Owen Marshall, and Brian Turner. The reason for its success was more about people’s affection for Central Otago than us. The book was a hymn of praise to Central and conceived as such.

In his brief career as a teacher at Cromwell District High School, 1971. Photo/Sydney family collection

In his brief career as a teacher at Cromwell District High School, 1971. Photo/Sydney family collection

Were you surprised at its success?

I remember talking to the publisher and saying imagine how wonderful it would be if it had to be reprinted; it went into four reprints. The next book, The Art of Grahame Sydney, won three Montana Awards in 2000 and also went to four reprints – unimaginable. When you’re a regionalist, south-of-the-Waitaki/Central Otago man like me, the books mean your audience isn’t just confined to those boundaries. The books tell the origins of the work, where we come from and what shapes us. That is what I have explored all my life and wondered about.

What’s the market like for your work?

Once you are a recognisable name, things get a little easier in terms of finding an audience for your work. It has to be done judiciously – it is still, for most people, an unnecessary luxury and you have got to work hard to find the people who are passionate about art.

I produce five or six paintings a year. I have always been slow, but the fact that I am ponderously slow, and getting worse, isn’t detrimental. I don’t have a shedful waiting to be sold. In a small market, it is quite valuable to be hard to get. No one wants you if you are easy to get. Rule for life: “mustn’t ever be easy to get”. But you don’t abuse that.

Who’s buying?

Most of the big canvases go overseas, to expatriates. I think it is to do with their nostalgia for New Zealand. They are often people who are well established, doing well and longing for home in some corner of their emotional heart. The paintings I do seem to strike those chords for them.

Ready for a Central winter. Photo/Robert Hanson

Ready for a Central winter. Photo/Robert Hanson

The public art galleries in the four main centres all own works by you – Te Papa has Rozzie at Pisa – but none has any of those works on public display or plans to exhibit them. Curatorial coincidence or are you out of favour or fashion?

Dunedin recently included my Hinterland III in a big show of its “beloved” works. Many public galleries have paintings and drawings, but perhaps of most significance, none of them has bought anything for their collections since about 1992. That’s 25 years. And I’ve noticed I’m not invited to things. Apart from Dunedin, I haven’t been included in shows of contemporary New Zealand painters for years. One or two books have come out in recent years about New Zealand painting and I am not even in the index. It is as if I don’t exist.

What’s the issue, in your view?

I have a suspicion it is combination of being a realist, a regionalist and not needing a dealer. The art world is a relatively closed operation, where they look after each other within the trade, and the fact that I operate outside that boundary is not advantageous to me in that respect. You would be a fool to think everyone loves what you do, but I feel disappointed that even someone who dislikes what I have done, and continue to do, can’t be sufficiently objective to see it has a place in New Zealand art.


With the much-loved Milo, now blind. Photo/Robert Hanson

What about exhibiting your paintings locally?

There has been an extraordinary influx of wealthy, interesting and sophisticated people into the Lakes District. They fly into Queenstown, go to the lakes and some of them to Central Otago on the eastern side; it is now a place of international choice and preference, but there is a glaringly conspicuous omission among its attractions: there is no art gallery at all. It’s disappointing, because in other parts of the world, I have seen many examples of relatively small-scale, sometimes private but usually regional public galleries. They have some interesting, attractive contemporary architecture fitting into their regional settings. I think that concept would work wonderfully in the landscape between Arrowtown and Queenstown.

What’s the next step if you want to get that off the ground?

I have discussed it with a couple of people who are in a position to start such a thing, not necessarily building it, but perhaps getting the ball rolling. Everyone I mention it to says, “Yes, you’re right: there isn’t anything and there should be.” It is just an idea that is swirling round, but I ought to try and kick it along a bit. It would be a lovely partnership between the Queenstown Lakes District Council and a number of generous and able private donors.

Whose work do you collect or admire?

I haven’t had the funds usually to buy the art I would love to own. Jeffrey Harris in Dunedin is someone we love a lot. He is a dear mate, and I think he is one of New Zealand’s greats. And if I could ever have one, I would like a painting by Michael Smither. He has been hugely influential in the course of my life and he is still doing admirable work. I have never aspired to own something from the international school. I am an “art of our country” person and Michael has always been one of the greatest exponents of that. Robin White is an old friend from the 70s, and I have a handful of her original prints and a pencil study. I admire Simon Richardson and have several works by him.

Nevis Prayer, 2012, Grahame Sydney.

Nevis Prayer, 2012, Grahame Sydney.

What do you read?

Mainly biographies, and I also read a great deal about other painters. But right now I am reading about the Profumo affair. The book is called An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo [by Richard Davenport-Hines]. The other one I am currently reading is Tim Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain. Anything by him is magnificent.

Your friend John Clarke died recently. What was he like?

A very special man and there will be legions of people who claim him as a friend. He was a hero to me for 20 years before I met him. Then I could hardly believe I was beside him, as a friend.

He made you want to be better at what you did, because he was so good at what he did. It wasn’t deliberate, but when you came away from being with John, you felt like you should do better, try harder to be what you are or hope to be.

There have been two people in my life whose deaths have shocked me because I never thought they would leave. Reg Graham was my English teacher at school – a glamorous single man who arrived at school in a Citroën, he was handsome and arty and did the drama and school productions. He took a serious interest in me, and see that watercolour over there? He commissioned it from me for three guineas when I was at school. His widow, Judith (author of Breaking the Habit, an autobiographical memoir of a nun who left the convent), gave it to me after Reg died.

And now John – he was the same age as me. How much more genius was there? How much more was there to be enjoyed?

I came out of the generation that was largely shaped by adoration of John in the Fred Dagg days because that sense of humour was our sense of humour and literally everything he did was wonderful. You could list the things he did that were brilliant. The rest of us might hope for a list with one or two things but John’s is so long.

This article was first published in the May 13, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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