In 2014 Dunedin Public Art Gallery received an important long-term loan; the estate collection of Gordon Walters, one of New Zealand's foremost modernist painters. Including over 640 catalogued items, the Gordon Walters Estate Loan Collection contains paintings, works on paper, screenprints, photography and ephemera that trace the development of Walters’ career from 1939 to 1995.
The Gordon Walters Estate Loan Collection is the largest among a number of long-term loan collections held at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, each of which expands the institutional collection. Walters, who is best known for his mesmerising koru-based abstract compositions, died in Christchurch in 1995. Over subsequent years, his estate collection had been in various forms of private custodianship. Its transfer to Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 2014 ensured that this significant collection could benefit from the care, attention, security and access that can be afforded by a public art institution.
The artworks, sketches, ephemera and archival material in this loan collection have never been easily accessible for research, exhibition or publication. The estate collection includes juvenilia and early paintings and drawings by the artist, who chose to withhold much of his early work from the public until much later in his career. The collection also contains source books, magazines, photography and ephemera that track Walters’ processes of research and experimentation; material that holds the key to understanding the development of his abstraction. In the development of Gordon Walters: New Vision the estate collection provided a rich, textural vein of research that greatly expanded how we understand Walters – providing context to the mature, hard-edged abstraction that audiences are most familiar with.
Walters was born in Wellington in 1919. He left school in 1935 to begin working as a commercial artist, and in the same year enrolled in evening art classes at Wellington Technical College. He left New Zealand for Australia and Europe in the late 1940s, seeking first-hand experiences of the kind of modernist abstraction he had seen in books and magazines. Returning home in 1953, Walters embarked on a period of experimentation, developing the abstract visual language that would provide the foundation for his later work. The estate collection contains many examples of the experimental works in gouache that characterise Walters’ oeuvre from the mid-1950s: small-scale pages, torn from a spiral-bound artists notebook, that speak volumes about an artist working from a modest home studio, exploring principles of abstraction in the hours spare from his day-job.
The Gordon Walters Estate Loan Collection contains a range of items that Walters opted to retain over the course of his lifetime. These include finished artworks, as well as research and reference material, which give insight into the way the artist developed and shaped his thinking. Among these is the 1944 painting Chrysanthemum, one of the earliest fully realised works by Walters showing his early steps towards abstraction. In 1974, when asked to write about his ‘favourite’ work for the publication Islands, Walters described his reasons for keeping Chrysanthemum in his personal collection: ‘When I painted Chrysanthemum in late 1945 [sic] I was struggling to develop a more personal direction in my work than the highly finished realism which had occupied me for the previous three years. It made a break with my earlier work as a student, and reached out towards current concerns . . . The sense of freedom and pleasure I felt in painting the picture is still with me . . . I haven’t sold it; I keep it stacked out of sight and, perhaps once or twice a year, take it out and look at it.’ Chrysanthemum has recently been acquired from the Gordon Walters Estate for the partnership collection held between Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu.
The estate collection also offers access to notebooks and research material that reveal both how and where Walters was looking as he developed his ideas about abstraction. One object of particular importance is a scrapbook dating from around 1951, containing images, sketches and notes assembled during a period in which the artist had undertaken his first significant international travel. Discussed in detail by Julia Waite in her essay New Networks and a Paper Museum, this scrapbook offers a deep insight into the way in which Walters was processing and recording his experiences, and the generative energy that this material held in his artistic practice. Other archival material, such as photography, magazines and research documents, give insight into other key influences, for example the important friendship and creative exchange between Walters and fellow artist Theo Schoon.
There are over 70 items from the Gordon Walters Estate Loan Collection included in Gordon Walters: New Vision. As well as significant art works, this includes a wealth of archival and preparatory material, some of which is being made available to audiences for the first time. It is a repository that contributes a great richness to the project, offering a strong sense of the human touch that sits behind Walters’ finished compositions.
Lucy Hammonds, Curator, Dunedin Public Art Gallery
 ‘Nineteen Painters: Their Favourite Works’, Islands 10, 1974, pp 373–400.