Portrait of James K. Baxter
Amongst the more than 1000 artworks in The
University of Auckland Art Collection, there are
some whose origins aren’t always clear, and it is
often fascinating to track down who they’re by
and how they ended up with us.
Although every work officially purchased for the
collection has been well documented by Keith
Sinclair, Robert Chapman, Michael Dunn and Peter
Simpson, who curated the collection for most of its
first four decades from 1966, there are other works
that have been bought by various departments
with University funds, or received as gifts, for
which we have very little or no record.
One such mystery work is a portrait of poet
James K. Baxter by Joseph Alach, which was gifted
to the General Library in 1975, presumably by the
artist, and is now cared for as part of the
Alach does not appear in any significant books
on New Zealand, in any of the main library
databases, or the National Library’s Papers Past
website which makes it possible to do an online
search of major New Zealand newspapers and
periodicals published from 1839 to 1945.
Nor does a Google search reveal much; the
online Australasian Art Sales Digest shows that
another 1973 painting, titled Ostend, Waiheke,
was put up for auction at Webbs, in 2005 but not
sold; and the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre
has digitised the publication Book and Print in New
Zealand: A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa,
which contains in the section on Croatian
publishing a mention of two short-lived
newspapers, Jedinstvo (Unity) and Vjesnik
(Messenger), published and edited by Joseph Alach
in 1942 and 1946 respectively.
A few years ago, that seemed to
be the end of the search for Alach,
short of ringing all 20 Alachs in the
phone book, which is hardly a
priority given the minor nature of
this painting. But in July on the
Auckland Art Gallery’s relaunched
website it was noticed that the E.H.
McCormick Research Library has
an artist file on Alach.
In it are three newspaper
clippings; a 1967 article in the
Central Suburbs Leader on the
artist’s second exhibition, held at
the Giotto Gallery, a New Zealand
Herald review by T.J. McNamara of
the same exhibition, and another
(undated) review by McNamara of
a subsequent show.
From these fragments, we can
establish a sketch of who the
The Central Suburbs Leader
article has a photo of Alach,
describing him as a Sandringham
resident who decided to teach
himself to paint after his retirement
five years earlier.
He is Yugoslavian, came to New
Zealand when he was 17 and
worked in the gumfields of Northland. He briefly
returned home after World War I and then
dabbled in a range of jobs including handcolouring
Although he hasn’t been home for many years,
most of his work depicts Yugoslavian scenes,
mostly from memory but some are from magazine
images or of New Zealand subjects.
McNamara notes that Alach’s drawing is not
very good and that the scenes painted from
memory, seen “with his inward eye”, are better
than those that are copied.
In the later review, from the inaugural exhibition
of the Spiral Gallery in Dominion Road, he is
described as a prolific primitive painter but the
reviewer wonders about the distinction between
what is truly naive and what is just badly drawn
with unsophisticated colour and composition.
Tantalised by this new information, we undertook
a renewed search, including the online Index of
New Zealand Art (INZART), launched by the Elam
Fine Arts Library in 2008 as a database of
In it, there are two references to Alach –
McNamara’s 1967 review and a 1998 Herald
article by Pat Baskett titled “The good the bad and
the folksy”, about an exhibition of folk art at
Lopdell House Gallery.
The latter story mostly focuses on exhibition
curator and folk art collector, John Perry, but also
talks to Dick Lyne, a 70-year-old who also took up
painting in his retirement. It notes that two works
in the exhibition, including one by Alach, were
previously owned by the late Tony Fomison, who
was a renowned painter and champion of
Baskett’s article notes that Perry contributed an
index of artists to Richard Wolfe’s 1997 book All
Our Own Work: New Zealand’s Folk Art, which
doesn’t include any work of Alach’s but does have
an entry in Perry’s section. Perry puts Alach as
living c.1896-1980 and has him also working as
a land agent, in a fish shop and running a
Two works are said to be owned by the
Onehunga Library, while Lopdell House curator,
Kate Wells, has in her exhibition records reference
to five paintings at the Onehunga Library - an
initial call to the library doesn’t confirm the
presence of any paintings, although it is suggested
that they may now be in the community centre.
Also in the Elam Archive is a small typed
catalogue from the exhibition at the Giotto
Gallery, which was run on Queen Street by
In this publication, Alach says: “I think it is the
nicest thing in one’s life to create something
beautiful. I know my pictures are not perfect in any
way, but they give me pleasure to paint them, and I
hope they might please someone else.”
As to why the work was gifted to the General
Library, that remains a mystery, as does the reason
he painted a portrait of New Zealand poet
James K. Baxter.
Baxter did live briefly in Grafton in the late
1960s, although it seems unlikely that the retired
Alach would have been amongst the druggies that
frequented his Boyle Crescent squat, and
biographer John Newton has no recollection of
Alach being amongst those in the Jerusalem
commune Baxter established next.
In 1972 Baxter, in poor health, left Jerusalem for
Auckland, where he died in a small commune, but
it is probably the subsequent headlines about the
passing of this renowned poet that caught Alach’s
attention for the portrait he painted soon after.
Elam Senior Lecturer, Sean Kerr, has also taken
an interest in Alach’s portrait of Baxter and
“remixed” it into a multimedia installation that has
the late Baxter talking to fellow poet Sam Hunt, as
portrayed by Robin White.
You can see this work in Sean Kerr’s survey
exhibition, which opens on 3 September at the Gus
Fisher Gallery and Artspace.