new zealand electronic poetry centre

Ursula Bethell


‘Sun went behind a cloud, Jan 24 th, 6pm’:
14 paintings by Ursula Bethell

Bronwyn Lloyd

'Sun went behind a cloud, Jan 24 th , 6pm'. You can almost hear the frustration in the words written by Ursula Bethell on the back of this small watercolour. The event described takes place on an early evening in high summer, the artist likely having spent a pleasant afternoon painting en plein air seated at the side of a track in a quiet corner of the New Zealand countryside. She has set up her easel and stool in this particular location because the parallel ruts of the track supply the painter with an ideal vanishing point, a satisfying compositional device that leads the eye toward the mountain range in the distance, its contours delineated by the late afternoon sun. Then, at the precise moment of 6pm, a cloud intervenes and the sudden change of light brings the painting session to an abrupt end. The watercolourist puts down her brushes, records the event and the time, and packs away her things.

This painting is one of 75 watercolours, drawings, and sketches in the Ursula Bethell archive at the University of Canterbury's Macmillan Brown Library. Better known as a poet and a patron of the arts, Bethell's own paintings, some incomplete and many unsigned and undated, nevertheless shed light on a little known aspect of her creativity.

The collection reveals an extraordinary breadth of subject matter and stylistic variation ranging from fairly conventional figure and flower studies to a group of impressionistic paintings of cloud effects, trees and townscapes that attempt to capture the fugitive effects of light and record the painter's rapid visual response to the scenes before her. A large part of the collection is diaristic in nature providing a painted record of Bethell's travels as a young woman to England and the Continent in the latter part of the19th century. Her experiences are represented in a number of pastoral and village scenes as well as in the many landscape paintings produced in Switzerland, England, and New Zealand during her brief return visits.

A number of preparatory sketches among the collection confirm the diaristic aspect of the works. There are, for instance, three variations of a ploughing scene on the slopes of the Jura. A note written by Bethell on the back of one work in the trio dated 13 November 1897 reads: 'This interesting picture represents ploughing on the lower slopes of the Jura with oxen and horses - As well to make a note of it lest should forget myself what it is meant to be'.

The sporadic dating of the works (only eight paintings among the collection have been dated by the artist) coupled with Bethell's extensive travels around Europe between 1889-1919 makes any attempt to create a chronological sequence of the collection virtually impossible. It looks as if Bethell herself attempted to order the works in 1943 with the assistance of her young friend Kathleen Davies (née Taylor) to whom she bequeathed the collection a short time later. The verso note on the watercolour 'The Junction of the Pahau and Hurunui [sic] Rivers' reads: ' Representing the Junction of the Pahau and Huranui Rivers done from above the gorge - about 1903 AD. Ursula wrote the above for me about 1943 - Kathleen Davies.'  

The selection of 14 images for the online exhibition is intended to illustrate something of the range of the works in the collection as a whole. Bethell's obvious skill in drawing is evident in the lovely pencil study, 'Sleeping Woman'. Her eye for composition is revealed through her inventive use of two trees as a framing device in 'Country Road, North Canterbury' that creates a doorway into the scene. A quite different compositional effect is generated by the crowded interior and skewed perspective in the enigmatic painting 'Interior, The Wilderness, Hampstead' where the triangle formed by the line of a sofa and a rug at the foot of a chair in which a woman is sewing direct the eye to a row of strangely animated plants on a window sill. Space and distance are successfully represented in the view of snow-covered mountains in 'Rural Landscape Switzerland No.2' their majesty emphasised by the contrast with the foreground of flat ploughed fields and a line of bare trees. An attempt to render movement, light and shade can be seen in the painting 'Trees in Dappled Shade'. The artist's delight in colour is expressed in the work 'Impression – Trees' in which one half of the paper is a mixing palette daubed with different shades of green which are then transferred into the shadowy forms of two elongated trees. Bethell's sensitivity toward the representation of people is seen in the delightful simplicity of the painting of a mother seated on a log holding her young child and, by contrast, in the artist's attention to detail in the painting of a shepherd dressed in white standing in his cottage doorway surrounded by climbing flowers and vines.

The extent of Bethell's experimentation with the medium of watercolour displayed in the completed works as well as in the unfinished technical exercises, like the unusual painting 'Cloud effects', reveal that she was more than a hobbyist or a Sunday painter. In a letter written to M. H. Holcroft in 1942, towards the end of her life, Bethell mentioned her 'frustrated desire to be a painter'.[1]

The recently published collection of the letters of painter Toss Woollaston, which includes a selection of correspondence to his friend and patron Ursula Bethell, reveal Bethell's acute critical eye and the intensity of her desire for Woollaston to commit seriously to painting as a vocation, to hone and refine his craft and to develop a critical faculty in relation to painting. A letter written to Bethell on 8 March 1937 highlights the effect that her fervour in this regard had on the young painter:

I regret that for discussions such as our late one (which you took away from me and pivoted on the fulcrum of the word 'mastery' in your sense) I am not able to be critically aware of my relation to painting in general. I am only aware of other painting, when it influences me, as something tempering and sharpening and conditioning my own instrument of perception.[2]

Perhaps Bethell's well-intentioned albeit slightly overbearing interest in Woollaston's painting practice was a transference of her own frustrated desire to be a painter. It is likely that Bethell felt that she never achieved the degree of proficiency or mastery over the medium that she desired and abandoned the idea of painting as a serious pursuit although she did continue to paint intermittently up until the1930s.[3]

Holcroft's 1975 monograph on Ursula Bethell's life and work offers a brief but useful account of Bethell's early years well before her mature life in Christchurch at Rise Cottage for which she is most widely known. We learn that in 1889 the then fifteen-year-old Bethell travelled to England where she attended Miss Soulsby's School for Girls in Oxford. She spent a further period of two years studying painting in Geneva and music in Dresden. Although there is no information available about the nature of her training in painting in either England or Switzerland the paintings themselves suggest something about the art education she may have received.

The classical beauty of the drawing of the sleeping woman suggests that Bethell had studied the work of the old Masters. A painting like 'Monument, England' is likely to have been generated at a group painting excursion to the local cemetery. These works signal the kind of drawing and painting classes that students at Miss Soulsby's school might well have undertaken. A degree of proficiency in art including drawing and watercolour painting would be viewed as suitable accomplishments for the young lady of refinement.

Miss Soulsby urged her students not to be content to lead a commonplace life but to resolve to live it nobly: 'to be the gold on the garment of Life, and not the mere stuff of which Fate weaves it.'[4] This could be achieved in part, God willing, through the cultivation of taste, constant attendance to the business of self-improvement and through the observation of the world using both outward and inward looking eyes.

In her 1903 publication, Stray Thoughts for Girls, which was dedicated to 'Girls at that awkward age', Miss Soulsby asserts that the acquisition of knowledge about art, music, or literature is not something that can be gained through independent thought:

It is not enough to like or dislike a book: we ought to train ourselves to like the best books. We do not think ourselves born judges in music or art; we submit to being trained before we think our opinion worth giving. It would be just so with a book, but you often hear girls quite sorry for the author if they find a book dull; they feel he is to blame! When I find an author dull, whom good critics admire, I feel pretty sure that I am deficient on that point, and I try to learn to see in him what they do.

She encouraged the girls to continue their education beyond school and to take up some special subject every three to six months and read several books on it:

The books, the music, the pictures in which you are interested here are not mere lessons to be shut up joyfully when you leave! They are the great interests and amusements of the friends whom you most value, and it would be very disappointing if you did not use your free time in making opportunities to carry them on better than at school, for you come here mainly to find out what interesting things there are in the world you are going into.

Ursula Bethell, it seems, followed Miss Soulsby's advice and continued to develop her interest in art and music, undergoing further education in Switzerland. The most prolific period of painting activity relates to Bethell's time in Switzerland. Over a third of the works in the collection are drawings and paintings of Swiss landscapes, alpine scenes, chalets, and villages along with a painting dated 15 January 1892 of the finishing school that she attended near Nyon.

The 75 paintings and drawings in the archive demonstrate Ursula Bethell's enthusiastic engagement with both subject and medium. While there is no evidence that she ever exhibited any of the works in the collection, the fact that the portfolio of images travelled back to New Zealand with her and appears to have stayed in her keeping for the remainder of her life and that even at her death the works were bequeathed as a set to her young schoolteacher friend, lends the collection a great deal of value. This is more important than any speculation about whether the paintings are good or great or whether Bethell might have had a viable career as a painter had she continued to develop and refine her skills in this discipline.

A photograph in the Macmillan Brown archive shows Ursula Bethell at the age of about 19 dressed formally and posed with her paint box, brush, and an easel displaying a selection of her paintings. It is an image of an accomplished young aquarellist. Ultimately Bethell chose poetry as her preferred form of creative expression but more than anything the collection of paintings provides some insight into the development of her painter's eye, which would later form such a vital part of her poetry.




1. M.H. Holcroft, Mary Ursula Bethell. Wellington: Oxford UP, 1975, 54.

2. Toss Woollaston, letter to Ursula Bethell 8 March 1937, Toss Woollaston: A Life in Letters. ed. Jill Trevelyan (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2004) 75.

3. In the wall text for the 2001 Ursula Bethell exhibition at the National Library, Wellington, curator Jill Trevelyan wrote that Bethell continued to paint until the 1930s. The lack of dates on the paintings in the collection, however, make it impossible to ascertain which works, if any, relate to this later period of activity.

4. Lucy H. M. Soulsby, Stray Thoughts for Girls. (1903) Project Gutenberg e-text, 2005. <>

The inventory of books in Ursula Bethell's collection compiled by Rosemary Brewer in 1995 for her University of Auckland MA thesis 'A Pilgrim in the Library: the Private Letters and Public Poetry of Mary Ursula Bethell',   includes a privately printed edition of The Letters of S.S.S and L.H.M.S (Mrs. and Miss Soulsby), 1929.


Last updated 22 May, 2005