Margaret Butler: An Invisible Sculptor?

Margaret Butler: An Invisible Sculptor?

Margaret Butler working on The Shepherdess. Paris, 1930. Photographer Unknown. 1930, Paris. Te Papa (CA000259/001/0001/005)1

I recently delivered a paper on the New Zealand sculptor Margaret Butler (1883-1947) at the University of Otago conference, ‘Making Women Visible’. Although one or two of her sculptures are occasionally exhibited, she is next to invisible to the wide public, certainly far more obscure than her older contemporary Frances Hodgkins. Yet whenever I see Butler’s works, even in storage with labels round their necks, I am impressed.

Rosalie, 1930, plaster, by Margaret Butler. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1950. Te Papa (1950-0016-14)

Te Papa is her largest repository, having received her studio contents (bequeathed to the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts) in 1950. If sculptures could speak, then hers would plead ‘exhibit me!’ I hope this will be a reality before too long. Margaret Butler’s sculpture could be as revealing today as it was on her New Zealand comeback in 1934, following 11 years in Europe. This is because of its figurative emphasis, its powerful spiritual qualities and the ability of sculpture of whatever time, place or style, to impact on the viewer’s space, thoughts and feelings, sometimes far more so than painting.

Visible and invisible sculptors
To Antoine Bourdelle and Charles Despiau, there was no mistaking Butler’s talent; 90 years ago, these Frenchmen, along with Croatian Ivan Meštrović and German Georg Kolbe, were probably the world’s most famous sculptors. The past is another country: Brancusi was considered a fringe, even comical figure, while for decades yet, Duchamp remained virtually unknown outside a tiny in-crowd, apart from his Dadaist defacement of the Mona Lisa (or he would surely argue, his enhancement of her!). As for ‘Picasso Sculpture’ – the title of a recent MoMA blockbuster – although he was a famous painter, he passes unmentioned in sculpture publications of the time.

Charles Despiau_CharlesDespiau001[1]
Charles Despiau in his studio, c. 1935. (Wikipedia)
When we speak of Butler’s invisibility, the same applies today to Bourdelle and Despiau. They have suffered for their closeness to their mentor and spiritual father, Auguste Rodin. Both men were embedded in the classical tradition and sculpting the beautiful nude; they aren’t iconoclastic or experimental enough to appeal to contemporary art buffs! If they are half-forgotten, then Margaret Butler was never remembered in the first place.

Margaret Butler’s obstacles
Butler was a late artistic developer, a spinster, disabled with a club foot following a childhood accident, and suffered prolonged ill-health. For her first 34 years, she appears dominated by her protective, widowed mother, Mary, a wealthy Wellington hotel-keeper. Margaret called herself ‘naturally timid’. Even with the spotlight on her, she preferred to talk ‘readily and vividly’ not of herself but of Modigliani’s kindly landlady, Rosalie, or the sculptor Pompon (famed for his Art Deco polar bears) and the deaf Austrian sculptor Ambrosi. She was a pious Catholic, devoted to her more outgoing elder sister Mary Butler junior, an elocution teacher and performer, the almost lifelong support and companion to ‘this feeble vine’. Shortly before she died, Margaret wrote: ‘being cut off from normal life for years, I saw life largely through other people’s eyes. How fortunate I was in the eyes that surrounded & mirrored life for one’.

Not just the patriarchy!

A pioneer (woman) by Margaret Butler
A pioneer woman, 1922, plaster, by Margaret Butler. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1950. Te Papa (1950-0016-31)

That Butler achieved what she did is remarkable. Feminist texts that foreground ‘the oppressiveness of patriarchal systems’ are not necessarily that helpful in furthering our understanding of her. The other obstacles listed above more obviously explain Butler’s invisibility. It’s also a question of the hierarchy of media rather than gender. Let me explain…
With New Zealand, we can reverse Linda Nochlin’s famous question, ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ and ask, as Gil Docking does in Two Hundred and Forty Years of New Zealand Painting, ‘why did so many outstanding women [artists] arise in New Zealand from about 1880 onwards?’ ‘The recent example of their mothers’ pioneering work’ (look at Butler’s tough-as-old-boots Pioneer), the malleability of a smaller, younger colonial-into-Dominion society, fairly giving critical credit where it seemed due, and women’s relatively easy access to good art education, meant that D. K. Richmond, Grace Joel, Margaret Stoddart, Elizabeth Kelly, M. E. R. Tripe, Maud Sherwood, Mabel Hill and others besides, were the backbone of the New Zealand art world before 1940.

Tripe Veil
The purple veil (Portrait of Miss Margaret Butler), circa 1920, by Mary Tripe. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1936. Te Papa (1936-0012-77)

Yet all of them were painters. Sculpture required greater physical strength, especially carving, and larger studio space, while its material costs, whether marble or bronze, were higher; and profit margins were far less than painting. Painting’s domination was extreme in New Zealand, which lacked a historical base and critical mass to comprehend sculpture in both senses of the word. Sculpture was a Cinderella, a poor relation, an afterthought, what the art school ‘B’ stream might do once the ‘A’ stream was creamed off for painting. The situation was often insufferable for male and the few female practitioners alike. Thus Butler’s contemporary, Francis Shurrock, complained: ‘if you didn’t do painting, you weren’t an artist’. Butler’s experience was similar. While she had a proven record as a watercolour painter and showed in the 1906-7 International Exhibition at Christchurch, by the early 1910s, sculpture had become her priority. An unidentified painter was apparently ‘disappointed, almost sad’, that ‘a girl of strong personality and promise should want to muddle around with sticky clay’.

Bowl of Roses
Bowl of roses, watercolours, by Margaret Butler. Gift of Mrs Eileen M.Y. Hodgins and Mrs E.R. McKillop, 1966. Te Papa (1966-0029-001)

Going to Europe
When the Butler sisters went to Europe in 1923, Margaret was already aged 40. She left New Zealand for reasons probably identical to those of Frances Hodgkins a generation earlier: there was little more that we could teach her, particularly as a sculptor. A pre-European work, Whitmore, the Old Gardener, is resonant of the Margaret Butler to come in its capture of the subject’s soul and mood. This is an intuitively intelligent artist, and a good modeller too.

Old Gardener
The old gardener, (Whitmore), circa 1920, plaster, by Margaret Butler. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1950. Te Papa (1950-0016-27)

Ill health apparently prevented Butler from undertaking any sculpture till 1926, but within a year she had attracted the ‘grand maitre’ Bourdelle, who urged her to show several works, declaring: ‘the [Salon des] Tuileries for these!’ Although she also exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and the Salon des Artistes Français, most of her subsequent works were thereafter shown at the more progressive Salon des Tuileries, totalling 18 between 1927 and 1938.

The Old Sailor, Rosalie, Head of an Arab, The Blind Girl and The Dreamer
So, what does Butler’s work look like? The Old Sailor has bold, fragmented modelling; its asymmetric pose, dishevelled hair and pronounced wrinkles convey the model’s seniority and lively garrulousness. Head of an Old Breton (Marie) cleverly deploys the traditional Breton collar to function as a plinth for the head. The slightly later Old Model is a unique surviving woodcarving. The furrowed and bearded head sits on a column-like base. A clipping in Butler’s album in Te Papa claimed that she ‘has seized upon the super-racial and the essential. This portrait in itself… is as grand and mighty as anything Tolstoi ever said’.

The Old Breton Lady (Marie), 1926, bronze, by Margaret Butler. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Margaret Mary Butler in memory of the artist, 2011.
The old sailor [Concarneau], 1926, bronze, by Margaret Butler. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1950. Te Papa (1950-0016-15)
The old model, circa 1928, wood, by Margaret Butler. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1950. Te Papa (1950-0016-1)
Butler’s travels took her to Rome, Vienna and Biskra, where she sculpted Head of an Arab. This later won ‘orientalist’ acclaim from Butler’s friend and fellow Catholic, poet and journalist Eileen Duggan, for its ‘calm pride of the desert’ and ‘great impression of silence’.

Head of an Arab, circa 1927, bronze, by Margaret Butler. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1950. Te Papa (1950-0016-4)

Duggan also noted how visitors to Butler’s studio always halted before Rosalie (illustrated above), whose careworn face conveys the kindness that she accorded to the notoriously bohemian Modigliani. Butler uses light and shadow to render her sunken cheeks and wrinkles, while the semi-finished modelling of the shawl and blouse is an effective compromise between naturalism and impressionism.
While Butler is impressive in the first place, she just gets better: The Blind Girl shows a new level of simplified abstraction, stylistically closest to the much admired ‘luminosity’ of Despiau’s counterparts. Te Papa’s plaster example of this head has recently been given expert conservation treatment by Catherine Williams.

The blind girl
The blind girl, circa 1932, plaster, by Margaret Butler. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1950. Te Papa (1950-0016-33)

The same model, Esta, posed for the statuette The Dreamer, where the skilful play of light and dark heightens the pensiveness. In attempting to contextualise this work, which is unlike anything by a New Zealand sculptor before, I researched images by the ‘Bande à Schnegg’, a group of non-metropolitan, mostly working-class sculptors who reacted against polished Parisian sophistication and who, like their hero Rodin, stressed the texture of modelling over the mechanical precision of marble carving. In this context, Butler’s New Zealand background was surely no handicap. The ‘Schneggiste’ Robert Wlerick’s slightly earlier statuette of Thérèse, served as a likely precedent.

Therése , circa 1927-29, bronze, by Robert Wlérick. (Sotheby’s)
The dreamer, circa 1932-33, bronze, by Margaret Butler. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1950. Te Papa (1950-0016-18)

Bravo, Mademoiselle!
Butler’s European career culminated in a ‘one-man’ show of 20 works at the Hérbrard Gallery, Paris, in 1933, months before her return to New Zealand. They were enthusiastically reviewed by François Thiébault-Sisson, who had earlier championed Edgar Degas as a sculptor: ‘this artist… analyses with penetration all types of the humanity that she portrays’. But the most cherished words came from Despiau himself, who had postponed a hunting exhibition to attend and pronounced: ‘Mademoiselle, you have the gift of life’.

‘Margaret Butler Returns’
This was the title of a 1934 Art in New Zealand article. The praise accorded Butler by Governor-General Lord Bledisloe, as ‘Our Local Lady Praxiteles’, was given a popular spin when he enthused: ‘Only yesterday we were acclaiming Miss Jean Batten as the Empire’s outstanding airwoman. Today we acclaim Miss Margaret Butler as one of the Empire’s most outstanding sculptors’. If such praise and a Wellington exhibition didn’t help make her ‘visible’, whatever could? Butler’s comeback career culminated with a handful of works which applied her gifts to indigenous subjects, La Nouvelle Zélande being her best known and most frequently exhibited sculpture. Although not carved in wood, its simplified, symmetrical features echo a work by a French artist she much admired, Georges Lacombe’s bust of fellow artist Maurice Denis, which shares its soulful presence.

Maurice Denis, 1911, wood, by Georges Lacombe. Musée Maurice Denis, Sainte- Germaine-En-Laye, France. (Yvelines, Le Département) La Nouvelle Zélande, bronze, 1938, by Margaret Butler. gift of The New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1950. Te Papa (1950-0016-6)
Maurice Denis, 1911, wood, by Georges Lacombe. Musée Maurice Denis, Saint-Germaine-En-Laye, France. (Yvelines, Le Département)
La Nouvelle Zélande, bronze, 1938, by Margaret Butler. gift of The New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1950. Te Papa (1950-0016-6)

The Maori Madonna
Another remarkable later work is the tinted plaster Maori Madonna, which evidently came about through Eileen Duggan’s newspaper column: ‘Is it too much to hope that the gifted sculptress, Miss Margaret Butler, may one day give us a Maori Madonna? …Being a New Zealander, she would have the feel of the land. Such a Madonna would be a national possession’.

Maori Madonna
Maori Madonna, c. 1938-39, coloured plaster, by Margaret Butler. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1950. Te Papa (1950-0016-28)

Butler employed the handsome Ngāti Poneke Young Māori Group performer, Miriama Heketa, as her model. Duggan praised the sculpture’s ‘native grace and native dignity… many a European has his own conception of a Maori Madonna’. It was subsequently acclaimed as a ‘striking feature’ of the Catholic Pavilion at the 1940 New Zealand Centennial exhibition. The pigment applied to the plaster is not nearly as strident as most other coloured sculpture. Butler probably realised that excessive colour would somehow cheapen the Maori Madonna’s mana; instead, it rather subtly and beautifully enhances the figure’s aura. I asked Hannelore Hägele, probably the world’s greatest expert on the subject, about Butler’s use of colour in sculpture. Dr Hägele was intrigued, and had seen nothing quite like it, but suggested that Butler’s background as a painter might have motivated her in this direction. There is still much about Margaret Butler that we do not know.

The invisibility continues
Despite her acclaim in 1934, despite her identification in an Auckland Star article five years later, ‘Where Women Have Led’, despite her recommendation for the Order of the British Empire in the 1948 New Year’s Honours List – news that sadly never reached her because she died too soon – and despite prime minister Peter Fraser attending her funeral, invisibility dogged Margaret Butler within her lifetime and beyond it. We should make amends and ‘out’ this remarkable talent in New Zealand art.


  1. Fabulous read. My grandfather was friends with Margaret Butler, and I have a plaster bust of my grandfather she did for him. He had a furniture shop in Wellington and they befriended each other back in 20s or 30s I think.

  2. really interesting article – I wonder if her illness and disability were also major factors in her invisibility? the sculpture – and few paintings shown here too – is powerful and truly artistic. I think you are right – there should be an exhibition. I had no idea there was this depth of sculptural talent in NZ. strangely the feel of her work reminds me of Katherine Mansfield’s stories.

    1. Thank you Jane for these astute observations on a rather wonderful sculptor, who was interested in doing the job well, handling the material to convey the soul of the sitter, rather than being concerned with foolish questions of how ‘modern’ she ought to be. We should admire her for what she was and what she achieved. Being well off was a factor in making her achievement possible of course. Sometime I’d like to find out how much her widowed mother made as a licensee!

  3. Extraordinary that such a talented woman is, as you put it Dr Stocker, an “invisible” artist. Being familiar with Butler and “La Nouvelle Zelande” from your classes at Uni, it was lovely to be able to view more of her extraordinary work. I especially love “The Dreamer” and hope that Te Papa will honour Miss Butler by exhibiting her works in the near future.

    1. Thank you for your message, Olivia. Yes, she is a remarkably good artist. I wish Margaret Butler had had the health – and confidence – to produce twice as much as she did.

    1. Thank you. She was a remarkable woman and deserves to be far better known.

  4. Thank you, Alison. It is great to see your enthusiasm, which I share. Let me assure you that Margaret Butler is definitely on the radar. Mark

  5. Thank you Mark, for your “outing” of Margaret Butler and her superb work. I am one of the many who had never heard of her until a few minutes ago. Let’s hope that an exhibition can be arranged very soon.

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