Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Nor'wester In The Cemetery - William A Sutton 1950

This painting by the Canterbury (New Zealand) artist Bill Sutton has become an iconic New Zealand image. The cemetery is a montage of a number of cemeteries around Christchurch.
I remember growing up with this image and remember it especially when I was a Teachers Training College student doing Art as a major in my third year. This painting was in the permanent collection of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery and I made many trips there during those years.
The painting is very large and very compelling to anyone who has grown up in Canterbury and knows the strength and power of a Canterbury Nor'wester - It is a hot and furious wind, full of passion and drive. It's a wind that you either have to embrace head on or go and hide from. It's a wind that takes no prisoners. To lean into this wind with arms outstretched is to ask Mr Issac Newton some very hard questions indeed. Nor'westers have a unique gravity of purpose all of their own.
The Canterbury Nor'wester is part of a larger metrological three act drama.
It begins with what is called 'The Nor’west Arch' which is a band of high clouds which form an arch in the sky from one horizon to the next.
Next comes the wind. Wet laden air from the Tasman Sea drops its moisture on the west side of the Southern Alps in torrents before screaming across the Canterbury Plains with a ferocity that can almost set your hair alight - ah, to sail a small yacht successfully in such a wind is to feel like a Viking or an old Cape Horner. Who would condemn a small boy from shouting, screaming and whooping down the sailing wind on a day like this? Who indeed would hear him?
The finale is when the sideral fire of the hot nor'wester creates its opposite - The hot dry furnace wind, the hot dry plains create a gigantic vortex of hot rising air which sucks in from the south a southerly buster of cold air which arrives with its own set of atmospheric fireworks. Trundling up from the south comes a huge mass of grey clouds, often with towering anvil like features that reach the moon. Then with a sudden Blitzkrieg this southern monster is unleashed - the temperature plummets, anything not tied down that was spared by the nor'wester now becomes airborne and the wind and the rain envelope the land with such a ferocity you can hear old Noah chuckling.
Many a time I watched all this through a rain lashed window with eyes shining because I knew; I knew it meant a backyard hugely flooded. It meant raincoats and gumboots and small homemade model boats sailing, and participation in the gumboot challenge i.e. - See how long you can keep the insides of your gumboots from being flooded - (world record about one and a half minutes).
Here is what prompted this post about the Canterbury Nor'wester. It's a poem by Brian Turner:

Affecting without affectation, like the sere hills
then the early evening sky where Sirius dominates
for a time, then is joined by lesser lights,

stars indistinct as those seen through the canopies
of trees shaking in the wind. There's this wish
to feel part of something wholly explicable

and irreplaceable, something enduring
and wholesome that suppresses the urge to fight....
or is there? Ah, the cosmic questions

that keep on coming like shooting stars
and will, until, and then what? All I can say
is that for me nothing hurts more

than leaving and nothing less than coming home,
when a nor'wester's gusting in the pines
like operatic laughter, and the roadside grasses

are laced with the blue and orange and pink
of bugloss, poppies and yarrow, all of them
swishing, dancing, bending, as they do, as we do.



Kathryn said...

That takes me back. It is many years since I lived in Christchurch (33 years I think...) but I remember those nor'west days well.

A bit different than the ferocious hail storm we had here in Perth WA on 22nd March. It was a very strange occurrence, being a very warm sunny afternoon then it became suddenly dark and still. Then hail like golf balls came down for such a long time. Nature is very unpredictable sometimes.

I think I would have preferrd the Canterbury nor'wester.....

Delwyn said...

hi Alden

I remember this image..I think we must have had the print way back in CHCH days.
I love the poem too and the lines:

There's this wish to feel part of something wholly explicable

and irreplaceable, something enduring and wholesome that suppresses the urge to fight....

I hope the norwesters are not about next week, not that I dislike them but the follow up Southerly is a bit bracing...Mum says it is cold already...out comes the box of NZ clothes...
Happy days

Alden Smith said...

Kathryn I didn't know that Perth had ferocious storms such as you describe. But I do remember from TV sports broadcasts many years ago of the Americas Cup defense on Gauge Roads by Australias Alan Bond of the "Doctor". Apparently the Doctor is created in a similiar manner to the creation of the sou'wester i.e. the great Australian continent heats up during the day and sucks in masses of air from the Indian Ocean creating a very strong wind - good for great sailing and good for cooling things down.

Alden Smith said...

Delwyn, I think you can still purchase it as a print and it is in every anthology of NZ Painting.

The small picture on my blog doesn't do it justice really but if you save it to your hard drive and then open it in MS Office Picture Manager or its equivalent you can enlarge the image - then you can see the swirling, buffeting, golden grass very well.
(or as I am sure you know just double click the image on the blog site, that enlarges it a bit).

Talking of prints I remember you were keen on Andrew Wyeths pictures, a sort of super realism. Have you purchased an original yet? you could always swop your holiday home for one.

Have fun in ChCh and remember if you get caught in a nor'wester on your bicycle with an umbrella up resist using it as a spinnaker. Capsizing in the local esturary in a small yacht with a spinnaker up is quite an interesting concrete experience; on a bicycle, well, its a concrete experience.

Janice said...

I've never seen the painting or the poem before, but they are powerful and lovely, and I like the way you paint with words!

Alden Smith said...

Thankyou Janice for your kind words about my writing :-)

Brian Turner the poet whose poem is featured here grew up and still lives in the Central Otago region. I like his poetry very much.

The late Bill Sutton painted some masterly and evocative paintings of the Canterbury region. His latter paintings of the Canterbury landscape were semi abstract, big in scale and immensely powerful images.

When I was at training college my art class visited his home and studio in Christchurch. I remember the studio with its huge painting easel and his garden - which wasn't grass lawn and flower beds -but a sea of golden tussock - his backyard was a Canterbury hillside in miniature in a central suburban street.

VenDr said...

I remember one pArticular norwester when you and I were about 18. You borrowed your brother Peter's Fiat Bambina and we headed for the hills into the wind. The poor little thing with it's 500 cc engine could only make about 40 mph on the outward journey but on the way back with the norwester behind us we reached 70. For some of the return trip I drove and you stood in the passenger seat with head and arms and upper body out through the sunroof. I also remember another norwest day and a Morris 8 Sports and a barley field and quite another passenger but that's not a story for here. Ahhhh norwesters.....

Alden Smith said...

Kelvin, yes I remember all that. The Bambina was owned by Peters wife Robyn. The Smiths were entrusted with caring for it while they were in Australia, with the explicit instructions that it be parked and under no circumstances to be driven. Good on them for leaving the keys in the glove box.
I remember with great shame (and real glee) a number of antics in that Bambina - in fact I think that my Bambina experiences along with Austin A 40 experiences (Southern Motorway, lamp post - remember?) an old Zepher (Rakaia bridge, lights out - remember?), Triumph motorcycle......... as I was saying these experiences provide an A Priori case for the existence of some sort of divine intervention, as it is a real miracle that either of us are still alive.
As for Morrie 8s - nuff said.

I was going to end the comment there but I must say, on a slightly damp road a quick tweak of the steering wheel had the Bambina spinning slowly with gay abandon in 360 degree circles down the middle of an empty Christchurch street - today it would all be done in a Nissan Skyline at 240kph - but ah, we had such style, poise and grace.

April 4, 2010 8:43 PM

VenDr said...

Harrumph. Bloody boy racers. Should have their cars confiscated and be thrown into jail for a good long stretch. Endangering the peace. Noisy. leaving smoke behind them. Have they no consideration? Harrumph....

Chris said...

I was sure i was the only one who knew where those keys where,poor Bambina great fun in the wet with my mates, but my cats going back in its bag right now.

Alden Smith said...

Chris, fancy all these years passing and we haven't swopped Bambina stories. We were both little bastards in those days but I didn't know you were my equal.

Alden Smith said...

Kelvin, the young will do what they will and the old will complain about it as they have done ever since those celebrated words:

"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt
for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers and drive their dangerously modified Nissan Skyline cars at dangerous speeds upon the chariot tracks"

Attributed to Socrates by Plato.

VenDr said...

Chris! Nice to hear from you after all these years. What
I remember about you was a particularly cool way of starting your motorbike. That green Yamaha 650 with the custom paint job.You would kick start it while it was still on its centre stand, put it into first, give a sort of shrug and the bike's stand would fold itself up, you'd drop the clutch the instant the back wheel touched the ground and be off in a shower of smoke and gravel. Very cool. I tried several times to emulate that on my Titan but never ever quite got all the ducks in a row

chris said...

Little bastards not! we both had the same wonderful parents,little shit me yes,but i always did look up to my wonderful big brothers for leadership and guidance,it filtered through slowly.We can talk Bambinas at length on our pilgrimage to Uncle Pats hut at the end of April if you can make it.

Alden Smith said...

Yes, well Chris, I meant 'Little Bastards' in a figurative rather than a literal sense, but thankyou for reminding me that our parents were indeed married - and of course the distinction between 'little bastards' and 'little shits' is an important one to make as a large number of explicitives are required to sum up the character of our youthful behaviour.
And yes I am all for a pilgrimage sometime, probably next Christmas for me, but I will see how things go.

Alden Smith said...

Furthermore Chris, justifying your actions by saying you were only following the leadership and guidance of your big brothers never went down well with any magistrate I ever came into contact with - "Harrumph", thump of a gavel, "take the prisoner down".

chris said...

Kelvin so nice to here from you to,many nice memories i have.Ahh the mighty XS1, there wasnt a traffic cop in CH CH that could catch me on that baby,they just waited at the end of the driveway for me to come home.I remember you telling me you where going to transfer all of your records onto this new format (cassett tapes)to save space.I have a ipod now,dont need to tell you how many 33-1/3rpm LPs that holds while it sits in my shirt pocket.

Anonymous said...

The painting by Bill Sutton is in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery who bought it in 1954. It has never been in the permanent collection of the McDougall, though it has made the odd trip south, most recently in 2003 for the Sutton retrospective at the Christchurch Art Gallery. Interestingly you are not the first person to feel that this painting simply must live in Christchurch, but I'm afraid it doesn't, and never has.

Tim Jones
Christchurch Art Gallery

Alden Smith said...

Hi Tim - Well I am sure you are correct, but I do remember seeing it in the McDougall on a number of occasions during my time at ChCh Training college 1971 - 73 - perhaps it was on loan at that time. I have very strong memories of seeing this great painting. I also remember John Coley our Art Teacher at the college taking us to visit Bill Suttons studio in Christchurch - he had an amazing backyard of golden Canterbury tussock where most house had a green lawn. It was also a privilege to see his studio as well.
Perhaps memories of those times (over 40 years ago) have merged with seeing prints of this image in books etc to build an assumption about its permanent home - perhaps I suffer from 'Recovered Memory Syndrome!' LOL LOL

Anonymous said...

It would have been at the McDougall during March 1973 as part of the Sutton show curated and toured by the Dowse Gallery.

You may also like to know that the stretch of Templar Street in which Sutton's house is located has just this month been declared to be in the Red Zone. This means that the land cannot be repaired economically and all the houses on it will be demolished, regardless of whether the houses themselves are damaged. The current owner of Sutton's house asserts that the house is not damaged and is contesting the demolition decision.

Alden Smith said...

Anon - Thank you for that information - like so much of Christchurch, many of the geographic features e.g. Shag Rock, and historical buildings which to us old Cantabrians are iconic have now gone or have been sentenced to the wreckers ball - but the memories live on, embellished by time or not as the case may be!