‘This is the best picture yet painted in this country’ is how Colin McCahon described his Ruby Bay, 1945. Here, author and curator Peter Simpson talks about the importance of this early work.
Ruby Bay was painted in 1945 when Colin and Anne McCahon were living in Pomona Road above the small bay on the shoreline of Tasman Bay about 35kms from Nelson. The McCahons had moved there from nearby Mapua early that year. They seriously contemplated buying the place, but eventually decided against it when Colin realised that owning a house and some acres of land would distract him from his first priority. He wrote to his sister, Beatrice: ‘So having certain knowledge that I am one of the very few who can paint well in this country I shall paint & conserve energy for that end by living with that end in view’.
The self-confidence of these comments resulted from the artistic (if not commercial) success of his first solo exhibition at the French Maid Coffee House in Lambton Quay, Wellington, in May-June 1945. Before dealer galleries this was one of the few private spaces in Wellington where original work could be shown. Prior to the exhibition McCahon had been struggling with his painting, telling friends that almost as soon as he finished something new he became dissatisfied with it. For this reason he asked the painter Patrick Hayman to choose work for the exhibition and supervise its hanging. No catalogue survives but it is known from McCahon’s letters that Ruby Bay was the newest painting included and the only one he was fully satisfied with. He told Beatrice: ‘Last weekend I spent in Wellington to see the exhibition. Very beautifully hung by Pat Hayman, but artistically not altogether a success, for the artist at least – the old work is pretty poor the only good thing – the most recent oil. It will look poor in a few more months. Such is the process.’
In July he wrote somewhat immoderately about Ruby Bay to Rodney Kennedy: ‘The Wellington exhibition looked very well….Pat had made an excellent job of hanging things & all the right people seemed impressed but by everything bar the only good painting there…A landscape from outside the house, of Ruby Bay, and a landmark, the only really good work I’ve done since [Harbour Cone from Peggy’s Hill, 1939], and this so much better – I know I’ve not been wasting my time. This is the best picture yet painted in this country but how good that no one else knows it or how proud I would become.’
McCahon does not say what it was about Ruby Bay that made him rate this ‘landmark’ so highly but we can speculate that the firm, confident architecture of sky, sea, land and trees, the richness of the blues, greens and darker shades, and above all the idiosyncratic distinctiveness of its imagery all contributed to his enthusiasm. As he realised himself, he was on the way towards achieving mastery of his medium.
-  Colin McCahon to Beatrice Parsloe, 17 June 1945 quoted in Peter Simpson, Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction, Vol. 1, 1919-1959, Auckland, AUP, 2019, p. 64
-  Colin McCahon to Beatrice Parsloe, 10 June 1945, ibid., p. 62
-  Colin McCahon to Rodney Kennedy, 20 July 1945, ibid., p. 63
Peter Simpson is a curator, editor, and writer, and former associate professor of English at the University of Auckland. He has published a number of critically acclaimed books on 20th-century New Zealand art, and is one of the foremost experts on Colin McCahon. In August this year he published Colin McCahon: There Is Only One Direction Vol.1 1919-1959, the first part of a two-volume work on the evolution of the artist’s work over McCahon’s entire 45-year career.
Colin McCahon at Te Papa
To mark the occasion of his 100th year, we’re hanging a group of Colin McCahon’s paintings in Toi Art. We’re also planning some public programmes over the course of the year and we’ll be publishing a McCahon blog a month over the course of the year – in which curators and conservators, as well as writers, artists and historians, write about a specific McCahon artwork from Te Papa’s collection.