City with Orange River
Aerial mapping work carried out as part of National Service in Britain
after World War Two later proved influential for Robert Ellis’s art.
Abstracted cities began to emerge as images in his painting a few years after his
migration to Auckland to work at the Elam School of Fine Arts in 1957. A visit
to Spain in 1961-62 triggered depictions of buildings seen through windows, then
roads and rivers were introduced as linear connectors in a series of gouaches and
ink drawings. Finally in 1964, under the influence of the landscape colours and
Aboriginal art seen on a visit to Australia, the motorway series was inaugurated.
Spaghetti cities overlaying orange plains and rivers dominated his work for the next
decade.Writing the foreword to the catalogue that accompanied Robert’s 1965
Barry Lett exhibition, Hamish Keith read portents of doom into these motorway
images: “The city in which we live, as young and small as it is, already demonstrates
the seeds of its eventual corruption. A hardening, as it were, of the urban arteries.”
Yet Ellis’s paintings seem much more celebratory than this. Buying his first vehicle
with the proceeds of the sale of some paintings in 1958, Ellis learned to drive on
Auckland’s now famously clogged motorways, which were then new and exciting.
The first one between Ellerslie and Mt Wellington had only been opened in 1953;
the next, from Great North Road to the Lincoln Bridge came into being as the
nascent Northwestern in 1955 and the third motorway, the mighty Southern,
shortened the journey from Mt Wellington to Wiri in 1956. In 1959 came the
ultimate symbol of modernity to crown the achievement of Auckland’s efficient road
system, the Harbour Bridge to the North Shore, where Ellis chose to live after 1970.
Marrying artist Elizabeth Mountain (Ngapuhi, Ngati Porou), an Elam graduate
from Kawakawa in the Bay of Islands, Ellis began to learn about Maori culture.
Traffic systems were superseded by depictions of beautiful Te Rawhiti Marae
and Rakaumangamanga (Cape Brett Peninsula northeast of Russell) from 1974
onwards in his work.
Though he retired as Professor and Head of the Painting Section at Elam
School of Fine Arts in 1994 (after a teaching career at The University of Auckland
that had spanned 37 years) Robert continues to paint and hold solo exhibitions
in Auckland. City with Orange River is currently on loan to the Whangarei Art
Museum as part of an exhibition of works by Buck Nin and Robert Ellis.