On Wednesday 22 May, we said haere rā to Roger Blackley, Associate Professor of Art History at Victoria University of Wellington. A specialist in nineteenth-century New Zealand art, Roger was a brilliant curator, scholar, and teacher. His passing is a massive loss to the sector.
Roger began his career as a curator at Auckland City Art Gallery in 1983. He produced exhibitions of colonial New Zealand art, including Tarawera 1886 (1986), Two Centuries of New Zealand Landscape Art (1990), Golden Evenings: The Art of Alfred Sharpe (1993), and Goldie (1997), which was accompanied by a major book. His work on Goldie would prove crucial.
Previously, Goldie’s portraits had been examined from a Pākehā world view, with his Māori subjects considered to represent a passive and dying race. However, Roger exposed more complicated dynamics of how Goldie’s works operated in and between both the Māori and Pākehā worlds. He showed that Goldie’s Māori sitters were active, willing participants, and that Māori audiences celebrated and revered his portraits of ancestors.
The bicultural context of colonial art was a rich new field for art history and Roger’s research into Goldie and, later, Gottfried Lindauer supported burgeoning interest in their works.
Roger began teaching art history at Victoria in 1999 and my personal relationship with him began when I was a student there from 2010 to 2013. He was an inspiring, entertaining teacher, generous with his time and expertise. He took great care of his students. He peppered his lectures and tutorials with amusing anecdotes and gossip. This was deliberate, as he would deliver a crucial piece of information right after catching our attention. He was the obvious choice to guide my study on Lindauer in my Honours year.
Our common interest in Lindauer would find us taking road trips together. We visited Whanganui Museum to view its Lindauer portraits and to examine Lindauer documents in its archives. Roger generously arranged everything with the Museum staff and drove us there in his car. We also bonded over our love of food, and the Whanganui trip included hunting for a gem iron in an antique store. Later, we made a trip to Palmerston North, so Roger could examine the subject of my dissertation, a Lindauer portrait of my ancestor Hoani Meihana Te Rangiotu, hanging in my family marae.
Roger’s special interest in forgeries meant that he became a go-to person for authenticating works. A highlight of my Honours year was going with Roger to view a now-notorious painting attributed to Lindauer at Dunbar Sloane. The National Library purchased it, despite Roger advising them it was a fake. Forensic chemical examination would subsequently vindicate him. This experience made art history real for me.
Lindauer featured prominently in the PhD thesis Roger was writing as I was completing my degree. His thesis addressed how Pākehā discovered, created, propagated, and romanticised a Māori world at the turn of the century, but also considered the stake Māori had in this. He grappled with a big question: why should the idealisation of the ancient Māori world also appeal to Māori? A major contribution to our bicultural history, Galleries of Māoriland: Artists, Collectors, and the Māori World was published last year by Auckland University Press. It’s such a shame illness prevented Roger from promoting it and enjoying its reception.
Roger’s work has and will have huge influence on New Zealand art history. It was a privilege to be a student and then a friend of Roger Blackley’s.
Ka hinga te tōtara o te wao nui a Tāne.
Haere rā, Roger.
Hana Small is Office Manager at City Gallery.