Ron Brownson

An Emblem of St Paul’s College: Tony Fomison's 'Ponsonby Madonna'

An Emblem of St Paul’s College: Tony Fomison's 'Ponsonby Madonna'

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Recently a life-size photographic reproduction of Tony Fomison’s The Ponsonby Madonna (1982–1983) was installed in the chapel at St Paul’s College in Ponsonby, Auckland, in the same location where it was displayed for over 20 years after its creation.

The Ponsonby Madonna is Fomison’s largest painting and his only mural. Incorporating three panels, it measures 2375 mm high and 3615 mm wide. Although Fomison created numerous religious artworks, this is his only publicly commissioned religious painting.

Fomison was commissioned by the Trustees of Saint Paul’s College in Ponsonby in 1982 to create a mural-sized painting depicting the Madonna and Child for the school’s chapel. After a stint living overseas until 1967, Fomison moved from Christchurch to Auckland in 1973 and lived there for the remainder of his life. His move north coincided with a progressive moment for the arts in New Zealand: the commercial dealer gallery scene was expanding, international exhibitions were increasingly being shown, more people were travelling internationally and returning with open ideas and ambitious visions.

The Ponsonby Madonna was one of many public art commissions undertaken in the early 1980s under the auspices of the New Zealand Government’s Department of Labour Temporary Employment Programme (TEP), which sought to provide work for artists during a period of increased unemployment. As part of this nationwide project, under the leadership of Hamish Keith the Auckland Council Employment Department established an initiative called Artwork to stimulate employment through the production of community art in Auckland. Over 150 artists were employed in the scheme between 1982 and 1983, including Emily Karaka, who produced Planting, Searching, Rising: Taupiri is the Mountain, Waikato is the River, 1983, which is now in the collection of Auckland Art Gallery.

The scheme enabled Fomison to work as an artist in residence at St Paul’s College on one project for six months. In the catalogue for his exhibition Bringing Back the Scattered, an Auckland City Art Gallery Artist’s project (1983), he described his desire to contribute a mural to the college:[1]

St Pauls College Mural. Murals have naturally been an aim of my work. This is my first, started early last year [1982] on a P.E.P. scheme supervised by “Artwork”. There were a number of us finding our sites around Ponsonby. I chose the College: it’s close to my place and involved in the local Polynesian communities. Being keen, the college met materials costs, and the repair person there carpentered the backing on which I laid the hessian. It required lots of coats of surfacing, and I could not meet the six months deadline. My paint brushes said that they were not interested in flat pattern decoration, they wanted to do a big picture, and they got me to cheerfully ignore all the pressures until I got the image we wanted. This image was the fourth in a long haul of scrubbing down and starting again.

In describing the painting’s subject, Fomison said:[2]

I had to keep the Christian image in mind, the fact that the school is 60% Polynesian, and it was my first mural, and I had to remember the local environment. Then I felt in my heart that the figure of the mother which is so important in the Polynesian extended family, the whanau, and the strong image of the Madonna and child could be linked. People said I was being too self-critical as I worked slowly towards the final image. But it had to be right, and because it was my first mural it was difficult.

<p>Tony Fomison painting&nbsp;<em>The Ponsonby Madonna&nbsp;</em>in his studio, Auckland Art Gallery Archive, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki</p>

Tony Fomison painting The Ponsonby Madonna in his studio, Auckland Art Gallery Archive, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

In the remarkable finished mural, Fomison transformed the Madonna and the Christ child into a mother and son that the pupils of St Paul’s College could readily identify with: Jesus is shown as a teenager, and the Madonna is of an age that would have been parallel to the mothers of the school’s pupils. Depicting a Polynesian mother and son in a Pacifc reinterpretation of a trope steeped in European history, The Ponsonby Madonna reflects interests that Fomison explored throughout his practice. His subject matter was culturally extensive and included many religious subjects, Māori prophets, mythical figures, Polynesian ancestors, gurners, puppets, portraits, landscapes, self-portraits, copies of European Old Masters and studies of the dead and dying. The double portrait format of The Ponsonby Madonna appears in several paintings Fomison completed around this time that explore the transition of genealogical information, or ‘the handing down’ of knowledge and cultural history.

Fomison’s interest in human character is a consistent theme throughout his practice. His ‘people’ paintings are figurative and mood-filled and concerned with an individual depiction of human nature. Tony Fomison was not interested in portraying human character as an example of the ‘exotic’. Instead, he was personally involved with Māori and Samoan communities. While Fomison was born into a Pākeha working-class Christchurch family, he became increasingly self-identified as an artist with respect for Samoa.[3] 

In 1979, his connection with Pacific cultures extended to him receiving a pe’a –  the traditional Samoan tatau (tattoo) from Sua Suluape Paulo II (1949/1950–1999), tufuga tā tatau (tattoo expert). Fuimaono Tuiasau, who was tattooed alongside Fomison, noted:[4]

I think people misunderstood Tony. When his tatau was completed some months later, people thought he was trying to be Samoan … He knew he could never be Samoan, but to have this amazing art on your body and carry it around was quite a unique thing, I think, by European standards. The intricacy of the designs, the pain, and the whole cultural aspect of going through getting your body battered blue and black and bloodied – that was something that Tony understood and wanted to go through.

Last year, the Gallery was asked by St Paul’s to produce a life-size reproduction of The Ponsonby Madonna to ‘return’ its presence to the school chapel. Initiated and organised by Maurice Cervin, who worked in the Artwork division to commission public art for Auckland and who liaised closely with Fomison’s estate, this reproduction project has been realised with the careful and dedicated work of Gallery Senior Photographer Jennifer French and Photographer Paul Chapman, in consultation with myself. The reproduction was produced in three panels, just like the original painting, and was printed by PCL Imaging at the same scale onto textured Hahnemühle archival paper.

French describes the process:

To create a reproduction at close to 1:1 scale, the artwork required reimaging in the Gallery’s photography studio to produce the file size and quality required for such an important reproduction.

A static lighting set-up was used to provide lighting with no luminance variation across the surface area of the work, and with the assistance of the Registration Technician Darren Sheehan, each of the three parts were carefully moved into the studio where they were photographed individually using a PhaseOne IQ160 camera paired with a 120mm macro Schneider flat-field copy lens. This ensured there was no edge-distortion or chromatic aberration in the resulting files. As this was the first opportunity to photograph the work in a studio setting with controlled lighting, the verso of the painting’s components was also re-imaged at the same time.

The image files were output in high resolution to the exact dimensions of each panel and supplied to PCL Imaging (professional photo lab) for them to begin the printing process onto textured Hahnemühle archival paper. Colour proof prints were created in-house at the Gallery to ensure that they exactly matched the painting, and these were then provided to PCL Imaging so that the colours were accurate in the full-scale reproduction. The colour proofing process at the printer was overseen by Reproductions Coordinator Geoffrey Heath and Senior Curator Ron Brownson so that the final print would be a perfect facsimile of the original artwork.


Several weeks ago, Gallery staff attended the installation of the artwork’s reproduction at St Paul’s College. We felt moved to see an image of The Ponsonby Madonna in its original location and are delighted that it will be part of the students’ daily lives. It was a privilege to work on this project which honours not only the artwork’s whakapapa (genealogy) but also the Gallery’s ethos to ‘enrich lives through engagement with the art of Aotearoa New Zealand’.


[1] Tony Fomison, Artist's Project No. 4: Tony Fomison Bringing back the Scattered, catalogue of exhibition held at the Auckland City Art Gallery, June 1983.

[2] Cheryl Sotheran, ‘Facing Reality’, Auckland Star, 27 June 1983.

[3] Simon During, ‘Here’s Trouble: Some Comments on Tony Fomison and His Work’, in Fomison: What Shall We Tell Them?, ed Ian Wedde, Wellington City Gallery, Wellington, 1994, p 49.

[4]  Excerpt from Ian Wedde, ‘Interview with Fuimaono Tuiasau’, in Fomison: What Shall We Tell Them?, p 81