african adventures in the art collection

One of our most interesting ‘while we are closed’ activities is James’ framing project. Every time I’m in the collection store there is an intriguing assortment of work from the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust (HBMT) fine art collection out of their crates.  Douglas pointed out this work to me last week as I’m doing some research into the work of New Zealand artists in North Africa in the early 20th Century.

The plate on the frame reads: “North African Coast” by B. C. Dobie. Presented to H Guthrie Smith Esq

I rather liked this scene of a bright orange tent, pitched under the shifting shadows of a cork tree, looking out on olive trees and the dazzling blue of the Mediterranean.

The artist is New Zealander, Beatrix Charlotte Dobie (1887 – 1944).

Beatrix must have been a rather intrepid and determined woman to travel in this part of the world in the 1920s and 30s. I found myself curious about her; and the connection inferred by this painting with Hawke’s Bay farmer, naturalist and author Herbert Guthrie-Smith.

Beatrix Dobbie was born in Whangarei in 1887, daughter of Herbert Dobbie, a well-known stationmaster, botanist and writer. In 1911 she travelled to London with her friend Esther Barker (later Hope) to study painting at the Slade School of Art, under Henry Tonks. It was at this time she changed her last name to Dobie.

Muriel Wyman and Beatrix Dobbie, Mangere, c 1910. Photograph reproduced courtesy of Mangere Historical Society, Manukau Research Library, MGE: I, 2, no. 31

With the outbreak of the First World War she and Esther volunteered for the Red Cross and were stationed in Malta, and later at the New Zealand transfer camp in Codford, England. After the war she returned to New Zealand and exhibited regularly at the Canterbury Society of Arts.

The connection to Guthrie-Smith is here discovered, as it turns out that she illustrated his wonderful book Tutira: the story of a New Zealand sheep station, first published in 1921.

Guthrie-Smith writes in his preface: “My thanks are due to Miss Beatrix Dobie for her physiographical sketches, and for her careful and accurate restorations of the old-time pas of the station. I consider myself most fortunate in having secured her services.”

The painting must have been presented to Guthrie-Smith by her in remembrance of this collaboration, Guthrie-Smith in turn gifting it to the HBMT before his death in 1940.

In 1926 Beatrix went abroad again, this time on a painting tour of Africa, and while in Tunisia she met and married Rene Vernon, an engineer with the French Army. They lived in Sfax and later Beja, and Dobie continued to paint, sending pictures to exhibitions abroad, including the Empire Exhibition of 1937. Despite civil unrest in Tunisia, and later the outbreak of the Second World War, they remained in Beja, keeping an open house to Allied servicemen. As fighting raged within miles of her home she slept with a dog beside her and pistol under her pillow for protection.

The occasion of Beatrix’s infrequent return visits to New Zealand were often reported in the press, on one visit in 1935 she commented in the Evening Post on life and art in Tunisia: “Life in a French colony is full of interest but it encourages the housewife in a woman more than an artist. [I] found [I] could not get into “casserole cookery” mood one minute and into painting the next.”

On the subject of art Beatrix said “Tunis was certainly a land of sunlight and a perfect place for painting. French art had experienced the cult for hypermodernism, but it was now coming back to a true form, enriched by the experience of its adventuring. People were realising that pictures without drawing, colour or form were not “liveable” with.”

While not in the first tier of New Zealand’s expatriate artists, Beatrix certainly achieved some success as an artist in her lifetime, and deserved the epitaph a ‘varied career of unusual interest’ bestowed upon her by the Evening Post when reporting her death in Tunisia in 1944.

The HBMT holds another work by Beatrix – an undated, untitled landscape, possibly of a Hawke’s Bay scene. We also have a work painted in 1911 of Hawke’s Bay farmer and industrialist William Nelson which has been on loan to us from the Napier Borough Council since 1940. In 2002 Whangarei Art Museum held an exhibition on Beatrix and her father called Portraits of Place, with loans from HBMT (including North African Coast).

Dobie. B. W.M. Nelson Esq, Waikoko, Tomoana c1911 on loan from Napier Borough Council40/21

If anyone knows the whereabouts of other works by Beatrix Dobie painted in Malta and North Africa, or knows more about her connections with Hawke’s Bay please get in touch.