10 Questions with Jill Trevelyan, Jennifer Taylor and Greg Donson


Q1: When the Sarjeant Gallery reopens later this year — the 1919 heritage building will be fully restored, earthquake strengthened and expanded with a new wing named Te Pātaka o Tā Te Atawhai Archie John Taiaroa that will see the building’s footprint doubled — a big Edith Collier exhibition will be one of the major drawcards during the first few months. Entirely fitting? 

JTa and GD: Absolutely fitting. The Sarjeant’s relationship with the Collier family is incredibly unique and can be traced back to the 1970s. It continues to this day under the auspices of the Edith Collier Trust (established 1993–94) that first placed the majority of Collier’s artistic output in the care of the gallery in the 1980s. The collection has been a constant presence in the gallery’s programme and her work has always been one of the drawcards for visitors as there are very few works by her in other public collections. The Trust were early supporters of the gallery redevelopment project and their relationship with the Sarjeant and its team to be custodians of Collier’s work is unparalleled elsewhere. As can be seen in the forthcoming publication, it’s hard to not see how Collier and her extraordinary work shouldn’t be celebrated. 

Q2: There have been exhibitions of Collier’s work at the Sarjeant before but that now seems so long ago. What do we — thanks to your research for the book — know and understand about her now that curators and audiences perhaps did not back then? 

JTa and GD: Due to her work not being in public collections, her return to New Zealand came at a time when audiences were not receptive or understanding of the context in which she was working in Europe. Her reluctance to sell her work or promote herself as an artist means she has been largely overlooked in the conversation around the development of modernism in New Zealand. Since the last survey of her work by Joanne Drayton in 1999 — which toured nationally — there’s been new interest in celebrating and re-contextualising the place of artists such Frances Hodgkins, Rita Angus and Louise Henderson within New Zealand art history. Collier — rightly so — is part of this discourse. Her works, which still look so fresh today, were well ahead of their time. She was in a unique position as an artist because, although she lived a frugal life during her time abroad, the financial support she received from her family meant she didn’t need to sell her work to survive. This meant she could fully immerse herself in engaging with modernism. Her work at Kaawhia has never been fully explored and we are very excited that this publication and the exhibition investigates this body of work in a unique way by bringing in voices of mana whenua, the descendants of the kuia that she painted there. 

Q3: The works in this beautiful book show the massive stylistic leaps she was making in the nine years she was studying and working in London. It was as if a switch flicked on and she just roared ahead. How would you describe the direction she was going in by the time she came back to New Zealand in late 1921? 

JTr: She was really hitting her stride as a modernist by 1921. Her portraits in particular — works such as The Spanish Woman — are fantastic. 

JTa and GD: Her time in the UK was extraordinary in terms of output. The works are filled with such confidence, freshness and energy and still look that way over a century later. 

Q4: And how distinctive was it compared to other British modernist women painters and certainly the small number of modernist women painters in New Zealand?

JTr: Her paintings compare favourably to that of her British contemporaries both male and female, and there’s nothing like them in the art that was produced in Aotearoa at the time. It was not until the 1930s that artists like R.N. Field, Toss Woollaston and Rita Angus began to experiment with the modernist portrait. 

Q5: Her work was so savagely criticised upon her return. What sort of impact do you think such ignorant and aggressive attacks on her might have had? 

JTr: It must have been a shock after London. The comments on her work in the Wanganui Chronicle were so patronising and dismissive. But it’s interesting to me that she continued to exhibit in the late 1920s, even daring to show nude works such as A Lady of Kent, so she obviously wasn’t cowed by it. 

Q6: This book has a very interesting section on the works she made at Kaawhia. Tell us how you worked with mana whenua there. 

JTa and GD: The highlight of working on this book for all of us has been connecting with some of the descendants of the kuia who Collier painted during her stay in Kaawhia in 1928. This has been the result of efforts on all sides and is also thanks to Collier recording their names on the backs of some of her canvases. We feel so lucky to have been able to connect with the trustees of Maketuu Marae, which Collier also painted. They were delighted to learn of her paintings and engagement with their community in 1928. Members of the gallery team, kaumatua John Maihi, the Edith Collier Trust and Jill Trevelyan were invited to visit and stay at Maketuu Marae in 2023. It was an incredible and moving experience to be in the landscape that Collier had painted so long ago. We are deeply grateful to the Marae for their manaakitanga and that we have been able to provide readers with a new perspective on these works that is utterly of that place. 

Q7: There are a series of very insightful guest essays discussing a range of key works. How important a decision was it to invite these writers to share the project with you? 

JTa and GD: We wanted to open up discussion about Edith by involving people from different backgrounds: artists, curators, historians and descendants of the people she painted. We were thrilled with the responses — all of the contributors provided such engaging, thoughtful essays. The breadth of contributors demonstrates that Collier has left a legacy of works that still resonate today. 

Q8: What do you hope readers will take from this work? 

JTa and GD: We hope people will appreciate Edith as a courageous, gifted woman who produced a wonderful body of work and was also much loved by those who knew her. 

Q9: And what do you hope artists will take from it? 

GD: It’s been great that over the last decade a number of artists who have participated in the gallery’s residency programme at Tylee Cottage have chosen to engage with Collier’s work and her story. They’ve done so across a variety of media: sound, textiles, photography and, more recently, ceramics, in a project by the potter Paul Maseyk looking at jugs in New Zealand art, including two early still life works by Collier. 

Q10: Favourite work and why? 

JTr: The Pouting Girl. A dazzling watercolour. I love its boldness and exuberance. 

JTa: Still Waters, Kaawhia Harbour. It’s a beautiful meditative painting and, having visited this site during our trip to Kaawhia in 2023, this work now holds so much more significance, meaning and memory for me. 

GD: Frivolity. I love the energy, speed and bravery of this work. I feel as though it encapsulates Edith in a quiet frenzy of making. I have always wondered what Edith thought of it, real or imagined. The three figures look so relaxed and then there’s that curious cat pawing at the central figure’s foot.