Audio description of Rita Angus’s ‘Douglas Lilburn’, 1945

Rita Angus, Douglas Lilburn, 1945, watercolour. Purchased 2022 with assistance from the Te Papa Foundation. Te Papa (2022-0002-2)


This three-quarter-length portrait is watercolour on paper, 34cm wide by 44cm high. It’s on loan to Te Papa from the Rita Angus Estate.

It was painted in 1945. Rita met composer and musician Douglas Lilburn in 1941. They developed a brief romantic relationship, followed by an enduring friendship. Rita would often write to him about the connections between his work as a composer and her paintings. She talked about the colours of the painting as being linked to the music he was creating.

Rita wrote to Douglas that this was ‘an intimate portrait’. It is delicate in colour and line, with an overall sense of softness and affection. She’s painted him as if he’s right next to her, to us. Away in the distance, there’s a scene familiar to both of them: the coastline below her cottage on Clifton Hill in Christchurch. It is a bright, still, lightly cloudy day.

Douglas was 30 years old when Rita painted him. He looks away to his right, a steady, thoughtful gaze from pale eyes. He has short, fair hair with a tumble of soft curls high across his fair-skinned forehead. Thin, white vertical lines on the rounded lenses of his plain framed glasses indicate glints of sunlight. Rita uses pale, soft whites to show how light falls on the right side of his face, and warmer tones on the other. He’s wearing an open-necked, casual white shirt. Soft blues and yellows outline its form and folds.

Behind Douglas, the softly paint-washed sky takes up the top quarter of the paper. It meets the sea below along a deep-purple horizon. There’s a curve of tussocky beach to our left. The sea splashes lightly blue onto the sandy shore.