This year marks 10 years since Gordon Crook died, and 100 years since his birth. In a gesture of commemoration, Page Galleries has curated the exhibition Gordon Crook: Biographies Bore Me.
Lily Hacking, an erstwhile curator and sometimes writer who manages Page Galleries in Wellington, tells us about the artist.
Gordon Crook was born in 1921 in Richmond, London. He studied at St Martin’s School and the Central School of Art in London, later lecturing at the Central School and the Royal College of Art while freelancing as a designer. In 1972 at the age of 51 he left the UK bound for Aotearoa. He lived on Mortimer Terrace, and later Aro Street, in a cottage with an old stable out the back as his studio. He met Mark and Val Winter in the early 1970s, and despite Gordon’s notoriously complex personality, he soon became a loved member of the Winter family.
When Gordon died in 2011 the contents of his home and studio – hundreds of embroideries, paintings, photographs, works on paper, and a lifetime of sketches, plans, newspaper cuttings, and personal correspondence – passed into the care of the Winters. The family had supported Gordon throughout his career, celebrating every success and commiserating over every disappointment. They now have care of his archive and continue to champion the artist’s work.
Sitting at Mark and Val’s kitchen table in their Johnsonville home we are surrounded by stacks of letters received from Gordon over the years; small collages and drawings decorate the handmade cards and envelopes. Val recalls how Gordon would phone her every morning and they would speak on the phone for an hour or so. Her daughters Rachel and Esther roll their eyes and laugh fondly. Gordon was a creature of habit. He would wake early every morning to begin his daily rituals, which included writing out his dreams while he could recall them. He did not have a car, preferring to traverse the city on foot. Each day on his way to and from the library he would visit his friend and framer Ron Barber, who lived nearby. Ron also custom-made several pieces of furniture for Gordon’s home, including his bed and a table with legs of different lengths to accommodate the sloping floors.
Gordon never returned to the UK, although some of his family visited him here. He lived next door to Rachel for several years, and her young son would talk through the fence with Gordon, who was often out tending to the garden he loved. Yet despite his closeness with his neighbours and his network of friends he remained a solitary figure. On Christmas Eve the Winters would deliver presents to Gordon’s door, because the annual invitation to join them for Christmas Day was always declined. “Early experiences made it very difficult for me to relate to other people. Obviously painting and drawing and that kind of thing is one way I can relate … I had to find a world in which I could breathe and be myself,” Gordon said in an interview for TVNZ 1980s series Kaleidoscope. The Winters are full of endearing stories about Gordon, but agree he was not an easy person to be close to. “He fought with everyone”, laughs Val. “But we didn’t care about that, it didn’t bother us,” interjects Esther. Mark and Val would take Gordon for dinner after every exhibition opening and be asked to provide a review (which occasionally resulted in heated exchanges), and they hosted Gordon’s 80th birthday party at their home.
During his early years in Wellington Gordon designed book covers and interiors and exhibited work at various local galleries. Collectors Jim and Mary Barr became familiar with his work after seeing it at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. They became friends, Jim supporting Gordon’s work in his role as director of The Dowse Art Museum. Gordon was commissioned to design twenty banners for the New Zealand Embassy in Washington featuring South Pacific imagery and heraldry. This commission established Gordon as a unique voice in the New Zealand art scene and helped pave the way for recognition of textile arts in this country. He collaborated with several weavers including Trish Armour, and extensively with Lesley Nicholls, with whom he produced more than twenty tapestries.
In 1980 Gordon was part of the opening of what was then Wellington City Art Gallery. Wellington City Council commissioned a thirty-minute dance work to be performed during the official opening and repeated over the duration of the exhibition. The resulting piece Imprints was a collaboration between composer Colin Hemmingsen, choreographer Susan Jordan Bell, and Gordon as art director. A decade later, City Gallery Wellington hosted a survey exhibition Gordon Crook: Images, Symbols, Dreams. Curator Kate Derum wrote, “He shows virtuosity in each of the media he has tackled with his extraordinary ability to marry image and idea. Sometimes called difficult, he could be better described as a perfectionist, as single-minded, or as simply unable to ignore the demands of his inner voice.”
In a letter to curator James Mack dated 21 September 1992, Gordon demonstrates his equally remarkable devotion to the written word:
“ … the deep ultramarine of borage flowers these tiny stars against the curtains, pale magenta primulas, dusty wallflowers, tough green leaves – it’s a strangely inert kind of colouring, held back, unhappy, as the curtains are patterned Prussian blue, on a very dead and abandoned red.”
While perhaps most renowned for his textiles, Gordon had a broad approach to making, moving between painting, collage, printmaking, papermaking, textiles, and stage design. He developed his own idiosyncratic visual language of symbols, animals, and figures. He regularly explored complex ideas – including religious and mythological icons and deities, and philosophical concepts. He was a brilliant colourist, and often incorporated unexpected materials, resulting in a body of work that remains remarkably fresh and vital.
Images courtesy of the Estate of Gordon Crook and Page Galleries.