Foreword to works by artist Robert Ellis

This painting from 1966 is representative of the great body of works by Robert Ellis.

This painting from 1966 is representative of the great body of works by Robert Ellis.

Robert Ellis has created an intense, subtle and exciting series of paintings. It is a sustained creative endeavour of great rich­ness, encompassing individual works of vigour and delicacy, technical brilliance, and sensitive, powerful vision. At the core of this vision is an idea of the city as the graphic symbol of a recurring material, organic and ideal complex. The city image can be a symbolic extension of the human being set in a vast world landscape, or a symbol of the world itself set in the infinite cosmos.

The earliest paintings of the series are straight records: Spanish cities, villages, houses, walls and roof tiles. Then the vision concentrates; it is focussed by a window, or compressed by a narrow street, the initial vision becomes a symbol: a thing condensed, but with the meanings and full implications of the larger thing. It is an element of life among the forms and forces of the land, giving the earth itself a scale of human relevance.

The whitewashed, blistered walls of central Castile have common currency with an Otago town, with Auckland from a hill­top, Wellington from the sea, and Christ­church from the air. These paintings show the hard line of the New Zealand horizon and the clear brutal light common both to here and to Spain. Some show the sky itself as a counter symbol to the city: the manifest void and the focus of life, in the earth expanse beneath it.

Within the series, fascinating themes and variations are explored: the city divides like a reproducing cell, creating rhythms of dualism or parent-child relationships; the wall motif enters, both as a barrier and as a repoussoir, both screening off and articu­lating the city beyond it; a river appears in some of the later paintings. But these variations expand and enrichen the taut continuity of the series, instead of diverting the vital current into rivulets of precious irrelevance.

The paintings of Robert Ellis are mature and in no way parochial. From the technical aspect alone they represent an impressive and highly developed achievement. The medium of gouache is pushed to its limits  in order to express the scope and depth of the principal theme. This series extends from the initial inspiration drawn from perceived phenomena of our exterior world to the pole of an expressive interior world belonging to one human being. The link between these worlds is the work of art, which contains elements of both: interior symbolic forms expressed in the materials of the external world. New and different works of art are created when either one of these poles is shifted. Robert Ellis may take up new themes, or he may further develop this same city theme in different media. But what results will be new, and the internal relationship of these paintings to one another will remain intact.

The paintings on exhibition were selected from over 250 works done in 1962-1963. It contains the most significant achievements of a complete year in the life of a gifted, perceptive and expressive person. As such it possesses an impressive sense of unity, but moreover, each painting has its own character, and has within itself the essential coherence of a unique and mean­ingful work of art.


Robert Ellis was born in Northampton, England, in 1929. His art training was at the Royal College of Art, London. He came to New Zealand in 1957 to take up a senior lecturing position at the Elam School of Fine Arts, a post he still holds. He has exhibited widely both here and overseas—this is his fourth one-man show in New Zealand—and has works in a number of public and private collections. In 1961-62 he lived and worked in Spain: this country is as much part of Robert Ellis as the England of his birth or the New Zealand of his home and work today. Although all of these various national elements could probably be detected in his work, they should always be thought of as being secondary to the intrinsic qualities of the works of art themselves. National bound­aries are political and geographical abstrac­tions, notoriously difficult to relate to art, which will always be the creation, not of periods or of nations, but of individual and aware human beings.

June, 1963