Rebecca Rice, Curator Historical New Zealand Art, explores a mystery behind Dr Gray Hassell’s magnificent moustache.
There are two main reasons I feel an affinity with Dr Gray Hassell. Firstly, he was born in Oamaru, also my hometown, in 1860. Secondly, well, that moustache. In my childhood, my father sported a similarly magnificent mo. So much so, that when he was an extra for a film shot in Victorian Oamaru, the costume department tried to claim his firmly attached facial hair back for their make-up boxes.
Who was Dr Hassell
Hassell trained as a doctor in Scotland, returning to New Zealand in 1885. He spent most of his working career as Superintendent of Porirua Mental Hospital. This portrait is dated about 1906. It’s by the Dutch artist, Petrus van der Velden, who is better known for his dramatic landscapes of Otira Gorge in the Southern Alps.
But there’s more to this portrait than meets the twinkle in Dr Hassell’s eye…
The hidden story behind his portrait
When the painting was removed from its frame in preparation for conservation, we noticed some unusual things. On the right-hand side, it was clear that the canvas had been cut at some point in the painting’s history. You can see in this image that the painting is crudely tacked along the front edge, rather than being wrapped around the wooden support:
Then there’s the artist’s signature, which would normally be on the canvas on the front of the painting, bottom right or left. Instead, it has been cut out and tacked onto the back of the painting:
The real clue, though, lies in the painting itself. I’d always wondered about Dr Hassell’s endearing lean, the sense that he’s engaging with someone just outside the painting. Look closely at the detail below, and you’ll notice a touch of lace in the bottom right corner:
That, readers, is all that remains of Hassell’s first wife, Eliza. Eliza died in 1926 and was succeeded by Brownie Goddard, whom Hassell married in 1932. It is reputed that Hassell’s second wife literally cut her predecessor out of the picture!
If Hassell’s first wife had remained in the painting, this would have been a very unique double portrait: most ‘husband and wife’ portrait pairs are made as separate paintings. Luckily, Dr Hassell and his marvellous mo can hold their own.
This portrait has proved popular on Te Papa’s recently launched Art Wall | Pātu Toi, where visitors can choose a painting to ‘hang’ on the wall via a large projection in the museum. Reasons for choosing this portrait range from the jolly pun ‘I moustache you a question…’, to Te Papa’s CEO, Geraint Martin’s comment, ‘Because they don’t make moustaches like that anymore’.
But in memory of Dr Hassell’s facial hair as well as his professional career dedicated to medicine, I’d suggest we take Dr Hassell on as a mascot for Movember. It seems fitting that men all over New Zealand take inspiration from this moustache and, as one visitor noted, set their own ‘Moustache Goal’.
You’ll be able to see this portrait when Te Papa opens its spectacular new art gallery Toi Art, on 17 March 2018, as part of the exhibition Tūrangawaewae: Art and New Zealand.