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Please Gerry Brownlee: save this house!

 
Bill Sutton house. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

The spindle balustrade on the first floor above the home’s front door is of the same design as the entryway gates. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

 

“When I have my breakfast,” wrote artist Bill Sutton in his journal in 1992, “I cut off a slice of bread for myself and one for the birds. We are all in it together.” It would have been a simple task for Sutton to throw the bread outside to the birds from the house designed to be oriented towards the lush and exotic garden that he planted around it: in winter, perhaps through the open front door, with its heavy modernist rail, into the courtyard bordered by tree ferns; in summer, perhaps from the narrow verandah that runs along the side of the house near a self-sown paulownia and catches the morning sun.

When he wrote those words, Bill was approaching his third decade in the house on Templar St, Christchurch, a purpose-built home and studio that mirrored, in architectural form, his distinctive approach to art-making. He lived there until his death in 2000, and the subsequent owner – Neil Roberts, formerly senior curator at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, the previous incarnation of the Christchurch Art Gallery – generously willed it to the city, intending it to become a house that could anchor an artist-in-residence programme. It is an extraordinarily tranquil place. The garden is high-walled, filled with exotic plantings and darting birds and dappled light; the house is compact and modest – much like Bill himself – and conceived for the various purposes of art-making, reflection and sociability.

Bill Sutton house. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

The terrace that runs along the front of the compact home (left) is edged by plants including Nerium oleander. The patio takes full advantage of the sun (right). Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

 

One of New Zealand’s modernist architectural treasures, the Sutton house is now under grave and imminent threat of demolition. Yet it is hardly damage­d, even after the series of severe earthquakes that have shaken Christchurch over the past two years. Its planned destruction is a matter of geographic bureaucracy. It is situated in the so-called red zone, near the loop the Avon turns as it wends its way through the east of the city and out to the estuary. The low-lying river suburbs were among the hardest hit by the earthquakes, the ground sinking and stretching towards the water. The government has condemned whole swathes of residential streets along the riverbanks, and the houses that were people’s homes will be demolished; there is a vague, rather wonderful plan for a river park. A few doors away from the Sutton house, the zone goes green on the map, and houses are allowed to remain. If all goes according to the earthquake recovery plan the house, largely undamaged yet condemned by the stroke of a pen, will be bulldozed. The lack of services in the area means Roberts has had to move out (water is no longer supplied to the red zone, for example), but he still returns to tend the home’s gardens. Many homes in the neighbourhood have been demolished, but the Sutton house still stands, its future uncertain.

Bill Sutton house. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

‘Roofs and Chimneys’, 1973, by Philip Trusttum graces the dining room wall alongside a small work by Tony Lane entitled ‘Clock’, 2003. The gilded Baroque-style chair was purchased by Bill on a visit to Italy in 1974; he used it for sitters of commissioned portraits in the 1970s and 80s. The painted bronze sculpture on the bookcase is by Terry Stringer. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

 

Bill Sutton’s house was designed for him in 1963 by his friend, sculptor Tom Taylor, who had initially trained to be an architect, and whose sculpture retained an architectonic quality. Tom designed several other houses in Christchurch, but the Sutton house is said to be the least altered. When Tom switched from architecture to studying art, Bill was his teacher; they subsequently became colleagues at the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts. Bill first painted Tom in 1951. In a pair of loose undershorts, Tom stood as the model for an image of the martyred Saint Sebastian, tied to a post in the dry Central Otago landscape, matagour­i at his feet. Bill also painted a full-length portrait of Tom that year, one of a series of portraits of students completed in his rented studio in Oxford Tce. In return, Tom sculpted a head of Bill in cement fondu. Some 40 years later, they sat for one another again. A large-scale steel sculpture of Tom’s, ‘Moraine’ (1967), was a focus of Bill’s garden for many years.

Bill Sutton house. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

This view of the dining room reveals a dining suite purchased by the home’s owner Neil Roberts’ parents. It was made as a one-off experimental design in plywood and formica as part of a display of modern furniture at the 1956 New Zealand Industries Fair in Christchurch. The balustrade at left is crafted from New Zealand beech. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

 

Before Tom designed his house, Bill had rented a series of flats in the central city, moving on as they gave way to new developments. These were convivial places as well as workspaces. His studio in Colombo St was the scene of many post-opening parties attended by the progressive artists who were part of The Group during the 1950s: Colin McCahon, Charles Brasch and Rita Angus would turn up, and mingle with students from the art school. Artist and gallery director John Coley, then a student, recalled the aesthetic precision with which Bill arranged his combined studio/living environment – he remains particularly struck by the beauty of a wall painted with blackboard paint and covered in chalked notes written in Bill’s inimitable calligraphic hand. During this period Bill painted views of many buildings in central Christchurch, some of them at night. When the lease ran out on his final rented studio in Latimer Sq, a former doctor’s rooms, he decided to buy a property of his own to avoid continually being moved on. A derelict worker’s cottage was cleared from a section in Richmond – a working-class Victorian suburb on the outskirts of the central city – and construction began.

Bill Sutton house. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

The artwork visible on the left wall of the living room/studio is ‘A Dog’s Life’, 1987, by Nigel Brown; on the far right is ‘Alpha Omega and Anchor’, 1989, by Alan Maddox. On the top shelf of the bookshelves designed by Tom is an Ansonia gingerbread kitchen clock, circa 1900. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

 

Tom’s friendship with Bill produced a house that intimately reflected the personality of its owner. Indeed, John Coley once described Bill’s personality in architectural terms, as a large crowded salon set alongside a closed, private space – terms that reflect the design of his house, with its tiny private upstairs and large studio/living room downstairs, which comprises a third of the house’s plan. When I visited Bill there in the late 1980s, it was full of works on easels in various stages of completion, as well as stacks of books on shelves, behind which was stretched a large panel of Fijian tapa, brought back from the islands by Bill after a visit to a student in 1954. At the other end of the room, near a small conservatory bursting with greenery, we sat on low modernist furniture. A high bank of windows runs along the long back wall, turning the studio into a lightbox. The room fulfilled both functions of an artist’s studio for Bill: the studiolo, or private space for study and reflection, and the bottega, or workshop. It smelled of paint and linseed oil, of which perhaps a faint trace remains. But as much as it was a workspace, it was also a room for living in, a place for parties and entertaining.

Bill Sutton house. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

Designed by Tom Taylor, the kitchen features sliding cupboard doors. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

 

What is particularly significant about Tom’s design is its combination of conventions of a traditional colonia­l cottage with modernist elements. The form of the verandah and the pitched roof of the front of the house lead into the boxy modernist rear. Bill’s own art practice reveals a similar tension between the modern and the traditional: while painting huge, nearly abstract modernist canvasses in the Templar St studio – he was able to increase the scale of his works dramatically when he moved in – he continued to produce academic portraits of various Christchurch worthies, as well as highly accomplished traditional watercolours.

In Europe there has been a long history of the preservation of artists’ studios: think, for example, of Monet’s Giverny, or Barbara Hepworth’s studio in Cornwall, or Francis Bacon’s studio, lifted holus-bolus from South Kensington and reinstalled in Dublin’s City Gallery. Preserving artists’ studios is a means of commemorating their work; it also provides an alternative means of material contact with artists. We understand more about an artist’s work when we see the environment in which it was made. This is because the design of artists’ studios communicates the artist’s idea of the relationship between art and everyday life. Mantegna’s studio in Mantova, for example, perhaps the earliest artist’s house still in existence, features a Vitruvian square and circle plan. We are less accomplished at such cultural celebrations in New Zealand, but the artists’ residences that do remain, like the McCahon House in Auckland’s Titirangi, and the Rita Angus Cottage in Wellington, are important catalysts for the generation of new work.

Bill Sutton house. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

Current owner of the Sutton house Neil Roberts (left). Trees reach towards the upper storey balcony (right). Photographs by Patrick Reynolds.

 

The Sutton house reveals the tension between modernism and the colonial, which was such a pivotal dynamic in the development of New Zealand 20th century culture, and which was a major aspect of Bill’s own work. Bill was one of Christchurch’s most significant modernist artists; his work is an integral part of the city’s, and the nation’s, cultural history. If his house is demolished, we lose a tangible link to the modern history of our visual culture. We also lose a beautiful, tranquil, leafy oasis just out of the central city, a house gifted to the public by the current owner which continues to be of interest to the Christchurch City Council as an artist’s residence, purposely designed by an artist for an artist as a place where new creative work will be made. It’s probable that there is nothing apart from a zone on a map that prevents the house remaining. Given the desolation of Christchurch after the earthquakes, we cannot afford to lose the Sutton house too. Speak up, if you feel so inclined. As Bill might have said, we’re all in this together. –Lara Strongman

Q&A with Neil Roberts

HOME What makes Bill Sutton importan­t as a Canterbury and New Zealand artist?
Neil Roberts, Sutton house owner Bill Sutton analysed the Canterbury landscape and all its distinctive characteristics for more than four decades. From ‘Nor’wester in the Cemetery’ in 1950 to the Plantation series of the 1980s, no other artist achieved such a high degree of regional identity in 20th century New Zealand landscape painting. This also gave him a good measure of national recognition. Sutton’s portraiture [of various Cantabrian worthies, in particular] also gained him a certain national profile in the latter part of the 20th century.

HOME How did moving into the home and studio affect his work?
Neil Roberts From 1949 to 1962 Sutton rented and adapted spaces for his work, but the move to Templar St gave him a purpose-built space that enabled him to work and store his paintings. He could work out ideas through series in a way that wasn’t possible before because of limited space. His new home and studio made it possible for him to accept formal portrait commissions in much greater numbers. The new environment also gave him an opportunity to explore other aspects of art, particularly printing, and with the aid of an Albion press he was able to set up what he called Templar Press. In short, a new home and studio gave Sutton a stable environment to progress his art.

HOME What do you enjoy about living in the house?
Neil Roberts What I enjoy most about the house is its tranquillity and harmony with the natural garden space, and how closely they’re integrated as part of the whole living experience.

HOME What made you want to gift the house to the city as a writer’s residence? Christchurch doesn’t have a dedicated space for an artist-in-residence programme. Auckland has the McCahon House and Wellington the Angus Cottage. Neil Roberts Sutton is the logical Canterbury artist to have his name associated with a residency. Quite apart from that, the property is close to the inner city, and ideal for this purpose.

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