John Drawbridge - New Zealand artist with a bold, joyful vision of the world

Obituary for John Drawbridge published in 'The Guardian' on Thursday, 25 August, 2005, by Robert Macdonald

John Drawbridge, the New Zealand painter and printmaker who has died in Wellington at the age of 74, was an artist whose talents gained public recognition very early on in his career. He was still a teenager when he was invited to accompany three older men on a memorable expedition into the Southern Alps. His companions were James K Baxter (New Zealand's most revered poet), the composer Douglas Lilburn and the photographer Brian Brake; all who have since gained international reputations.

They were employed by the National Film Unit to make a feature film, The Ascent Of Mt Aspiring. Sadly the project was abandoned when the main actor was killed in a plane crash. The precociously skilful and dramatic paintings that Drawbridge worked on during the six-week expedition into the mountains were hidden away in a folio for more than half a century until they were shown to the public in 2001, when the City Gallery in Wellington mounted a major retrospective of his paintings, etchings and mezzotints. This retrospective, Wide Open Interior, was a long overdue recognition of Drawbridge's wide-ranging contribution to New Zealand art, and to British art, too.

Drawbridge travelled to London in 1957 to study at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and his paintings and prints were soon being shown in a number of London galleries - the Redfern, Zwemmer and Piccadilly and the Royal Academy. After three years he went to Paris for a year with his English-born wife, the sculptor and silversmith Tanya Ashken, and studied in the studios of the printmakers SW Hayter and Johnny Friedlander.

Returning to London he was commissioned to paint a giant mural for New Zealand House in the Haymarket, and created a work which was remarkable for the way in which the spirit of the New Zealand landscape was conveyed through processes of abstraction influenced by Europe, America and Polynesia.

After Drawbridge returned to New Zealand in 1963 other major commissions followed, culminating in 1976 in the Beehive Mural which he made for New Zealand's new parliament building in Wellington. He demonstrated during this time an adventurous ability to explore new materials, painting on metal slats and using Perspex to transmit patterned lights through canvas forms.

But his striking early successes were followed by an artistic wilderness in his later life. Undoubtedly, this Wellington artist had put Auckland noses out of joint by cornering the market in major commissions, but there was more to his gradual exclusion than this. His paintings were poetic and concerned with colour and the often subtle effects of light. They were very unlike the darkly brooding effusions of his more famous contemporary, the Auckland-based painter Colin McCahon, and so did not fit neatly into curatorial ideas of what New Zealand painting should look like. They were a bit too international in spirit and perhaps a bit too joyful.

The Auckland Art Gallery, perhaps not uninfluenced by these concerns, turned down the idea of showing Drawbridge's retrospective in New Zealand's largest city three years ago. He was both too international and too little known in Auckland, seemed to be the implication. However New Zealand television made up for this graceless snub by embarking in Drawbridge's last two years on a documentary recreating the Mt Aspiring adventure of 1949, in which Drawbridge has the starring role. He was the last survivor of the group who travelled together through the Southern Alps, and he was flown in a helicopter to revisit places that they had climbed.

At the time of his death Drawbridge was working on a series of oil paintings for an exhibition in the Tinakori Gallery, Wellington, to mark the documentary's screening next February.

Tanya and their two sons Tony and Cameron, both artists, survive him.

John Drawbridge, artist, born December 27 1930; died July 24 2005