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A winged imagination

William Hammond

29 August 1947 – 30 January 2021

Artist Bill Hammond is billed as one New Zealand’s most “influential contemporary painters.” Hammond has left a legacy as an artist, environmental activist, father, grandfather, and generous member of his Lyttleton community.

Bill Hammond, Cornwall Road Cave, 2011 160 x 80 cm acrylic on Linen -1. Photograph by Russell Kleyn, courtesy of McLeavey Gallery.

“Bill Hammond was a great artist and a special man, one of a kind. He was loved by many and will be sorely missed,” says artist Marian Maguire. “Bill found amusement in the everyday and his laugh was a chuckle. I liked it best when the story he was telling would require him to spread his long thin arms outwards and his fingertips would reach his six-foot span.”

Marian can’t remember exactly when she met Bill, but says she got to know him when they started making prints together twenty years or so ago. “Bill understood that art fits with life and that we each carry an inner world around with us that is our own. I learnt from him the importance of protecting one’s imaginative sphere. His inner world was both full and fluid. He inhabited it while simultaneously being inhabited by it. It was something he conjured, dreamed and patiently observed. His imagination literally had wings but it was also grounded. As grounded as he was. Grounded in Lyttelton Harbour, the landscape, the paths, the air, the sea, in the houses he lived in and the people he loved, those who formed the structure of his life. Family and friends were incredibly important to Bill, and one can see this in his paintings. Figures interact, connect, and fit around each other. They seem at once perfectly placed in their spatial relationships but also free to move.”

Born in Christchurch on 29 August 1947, Hammond attended the Ilam School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury from 1966 to 1968. It wasn’t until 1980 that he started exhibiting his paintings. Hammond became a full-time artist in 1989, having worked as a toymaker, as a jewellery designer, and also in a sign factory. His first solo exhibition was at the Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington in March 1987.

Environments under threat, the vulnerability of life in a precarious world, and the complex relationships between Māori, Europeans and nature are explored through Hammond’s graphic work. These themes were inspired by a trip to the Auckland Islands in 1989, where Hammond described “seeing a form of ancient New Zealand where birds rule”. Department of Conservation director-general Lou Sanson​ says “New Zealand has lost a great advocate for native wildlife.”

Hammond’s artistic style has been compared to Chinese painting and Japanese woodblock prints. His subjects are commonly anthropomorphic birds, horses, and hybrid creatures. His palette typically consists of inky blues, emerald greens, and gold. Hamish Keith, arts writer and curator, has praised Hammond: "You can't fault his work in technical ways. It was never crude, rude – it was always up to the mark."

Lyttleton writer and columnist Joe Bennett says Hammond struggled financially in his early days as an artist, and would pay his bar bills at the local Volcano Bar with canvases. Over time, the bar became plastered with now valuable paintings from the artist. The bar was destroyed in the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, but fortunately Hammond’s paintings were salvaged, unscathed. Throughout his creative life Hammond contributed generously to local community causes such as the Lyttleton Art Factory’s new theatre, opened in 2016.

Hammond was a private man, who preferred not to engage in interviews or other forms of publicity. Former Christchurch Art Gallery director Jenny Harper has described Hammond as “one of the country’s best painters”. In 2009, his 1996 painting Fortified Gang Headquarters sold at auction for $290,000, the highest price for a New Zealander’s artwork to date.

Hammond is survived by his partner of 30 years Jane McBride, two sons Jesse and Joe, and grandchildren Akilah and Louis.Collections of his works can be viewed at many New Zealand galleries including Auckland Art Gallery, Christchurch Art Gallery, Te Papa’s Toi Art, and Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare O Rehua Whanganui.

Courtney Scott-Hill and Marian Maguire


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