Scots artist James McLachlan Nairn brought a much-needed freshness and vitality to New Zealand painting in the 15 years he lived here.
This selection of his works is presented in conjunction with the Community Gallery exhibition The Scots in New Zealand. Nairn strongly identified with his Scots background, and was often seen wearing a kilt and playing the pipes at the Wellington Art Club’s headquarters in Silverstream in the Hutt Valley.
James Nairn trained in Scotland and was associated with the progressive Glasgow School of painters, the ‘Glasgow Boys’. He emigrated to New Zealand for health reasons, arriving in Wellington in 1890.
From 1891 until his death in 1904, Nairn taught art at Wellington Technical College. In his work and his teaching, regarded as avant-garde by some, he introduced a modified form of French impressionism. This approach was more subdued in colour and with more regulated brush strokes, yet still sought to capture the immediacy of outdoor light, and particularly the effect of sunlight on outdoor forms.
In 1892, Nairn formed the Wellington Art Club, which focused its activities around Pumpkin Cottage at Silverstream in the Hutt Valley. There he felt able to freely pass on his ideas to pupils. Lectures were held, sketches were exhibited and criticised, and members were encouraged to draw from life. This was the first group of artists in New Zealand to insist on the importance of individual artistic expression.
Nairn was a firm believer in the ‘plein air’ style of painting, working outdoors, directly from nature. He urged his followers ‘to paint the thing as one sees it’. In a lecture in 1892 he said, ‘If we want art we must begin at the point where all great artists have begun – the study of nature from life or outside.’