Audio description of Rita Angus’s ‘Fay and Jane Birkinshaw’, 1938

Rita Angus, Fay and Jane Birkinshaw, 1938, oil on canvas. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (1998-0028-3)


Fay and Jane Birkinshaw is an oil painting on canvas, painted in 1938. It’s part of Te Papa’s art collection. It’s 69cm wide and 53cm high.

The two girls of the title – young, fair-skinned, bright-eyed, and fresh-faced, hair off their foreheads – sit side by side, elbows almost touching, against plumped blue cushions on a high-backed cane sofa.

Fay, who’s around 7 years old, on our left, has blue eyes and short, bouncy fair hair, tied with a thin red ribbon high across her brow. Jane, about 9, has brown eyes and short, straight brown hair, tied in the same way with a green ribbon.

A pale flush lights the sisters’ faces, as if someone has given them a quick dab with a warm facecloth. Their closed mouths are smiling enough to dimple their cheeks.

The sisters wear identical red and white checked dresses, with wide, soft, curved white collars. Their skirts flare out across their laps and the sofa – there’s no line to show where one starts and the other ends between them.

Each wears a green cardigan. These are really similar, though not exactly the same in shade or style.

Together, the girls support an open book across their laps, each holding it with her outer hand. Most of the book is out of frame, but there’s a bit of a picture low on one page.

Three dolls are displayed on a shelf up behind the sofa – evenly spaced, one seated at either side, and one standing between the girls’ heads. They’re all quite different. Rita dressed and draped them in dolls’ clothes and material.

The doll to the left seems to be a hard plastic. Her arms and a foot that sticks out under her skirt reach forward in a fixed position. She has black skin, and white dots for eyes. There’s a piece of blue material over her head, tied in a bow below her chin, and she wears a white apron over a red dress.

The middle doll is standing. Its head could be porcelain – it’s very white, its features and edges uneven, maybe chipped. Seams on the arms reveal its body as fabric. It’s got wide eyes with something of a surprised expression. A yellow, flat hat lies angled over the top of its head, with black and red detail at the centre. A piece of blue material draped across its shoulders is held in place at the front by a long silver pin. Its lower clothing is green.

The doll to the right is sitting. Her brown skin is fabric. Her bare arms stick out from her sides. She wears a tight blue cap with red tassel trim, a blue and white top, and green and red lower clothes. Her red shoes stick out towards us.

Arranged at the top of the painting, a few pieces of a green tea set seem to hover in the air against a light-brown wall. There’s an angular-style jug at each side, and two cups and a plate holding a layered iced biscuit float across the centre.