Leonard Bell

Writing Francis Pound’s 'Gordon Walters': How this Book Came to Be

Writing Francis Pound’s 'Gordon Walters': How this Book Came to Be

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Last week, Auckland University Press launched Gordon Walters, a substantial monograph on the art of one of this country’s most influential artists, researched and written by Dr Francis Pound (1948–2017) over the course of more than a decade. After Pound's death in 2017, Leonard Bell was tasked with stewarding his friend’s manuscript for publication. In the article, he reflects on how this book, published six years after Pound’s death, came to be.


The last paragraph of Francis Pound’s (1948–2017) preface to his book, The Invention of New Zealand: Art and National Identity 1930–1970 (2009) reads:

Finally, on the matter of the apparently excessive time [23 years] taken in completing this book, there is the seldom acknowledged fact of the sheer happiness of writing. Writing this work was, for all those years, simply what I did in my days and my nights. In some way, it justified me – or, at least, removed all uncertainty about what to do in the hours remaining in a day or a life. Already, it has been many books. Why ever, then, bring it to an end?[1]

Unfortunately those days and nights ran out, and his manuscript for what became Gordon Walters, for which he had been researching since the early 2000s, was unfinished, only completed and prepared for publication after his death. That was my task, with the help of copy and production editors. Like its predecessor (446 pages), Gordon Walters is not a short book. It comes in at 464 pages, including a wonderful 430 images (comprising reproductions of works by Walters and other artists, photographs, book covers, etc).

<p>Marti Friedlander, <em>Francis Pound, Auckland</em>, 1999, black-and-white photograph. Courtesy of the Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Charitable Trust</p>

Marti Friedlander, Francis Pound, Auckland, 1999, black-and-white photograph. Courtesy of the Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Charitable Trust

Why was I involved? Francis and I were close friends for over 50 years – back to the mid-1960s, a fairly anarchic period which now seems several lives and ‘identities’ away. Francis taught art history at the University of Auckland periodically until the end of 2004. Sadly, spells of serious ill-health and then a condition that became terminal meant that the time he could spend on his Walters project from about 2010 was often interrupted. By 2017 it was clear he would not be able to complete it and he asked me if I could do so.

I inherited a text of around 240,000 words, far too long for viable book production these days, given the costs of high-quality design with plenty of reproductions. I needed to shorten and edit the content down to about 180,000 words, then write a foreword and afterword (another 10,000 words). Cutting and editing a text without being able to consult the author, while retaining his voice as much as possible, is complicated. Francis recognised too that his prospective book still needed an introductory section and concluding chapter. Otherwise Gordon Walters would seem to start and end suddenly.

In a rather fragmentary notebook I came across Francis’s ‘A Report on Progress on Walters’ book’, which stated: ‘Introduction and Conclusion [which he had yet to do]: the hardest parts of the book to write’.[2] Was this a last joke? We had discussed what still needed to be done in a fairly general way, and I had a notebook or two from his last years, as well as some scattered notes. My foreword and afterword, though, are not what and how Francis would have written them, even while I address points about Walters’ art and career that he wanted to address. In the afterword I largely went my own way. Time disappeared before we could discuss it in any detail. Several of the writers I cite, Francis probably had not read, though having known him for so long and having talked so much about art, art history, art historiography and theories of art over the years, I tried not impose lines of thought on him. If I did, perhaps that’s my joke. We disagreed about quite a lot of things.

Francis’s Gordon Walters is an almost forensic account of what went into the making of Walters' paintings, drawing and collages from the late 1930s until his death in 1995, with particular emphases on the evolution of his art up till the first exhibitions of his mature abstractions in 1966 and 1968 at Dutch immigrants Kees and Tine Hoses’ New Vision Gallery in His Majesty’s Arcade (demolished in the 1980s), off Queen Street in central Auckland. These were Walters’ first shows since 1949. Gordon Walters offers readers close examinations of the formal and aesthetic, technical and material features of Walters’ diverse works, as well as the ideas and lines of thought that informed them. Their multiple inspirational sources, whether, principally, from Europe, America, New Zealand and the South Pacific, and to lesser extents from China and Japan, are also intensively investigated, all supplemented with an impressive array of comparative visual examples.

Francis aimed ‘to read what Walters had read, see what he saw in order to recreate, as far as can be done, his particular intellectual world’.[3] In short, Francis‘s text is founded on fact, not opinion, and research and substantiated knowledge, not cultural politics or speculation. Its prime foci are the artworks themselves, what is there to be seen (and not there), the art’s sustaining ideas, and the various contexts, local and international, out of which Walters’s art emerged. This is art history informed by the practices and methodologies of some of the best art historians, past and present, such as Meyer Schapiro and Yve-Alain Bois respectively.

In my view (remembering this is not a book review), as a study and detailed scrutiny of Walters’ work and career over a long period, Gordon Walters is unequalled. Francis, though, acknowledged his debt to Michael Dunn’s pioneering research, which culminated in his curation of the first Walters’ retrospective (Auckland Art Gallery, 1983, subsequently touring nationally) and his 1984 PhD thesis. Francis did not live to see the later Auckland Art Gallery and Dunedin Public Art Gallery retrospective, Gordon Walters: New Vision, the tour of which got underway in November 2017. He died in October. Nor was Francis able to read the catalogue for that travelling exhibition. Significantly, in his review of this show, critic and poet David Eggleton observed, ‘Curiously Pound is an absent if also insistent presence in the catalogue of the show. Although not included as a contributor, many of the ideas and comments first proposed by him appear in the text, subsumed in the writings of others’.[4, also quoted in my 2018 review of the exhibition

<p>Marti Friedlander, <em>Gordon Walters in his Studio, Christchurch</em>, 1978, black-and-white photograph. Courtesy of the Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Charitable Trust</p>

Marti Friedlander, Gordon Walters in his Studio, Christchurch, 1978, black-and-white photograph. Courtesy of the Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Charitable Trust

There has been a common tendency to opine about Walters’ art primarily in terms of New Zealand concerns, which can limit how his work is experienced and understood. Gordon Walters locates the artist’s works within a complex matrix of sources, connections and references, so that his art is encountered within a context of art practices and concepts in the world at large, rather than circumscribed by matters New Zealand. That fits Walters’ own perspective on his art: ‘I never much liked the idea of being a New Zealand painter. I just wanted to be wanted to be a good painter’[5], he told his Wellington dealer Peter McLeavey in 1969 – by which he meant by global standards. Francis provides the evidence, supported by extensive side notes (almost a parallel text) that Walters, a modest man, more than achieved that goal.

Francis's own hopes for writing about art made in New Zealand echo Walters': he tried to write ‘as though New Zealand art and writing about it was important, as if it [the art] bodied forth complex thought, and was worthy of equal complex analysis’.[6] That’s what Francis, and then we, after his death, also aimed for with Gordon Walters. As an undoubtedly biased old friend, I hope you read the book and see for yourselves. To finish a book yet to be completed at the time of the author’s death is not a common occurrence. Nor is it easy or straightforward to do. The finished Gordon Walters required a collaborative effort from a team of supporters (see the book’s acknowledgements). Inhouse Design’s page layout and design is superlative, in my opinion, almost as if it were the work of Gordon Walters himself. And special thanks to Geoff Ricketts, who arranged the funding that enabled Gordon Walters to be finished. Sadly, Geoff died in March this year. Let this book be a tribute to him too. Now, nearly six years after Francis’s death, Gordon Walters is out in the world. It is the product of a lifetime’s knowledge.

[1] Francis Pound, The Invention of New Zealand: Art and National Identity 1930–1970, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2009, p xxi.

[2] Francis Pound, Undated text, Francis Pound Estate, p 1.

[3] Francis Pound, notes towards an ‘Introduction to Walters book’, unpublished, undated manuscript, Francis Pound Estate.

[4] David Eggleton, ‘Endlessly Resonant, Endlessly Resilient’, Art News New Zealand, Summer 2017, p 84.

[5] Gordon Walters, cited in ‘ART – Gordon Walters: an interview’, Salient, vol 32, no 9, 7 May 1969, p 8.

[6] Pound, The Invention of New Zealand, p xiv.