Movembering Dr Hassell and his magnificent mo

Movembering Dr Hassell and his magnificent mo

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.

Bust portrait of a middle aged man, holding a walking stick in his left hand. He has blue eyes, a ruddy complexion and an abundant ginger moustache that extends beyond the side of his face.
Petrus van der Velden, Dr Gray Hassell about 1906, oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs Gray Hassell, 1951 (1951‑0001‑1)

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:

Side view of portrait of Dr Hassell, showing cut edge of canvas and nails along top edge.
Side view of portrait of Dr Hassell, showing cut edge of canvas and nails along top edge, 2017. Photo by Te Papa Paintings Conservator, Tijana Cvetkovic. Te Papa

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:

detail of back view of portrait of Dr Hassell showing the artist's signature tacked to the back.
Detail of back view of portrait of Dr Hassell showing the artist’s signature tacked to the back, 2017. Photo by Te Papa Paintings Conservator, Tijana Cvetkovic. Te Papa

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:

Detail of the bottom right corner of the portrait of Dr Hassell, it shows a hint of white lace.
Detail of the bottom right corner of the portrait of Dr Hassell, it shows a hint of white lace, 2017. Photo by Paintings Conservator, Tijana Cvetkovic. Te Papa

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.

Screenshot of website Art Wall, showing Dr Hassell's portrait on the far right of a grid of works from Te Papa's art collection
Screenshot of Art Wall | Pātu Toi

Art Wall

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.

Read more about the opening suite of exhibitions >



  1. Its true. So luxuriant was my 16 year old mo, the props people were sure it was false and as I entered the lunchroom an enterprising young props man wearing a wolf cub cap stepped forward, reached up grabbed my mo and gave it a hearty yank. I instinctively responded with an uppercut. the result was the two of us writhing around nursing rapidly swelling parts of our faces.
    The TV Series being shot was about Albert Hanlon, probably the first of our celebrity defense lawyers. For my trouble there are several shots of my back outside the courthouse and railway station.

    1. Author

      Thanks Dad! Probably should have asked your permission before using that anecdote…

  2. Jealous love knoweth no bounds (LOL)

  3. This was very funny. I really enjoy your light-hearted blogs Te Papa: thank you for the permission to be curious and laugh.

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