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Art in every corner

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

The art collection of the late Frank and Lyn Corner took New Zealand art to diplomatic audiences in the USA in the 1950s and 60s, then grew to fill their family home back in Wellington. Now the substantial collection is to be sold in March.

Janet Hughes talks to Victoria Corner about growing up with the collection, and its personal legacy.

Victoria and her sister Katy spent ten formative years in the USA, where their father was posted first to the New Zealand embassy in Washington DC, then for a longer period to the UN in New York. Frank and Lyn Corner made it their mission to raise the international profile of New Zealand art, during the exciting mid-century period when abstract expressionism put American painters at the forefront of artistic innovation. They took their growing collection overseas with them, and sought to promote Kiwi artists to new audiences at every opportunity, for example opening their home to a UN art group. Frances Hodgkins, Rita Angus, Colin McCahon, T A McCormick, E Mervyn Taylor, John Weeks, Toss Woollaston and others were thus brought to the attention of international art enthusiasts.

Victoria sees this advocacy as part of a larger personal and professional mission that her parents undertook jointly. It was, she says, about ‘promoting and developing a sense of a modern New Zealand, holding its place in the world’. This resonated personally with her, as she grew up and went to school in another country. There was an inevitable sense of difference, starting with the way people spoke, to be negotiated; and in the background there was always an awareness of impermanence – that ultimately they would return to New Zealand, and ‘that was home’.

This confidence that her ‘place was in New Zealand’ derived partly from the aesthetic values that ran so strongly in her family. Victoria recalls the New Zealand residence in DC as a big place furnished in traditional North American style, with hefty furniture and a lot of dark, heavy wood. But there was one room the Corners furnished to their personal taste. The furniture was Modernist, with a pair of Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Barcelona chairs. Victoria said the room was ‘filled with light’ and lively modern art works, and art objects from travels in the Pacific and Mexico among other places. A McCahon landscape, with stylised landforms and subdued but glowing colours, especially crystallised her sense of allegiance to and pride in her home country.

Back in New Zealand, the Corner family settled in a large traditional Gray Young house in Thorndon. Built-in cabinetry from Cedric Firth, the business partner of Ernst Plischke, complemented their modern furniture, and accommodated ever-growing collections of books, art, and exhibition catalogues, along with family life. In the front sitting room, dominated by the earlier works in the collection, a Frances Hodgkins has a dedicated niche between the built-in stereo speakers. Other walls display Woollaston, Mrkusich, Weeks, McCormick, Rita Angus, flooded with light from the neo-Georgian windows.

Victoria recalls writing her MA thesis at a little desk that drops down from the fitted bookshelves, handily near to the fireplace in the informal sitting area adjoining the dining room: ‘I burned my way through a cord of firewood that winter’.

The cosy space is now closely hung with watercolour and wash drawings, mostly landscapes. Then in sharp contrast there are two large abstract canvases, both severely geometric in composition: a spare rectilinear oil by Geoff Thornley, over the mantel, and a glossy black enamel and resin with vivid border accents, by Leon van den Eijkel. They dominate the space, and point in the direction the collection took over time, as the Corners developed a personal preference for non-figurative art.

This abstract strand of the modernist legacy seems to have shaped Victoria’s aesthetic preferences. Showing me around the collection, she gravitates to simple forms, and fields of colour and texture that envelop the viewer. There are vivid oils by Rob McLeod, glowing watercolours by John Drawbridge, experimental photographs and playful prints by Gordon Crook. These are all artists who figure prominently in the collection, through successive shifts in style, and whose work Victoria has also collected in her own right. She says her parents’ taste in art was sometimes more adventurous than her own.

Much of the collection was acquired after Victoria left home, though the McCahon landscape still holds its own in the light-filled stairwell, among punchy abstract works, mostly more or less three dimensional, by later artists: Max Gimblett, Neil Dawson, Stephen Bambury among others. And it holds its place in her affections. Having grown up with the painting ‘epitomising New Zealand landscape for me’, Victoria says this was later confirmed when her parents bought a property on the Kapiti Coast: ‘The hills as you enter Waikanae are just like McCahon’s.’

Victoria’s late sister Katy was influenced in a more direct way by her art-filled environment, as an arts writer and an artist in her own right. Her practice reflects another strand in the family collection, which is most evident in the dining room. It is hung mainly with works on paper, many with a craft component: paint on folded paper (Rob McLeod), prints (Kate Coolahan, John Drawbridge), and, crucially, collage and tapestries (Gordon Crook). Katy was principally a tapestry artist. The collection includes several of her exuberant needlepoint works.

The Corners followed developments in the art scene closely; witness the vast collection of carefully ordered exhibition catalogues, still with strips of paper marking items of interest. New acquisitions often involved rearrangement of the closely but thoughtfully hung walls, and some substitutions. Collecting slowed down in their later years. Speaking to Lara Strongman (Behind Closed Doors, 2011), Lyn Corner spoke of 'old age, retirement income, crowded walls' contributing to a 'stage of contentment with things as they are'. The house represents a snapshot of the final state of the collection, before it is dispersed.

First published ArtZone #73


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