Introducing Spencer Westmacott: farmer, soldier, artist

Behind every man in uniform is a rich story. Spencer Westmacott (1885-1960) was an officer with the 16th Waikato Regiment which departed New Zealand for the First World War in October 1914. His story is the first that visitors will encounter in Te Papa’s new exhibition Gallipoli: The scale of our war opening on April 18.

Lieutenant Spencer Westmacott, 1914. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Yvonne Riddiford

Lieutenant Spencer Westmacott, 1914. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Yvonne Riddiford

Before the war Westmacott worked hard clearing rugged land near Te Kuiti in the King Country, after growing up on his parents’ farm in Canterbury. When there was time, he painted the world around him. He was an untrained but talented artist.

Westmacott painted this scene of his parents’ farm at Waikakahi, South Canterbury, in 1908. He worked on the farm after leaving school. Courtesy of Waimate Historical Society

Westmacott painted this scene of his parents’ farm at Waikakahi, South Canterbury, in 1908. He worked on the farm after leaving school. Courtesy of Waimate Historical Society

Westmacott was part of the Allied invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915, and was one of the first New Zealanders to head up into the steep hills to join the Australians. He later remembered it as ‘the most glorious day of my life’ (Alexander Turnbull Library, Micro-MS-847-2).

Westmacott later painted the Auckland Infantry Battalion landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915. He described the scene in his memoir written 35 years later: ‘A man stark naked was bathing in the sea. A stream of wounded was straggling down from the hills... The beach seemed sheltered and very quiet.’ Courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library (Micro-MS-847-2) and Yvonne Riddiford

Westmacott later painted the Auckland Infantry Battalion landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915. He described the scene in his memoir written 35 years later: ‘A man stark naked was bathing in the sea. A stream of wounded was straggling down from the hills… The beach seemed sheltered and very quiet.’ Courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library (Micro-MS-847-2) and Yvonne Riddiford

However, by nightfall he had been evacuated with severe wounds, his frontline service at an end. His right arm was later amputated at a military hospital in Egypt. While recuperating, he wrote: ‘I shall become a rigorous penman with my left hand. I shall be able to accomplish all sorts of things’ (letter, 21 May 1915, courtesy of Caroline Goslin). However, his confidence was challenged at times over the long slow months of hospital and rehabilitation. At one point, a fellow officer and artist encouraged Westmacott to draw again, giving him a sketch book and some useful hints.

In 1917, when Westmacott was back on his feet, he was sent to train soldiers in France, where he captured military life through his paintings. He was not an official war artist, but he created a jewel-like record of friends, soldiering, battles and landscapes.

In 1918, Westmacott painted these Allied soldiers on the move behind the Western Front. Courtesy of Yvonne Riddiford

In 1918, Westmacott painted these Allied soldiers on the move behind the Western Front. Courtesy of Yvonne Riddiford

Westmacott finally returned to New Zealand in 1920 with his wife Jean who he married in London in 1917. He thought he would never be able to farm again because of his injuries. They settled in Christchurch, and he was able to explore his love of painting by attending the Canterbury College School of Art from 1920 to 1925.

However, in 1927 he needed to return to his farm near Te Kuiti because it was reverting to scrub and he risked losing it to the bank. His wife and local workers helped him turn it into a viable farm. In quiet moments he continued to paint.

Spencer and Jean Westmacott near their farm house, Rangitoto, 1929. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Yvonne Riddiford

Spencer and Jean Westmacott near their farm house, Rangitoto, 1929. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Yvonne Riddiford

Throughout his life, Westmacott interwove work, soldiering and creativity – both painting and writing. In the Second World War he commanded the Otorohanga Battalion of the Home Guard, and was much respected in his community. His daughter Yvonne Riddiford recalls: ‘I was always so proud to walk with him.’

Westmacott died in Wellington in 1960.

Westmacott walks along the main street of Otorohanga, 1940s. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Yvonne Riddiford

Westmacott walks along the main street of Otorohanga, 1940s. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Yvonne Riddiford

Te Papa would like to thank the Westmacott family for their help and support for the exhibition.

You can find out more about the exhibition at www.gallipoli.tepapa.govt.nz

2 Responses

  1. pauline Jeffs

    I am researching my Grandfathers history in WW1. He has similar history. Enlisted in Waikato 16th as a private. Then to Egypt Gallipoli, Egypt and Western Europe. He also became a 2nd Lieutenant. Then amazingly returned, but never talked about it. His name was Arthur Henry Jeffs. There is mention of Hauraki 6th also. He later went into Machine Gun Corps. looking at the injury record he was injured a few times

    Reply
  2. Merv Miller

    My Grandfather Hugh Miller was a private in the 16th Waikato Regiment when they headed overseas in October 1914. He was in the landing at Gallipoli on 25th April. He fought the whole campaign at Gallipoli being made a sergeant in the field. After Gallipoli he went onto England and the Western front in 1916 before before going to Officers school in 1917. He went back to the Western Front in 1918 as a Second Lieutenant where he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. He was also in charge of the Home Brigade on the East Coast in WW2.
    It still amazes me after the horror of WW1 how these men came back and just carried on with their lives. I remember as a young child my grandfather being a very gentle man
    I am sure he would have known Spencer Westmacott having been in the same regiment and I would like to think their paths would have crossed many times during and after the war.
    That we will never know unless there is written correspondence somewhere.

    Reply

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