A new biography by Julie King, sponsored by Auckland Chartwell Trust, Olivia Spencer Bower: Making Her Own Discoveries sheds light on the Cantabrian artist who belonged to an iconic network of New Zealand artists in the 1930s (including Rita Angus, Ngaio Marsh, Rata Lovell-Smith, Evelyn Page and Louise Henderson).
Olivia was born in Cambridgeshire, England on 13 April 1905 and died in Christchurch, New Zealand on 8 July 1982. Her mother, Rosa Dixon, was an established painter and encouraged her to pursue art as a career.
Olivia travelled back to England to study drawing and painting at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, and also made an extended painting trip to France and Italy where she developed her skills. She returned to New Zealand in 1931, armed with a knowledge of early European Modernism and aligned herself with a circle of artists known as The Group. King says they were “able to make a notable contribution to life in New Zealand between the First and Second World Wars. They were distinguished by their independent attitude and shared commitment to work.”
Only five days before her death, she established the Olivia Spencer Bower Foundation, a Charitable Trust of which Perpetual Guardian is a proud trustee, together with the founder trustee, Malcolm Ott.
The Foundation administers The Olivia Spencer Bower Art Award – which since it began in 1987 has built a reputation as one of the most valuable and prestigious forms of sponsorship available to emerging New Zealand artists. The award is given annually but chosen biennially and its general purpose is to “encourage and promote New Zealand artists and sculptors with particular emphasis on future artistic potential rather than financial need.” Winners receive financial support, an artist’s studio and accommodation for 12 months. There have been 30 awards to date.
In Julie King’s book, the 2013 award recipient, Miranda Parkes said about the award: “I can tell it was set up by an artist who understood the artistic process. I feel free to do whatever I need to do to nourish my practice.”
Through her Charitable Trust, Olivia ensured that her legacy and contribution to the arts didn’t end with her death, and that she was able to support new generations of artists for decades to come.
• Olivia Spencer Bower: Making Her Own Discoveries, by Julie King. Canterbury University Press, $49.99.