Out on his bicycle selling Rawleighs products
door-to-door in Greymouth in the sixties, Toss
Woollaston could only dream of becoming a
Complaining of his lot to Dunedin patron
Charles Brasch in a letter in the early months of
1965, he was surprised to receive the first of what
would become quarterly payments. This
beneficence enabled Woollaston to stop hawking
household cleaners and develop his artistic career.
Coinciding with the opening of Barry Lett Galleries,
Brasch’s financial support gave Woollaston the
opportunity to travel in the North Island collecting
landscape subjects for his first solo exhibition in
Auckland in November of that year.
Having grown up in Taranaki “under a dreaming
blue sky”, it was this region he travelled to from
the South Island to refresh his landscape style.
“The place seems to mean more and more to me”
he wrote to his wife Edith in 1966. There were
many commentators who felt that there was no
mileage left in regionalism and Woollaston made
a determined effort to shift away from descriptive
topographical painting to try and capture the
energy inherent in the geomorphology of the land
itself. Art critic (and Distinguished Alumnus of
The University of Auckland), Ian Wedde, praised
Woollaston’s ability to capture the turbulence
and vitality of creation, as well as its massive calm.
For the benefit of those who made disparaging
remarks about his muddy palette, Woollaston
explained that he wanted to paint the colour of
the earth after it had absorbed the heat of the sun.
This sensual and empathetic approach to depicting
specific localities distinguishes his work from the
realism of his contemporaries.
Woollaston’s parents were fundamentalist
Christian sharemilking dairy farmers, and he was
born in rural Huinga near Toko in Taranaki. In his
book Sage Tea he reveals the repressiveness of
his upbringing – the beverage of the title was
administered to him as his mother’s cure for
adolescent sexual impulses. In 1928 at the age
of 18 years he escaped to pick fruit on a Nelson
orchard and took art lessons from Hugh Scott.
Travelling to Dunedin to benefit from the
enlightened modernist approach of Robert
Nettleton Field at the art school there, he
developed his signature expressionist technique
alongside Colin McCahon and Doris Lusk.
Marrying fellow artist Edith Alexander, he settled
into art and orchard work in the Nelson region
until a young family precipitated the move to
Greymouth and a more stable income.
His surviving correspondence from 1965 shows
how family drew him back to Taranaki in that year:
“My father is 85 and anxious that I should go and
see him for what he believes may be the last time,”
he writes. English-born John Woollaston lived
for another decade, but the mid-sixties return
to Taranaki enabled his son to establish two
important leitmotives – Bayly’s Hill and Mt Egmont
– which he would make repeated and systematic
use of in his painting for the next decade. Selling
325 pounds worth of work in his Barry Lett Gallery
exhibition that year, he continued his exploration
of the region until he reached a culmination point
with the solo exhibition “Woollaston: A Taranaki
Excursion” at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in
New Plymouth in 1977.