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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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