Peter Black’s portrait of Dr Diana Mason OBE, SPUC, Wellington

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Friday 16 October 2009
Ron Brownson

During one of her regular visits to the Auckland Art Gallery, I introduced myself to Dr Diana Mason (1922-2007). In New Zealand, she was famous as one of her generation’s distinguished physicians. I informed Dr Mason that the Gallery had purchased an exceptional portrait of her created by Wellington artist Peter Black. She commented that she had never seen Peter's portrait.


Taking her into the Print room, where we store all of our unframed works on paper, I opened the solander box and Dr Mason immediately erupted into laughter. She boomed out that the 1979 portrait was indeed "utterly memorable." Seen from below, the renowned obstetrician stands in her usual theatrical manner. Dressed for a formal public event in a shot-silk coat ensemble whose matching dress pattern is decorated in flaming boteh (almond blossom). She wears a tall furry hat, pendulous gold earrings and the astonishing Rudi Gernreich eye wear in mock tortoiseshell that were her specialty. Dr Mason's costume and pose are both spectacular and intimidating.

During the 1970s, Dr Mason served as the national President of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) – a controversial group who were vocal opponents of abortion. She frequently stated that her views on abortion were philosophical rather than religious – she always stated that she was an advocate for “family planning rather than child destruction.” As one of New Zealand’s eminent obstetricians she once declared, “since leaving Otago Medical School I have delivered a town.”

Peter Black acknowledges Dr Mason’s reputation by adding to the portrait’s title the abbreviations of OBE and SPUC. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1977 for her three-decade long service to obstetrics. The New Zealand Medical Journal (volume 120, number 1257) commented, “Dr Mason was a doctor when women interested in medicine were usually nurses.” The Journal further commented that she was “a flamboyant part of Wellington’s cultural life, guaranteed to stand out in a crowd at orchestra or theatre events, tall, proud and magnificently got up.”

The version of Peter Black’s portrait held in Te Papa Museum of New Zealand (registration number 0.003073)
is cropped less tightly both at the top and the right hand side than the Auckland Art Gallery's print. The tighter cropping further emphasizes the photographer’s low point of view and, arguably, makes the portrait appear more confrontational. As a powerful portrait of a remarkable New Zealand woman, Dr Diana Mason OBESPUC, Wellington is an outstanding instance of Peter Black’s skill as an insightful portraitist.

Image credit:
Peter Black
Born 1948, New Zealand

Dr Diana Mason OBESPUC, Wellington 1979
gelatin silver print toned with selenium
237 x 160mm
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 1981