Since the 1960's, Warwick Brown and his late wife Kitty amassed a collection of hundreds of works, acquiring pieces by some of the country's most celebrated artists.
It was a case of right place and right time for the couple, as the 1970s were what Brown describes as a “boom time” in New Zealand art.
In May a large portion of their collection is going under the hammer at the fine art auction house Mossgreen-Webb’s.
Brown’s interest in art began when he was six years old, browsing through an art book belonging to his father and finding himself drawn in by a surrealist painting.
After returning in the late 1950s from a formative trip to England and Europe where he visited some of the world’s best art galleries, Brown told his father he wanted to go to Elam and become an artist.
Brown remembers his father’s face falling when he told him of his decision. He challenged Warick to name one living New Zealand artist who was making a living as an artist.
“It wasn’t a boom time then for contemporary artists, but what he didn’t know is that the boom time was about to start,” Brown says.
His father’s words stuck with him and while still feeling a deep frustration about not becoming an artist, Brown pursued a career in law instead.
“I decided I couldn’t be an artist and I had some money and there were not many people around buying art, so I thought I’d get into the equation from the other end, so that’s what I did from 1969 onwards.”
The first piece he and his wife Kitty bought was an abstract landscape piece by John Papas.
“By 1969 we had paid for the fridge and the stereo and we had a little bit of spare cash so I decided it was time to buy some proper New Zealand art… Kitty was agreeable to me spending a few modest dollars on this John Papas.”
Brown says he and a few of his peers were early starters as art collectors.
“It wasn’t until the late ‘60s and ‘70s that another group of young people, amongst whom I was one, who had disposable income - because we weren’t paying $2m for our houses in Auckland back then - decided that these artists were really great and we should support them and we started buying them.”
Building an art collection was never about money for the Browns, they were more interested in supporting young emerging artists.
“This sounds too hard to believe but the truth is we all realised - us early band of collectors in the ‘70s - we realised we were a part of something truly exceptional, which was a flowering... of creativity in contemporary New Zealand art, which has not been parallel since.
“So many artists came to the fore all at once. Pat Hanly, Robert Ellis, Nigel Brown, Todd Wollaston, Colin McCahon…”
When Brown has a visceral reaction to an artwork, he knows he needs to add it to his collection.
“The artist’s invisible hand reaches out from the work and applies pressure to my throat and I find it difficult to breathe and I get heart palpitations and then I realise that I’ve got to buy this piece.”
He says the New Zealand art scene has evolved considerably since he first started collecting.
“In the ‘70s these artists were there, they had been around in the background waving their arms, waiting for someone to recognise… But we’re now in a different phase where hundreds of young artists are being trained and I get a great joy out of looking at their work; deciding who’s really good and needs support and then buying their work and maybe writing about it and helping them get into the art market by talking about their work to other people and that sort of thing. It gives me a nice warm feeling.”
Brown says his earlier frustration with not becoming an artist has lessened in recent years because he has been able to spend his retirement making art and has produced 400 works since the year 2000.
The decision to sell paintings, prints and photographs from their collection was influenced by the sale of the Tim and Sherrah Francis Collection last year, and the death of Kitty in August.
“When Kitty died, I was really distressed and I’m 77 years old, so I don’t have too many more decades to live. I thought, ‘what am I going to do without Kitty for the rest of my life?’, so I thought, ‘well I’ll sell the art collection and I’ll start a whole new phase, I’ll start at the bottom again and I’ll enjoy being at the starting level again and as a by-product, I’ll end up with a nice catalogue of our life together collected as well’.”
He is looking forward to contributing to the cataloguing of the collection, and sharing anecdotes of his life with Kitty, and their collection from the last 50 years.
“It’s important to me to get that collection all together, on the wall and subject it to critical scrutiny from not only buyers, but other knowledgeable people, because I’m really proud of it.
“I think it’ll look really fantastic all put together in one place. I’ve never seen it all in one place before because there is too much of it. I had to spread it around.”
The auction means Brown will be parting with some of his favourite pieces, including a work by Don Driver, which hung in his office for 10 years.
“It had so much internal complexity hiding under a very mundane initial impression… and that’s what I like about an artwork, you have to put your own effort into it to get some real feedback out again. That is my definition of a real masterpiece.”
He feels similarly towards a Colin McCahon painting, despite not liking McCahon’s work initially.
“One day I realised I had been looking at the wrong end of his work and it all of a sudden fell into place. Now I think he’s one of our very finest artists and that is because his work is profound and has hidden complexities and links to other works of his, which you only learn over time by looking and thinking and reading and studying.
“And you might say, well what good is a piece of art that requires that sort of input from the viewer? And my answer is that’s the only sort of work of art that you should be bothering with.”