‘Roger was many things to many of us: a scholar, mentor, colleague, teacher, and friend. He was, like his artist-hero Goldie, a national taonga, and he will be greatly missed.’
New Zealand art historian and curator, Roger Blackley, passed away on the 15 May 2019. Here, Rebecca Rice acknowledges his legacy.
Roger and I both began our careers at Victoria University of Wellington in 1998. I was a slightly ‘mature’ student who thought I was majoring in music. He was a curator-turned-lecturer who’d come to VUW from the Auckland Art Gallery. The shift from museum to academy came easily to Roger. He was a charismatic and natural teacher with a distinctive pedagogical approach: his was an erudite and often entertaining ‘anecdotal’ art history. In the face of this talent, I’d changed my major within a year, and 12 years later I graduated with a PhD in colonial New Zealand Art History, guided by Roger every step of the way.
Through him, many of us fell in love with the art of this place and the histories that can be revealed by studying it. This love was nourished by Roger’s pastoral care, and the most productive meetings and tutorials took place over cheese scones (with plenty of spices and seasoning), banana cake (half the sugar and twice the cinnamon), and pastries (shared, because that way the calories are halved).
But it wasn’t all about the food, Roger was a pedant of the best possible kind. He insisted on engaging directly with artworks, with primary records (especially newspapers), and with keeping a keen eye on grammar and footnotes. There was no subject that was outside his realm of knowledge. His office was legendary, and scarcely any topic could be broached that didn’t involve him reaching into its health-defying depths, to recover and share a book, article or catalogue that would shed greater light upon it.
From his earliest publications, through to his last work, Galleries of Maoriland, Roger’s scholarship focussed on those artists and artworks who history had rendered obscure, misunderstood, or simply put, plain unfashionable. From Alfred Sharpe to John Guise Mitford, from classical plaster casts in the Auckland Museum to Nelson Illingworth’s Māori busts, from carte-de-visites to Charles F Goldie’s oil paintings, Roger’s world of nineteenth-century New Zealand art was a rich and complex space.
The perfect metaphor for this world was the title work of the Adam Art Gallery exhibition and publication Stray Leaves, a trompe l’oeil painting by William Gordon, picturing a desk surface strewn with the trivia of everyday life, a painting that was at once witty self-portrait and rich social history.
Roger arrived in Wellington shortly after staging the ground-breaking exhibition Goldie in 1997, an exhibition that, along with its beautiful (and still in demand) publication, made a persuasive case for the reappraisal of the artist Charles F Goldie.
It’s hard to remember now that for much of the twentieth century, Goldie was derided and dismissed by the art cognoscenti. However, on seeing the special bond Māori felt for Goldie’s portraits during the 1987 Te Maori exhibition, Roger began reassessing his art and its reach. He firmly believed in Goldie’s status as a national treasure, whose paintings held value for their Māori subjects and their descendants independent of whatever value the art world had placed on them. Twenty years later we take such a response for granted.
This thread permeated his research, and connected him back to his roots. Roger credited his obsession with the ethnographic and artistic representation of Māori to his childhood memories of the Dominion Museum – his methodology was at times part autobiography. There, he favoured the Māori Hall, recalling the coloured lithographs by George French Angas, and a bronze-coloured bust titled Wharekauri. Some 40 years later, these busts by Nelson Illingworth, became the striking centrepiece of the exhibition Te Mata: The Ethnological Portrai at the Adam Art Gallery.
Ultimately, Roger’s decades of research in both the museum and academic sectors culminated in his PhD, which was transformed into his magnum opus Galleries of Maoriland: Artists, Collectors and the Māori World, 1880-1910, and published to acclaim in 2018. As Lydia Wevers said at its launch, the book ‘challenges the prevailing binarisms of postcolonial readings of the nineteenth century… [posing] new questions, particularly about the role and motivations of Māori participants in the world of art and art collecting’. Galleries of Maoriland was poignantly timed, just in time for Roger to appreciate the feedback, and an indication of what was to come were it not for his untimely death.
Through his work, Roger maintained connections and friendships across the museum, academic, and gallery sectors. He regularly brought classes into Te Papa, favouring the back of house exclusive, and many of us have adopted and found ourselves repeating the witty turns of phrase or art historical factoids delivered on these occasions.
Roger was many things to many of us: a scholar, mentor, colleague, teacher, and friend. He was, like his artist-hero Goldie, a national taonga, and he will be greatly missed.
Kua takoto te toki nāna te kupu i tārai. Kua mū te reo nāna i toi te kupu. Roger, nāu ngā whatu i whakatuwhera, nāu ngā taringa i areare. Moe mai ra e te rangatira.
Thank you for that warm and true valediction.
Without in any way wanting to offend, I would, however, offer the following editorial (grammar- or rather vocabulary-nazi) comment, as a tribute to Roger and his keen sense of literary decorum.
If he didn’t already know (though he probably did), Roger would have enjoyed the complex etymology of ‘factoid’, a deliberate Norman Mailer coinage (Marilyn, a biography, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973) originally meant to designate a trivial piece of ‘fake news’ that becomes true by virtue of repetition, but which in its subsequent adoption by the media and in common usage came to mean a small, insigificant (but true) fact. In response to this slippage of definition, in one of his New York Times language columns, American journalist and author William Safire offered the alternative ‘factlet’ to encompass the latter meaning.
Roger was in fact a conscientious debunker of the art-historical factoid, but yes, connoisseur, master and liberal distributor of the telling/poetic/amusing art-historical factlet.
Lovely! Thanks David. Roger favoured the term himself, most likely relishing it’s etymological complexity, so I took the liberty of channelling him to use it here!
Thanks for your heartfelt and moving tribute to Roger. He was a friend who very many friends cherished.
Dear Ron, he was indeed.
Thank you Rebecca. Kua hinga te totara i te wao nui a Tane. The totara has fallen in the forest of Tane.
Thank you Rebecca, you capture Roger perfectly
Kia ora Rebecca, I am very sad about Roger’s passing. He had a great effect on the career direction I chose also and I feel very privileged to have been able to have him as a lecturer.
A lovely tribute Rebecca.
Tino pai, Rebecca, an excellent tribute to a national taonga, as you so rightly say.
Thanks Rebecca for a lovely tribute. He was an inspiring and witty lecturer.