Dreaming of the modern – Helen Hitchings

Photo of Helen Hitchings

Helen Hitchings taken after performance of “Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot, about 1950, Wellington, by Bristow Mawley.© Te Papa(CA000124/001/0057)

It was while Helen Hitchings (1920-2002) was in hospital during the early 1940s that the idea of forming a gallery came to her. The Gallery of Helen Hitchings was opened in Wellington in 1949, her mission to promote an awareness of ‘good domestic design’, made by New Zealanders– up to date examples of modernism free from traditional styles and values. Along with art, textiles and sculptures, ceramics were displayed like these simple ceramic bean pots (casserole dishes) stripped of excess decoration and made to Helen’s designs by Timaru Potteries. This self-confessed devotee of modernism commissioned the manufacture of objects when she couldn’t locate the exact examples in New Zealand.

Photo of Bean pots

Bean pots, 1949, by Helen Hitchings, Timaru Potteries. Purchased 1993 with Charles Disney Art Trust funds. Te Papa (1993-0037-3/1-2 to 2-2)

In determining the shape and style I wonder if she sought current designs by checking the pages of Decorative Art: the studio year book – that ‘go-to’ publication for international design of the period. The 1949 edition included ceramic bean pots and other ware, made and designed by Herbert H. Sanders from the USA. Here is the illustration below.

Photo of dishes

A triple casserole, bean pots, teapot, creamer and sugar bowls in tan with matt glaze, designed and made by Herbert H. Sanders. Decorative Art: the Studio Year Book – 1949

The Wellington Public Library was a valuable source of information for such modernists, providing a number of international publications for those readers thirsty for progressive ideas.

By commissioning her designs, Helen was engaging in the practice of linking art to industry – the goal being the desire to mass produce through the standardisation of design. Affordability was at the forefront of making work available to the householder, of which Helen was well aware.

Below is Helen Hitchings with the bean pots and other examples of art and design that she so carefully selected for the gallery: fabric by A.R.D Fairburn, a drawing by Avis Higgs recently identified as Orban’s Studio and the wooden carving of a cat by Molly MacAlister – held by Helen.

Photo of Helen Hitchings holding a carved wooden cat

Helen Hitchings holding a carved wooden cat, 1949, New Zealand, by The Evening Post.© Fairfax NZ / Evening Post. Te Papa (CA000124/001/0073)


Helen’s framework was New Zealand contemporary art and design but she kept her eye closely on current trends internationally.

The Gallery of Helen Hitchings is part of Nga Toi/Arts Te Papa, Level 5.

Nga Toi/Arts Te Papa On the Wall exhibition

About Nga Toi/Arts Te Papa exhibition

Justine Olsen, Curator of decorative art and design, Te Papa Tongarewa

One Response

  1. Lesley Henderson

    Loved hearing that Timaru Potteries produced the pots to Helen’s design. The plain style would have created a lot of discussion! They are practical yet have a beauty of their own. Thank you Justine!


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