Sarah Hillary, principal conservator at Auckland Art Gallery, has spent much of her life examining, scrutinising and restoring other people’s paintings. In the process, she has acquired an intimate understanding of the idiosyncratic methods and techniques of some of our most regarded artists. Such as Colin McCahon who, for a period, used house paint stiffened with sawdust and whose surfaces, under the microscope, can have a lunar-like quality. Or Rita Angus, whose surfaces Hillary describes as “jewel-like…down to a microscopic level, very tidy”. Or Frances Hodgkins, who constantly modified her work, so that microscopic analysis reveals myriad layers concealed beneath the final image. “I have a cross-section of the Spanish Shrine that shows 23 layers,” says Hillary.
In recent years, Hillary has begun to practise as an artist herself, holding her first exhibition in 2003, when she was in her late 40s. “I was of the generation that you were only allowed to do art [at school] if you were in the lower streams. The only way I got into art was after I wrote ‘to hell with Hutton’ on the blackboard and got thrown out of Latin.”
Hillary first went to university to study the sciences but changed to the arts, graduating with a BA in art history and eventually combining both art and science in a Masters of Applied Science (Conservation of Painting) at the University of Canberra.
When she first began to paint herself, she opted for an uncommonly common surface—pipi shells. “They have this wonderful surface. It’s just like gesso, but in a natural form.” More specifically, for an exhibition last year, she painted mountains on pipi shells—miniature versions of mountains as they had featured in the background in the works of key mid-20th century New Zealand paintings, particularly those by female artists. She painted, for instance, a diminutive version of the mountain in the background of Rita Angus’ Cass, and the mountain in the background of her watercolour, Tree. She painted the mountains of Rita Lovell-Smith, Doris Lusk and Olivia Spencer-Bower and then named them after the artist—Mt Rita, Mt Doris, Mt Olivia. She describes them as “little peaks”. “In a way they are the mountains of our art history.”
Hillary’s approach must have been partly informed by her day job, which requires scrupulous attention to the details of 20th-century New Zealand art. That she chose to paint mountains must also have had something to do with her upbringing, as the daughter of the world’s most famous mountaineer. “Well, I love mountains,” she says. “I’ve spent a lot of time around them. I like being there. I like paintings of them.”
We met in Hillary’s Grey Lynn home, a former worker’s cottage, elegantly and austerely furnished, and unbelievably neat. She brought out a scrapbook made by her great-great-grandmother Ida Fleming, dated 1875, which she inherited after her father’s death last year. Each page could be described as a preserved work of floral art, of decoratively arranged pressed native ferns. As she explains, pteridomania, or fern-fever, gripped Victorian ladies in the late 19th century. Botany was very much in vogue, particularly ferns, not only as a decorative motif but as something that could be pressed prettily into a scrapbook.
“I thought the scrapbook was beautiful. I had a great time looking through it. I told my aunt about it, and she said, ‘But Sarah, fresh ferns are much nicer!’…She’s a botanist.” The scrapbook prompted Hillary to paint watercolours of the pressed specimens, which she then mounted beneath the paintings of mountains—“a bushy undergrowth to the snowy peaks”. Clearly she has an inclusive approach to her choice of references, combining New Zealand’s greatest 20th-century artists with her great-greatgrandmother’s scrapbook. “It was lovely to have the family connection. And I love this idea that she had just got to New Zealand, from Ireland, and ended up in Dargaville, where she gathered ferns.”
At the time of the interview, Hillary was preparing for her exhibition (opening this month at the Anna Miles Gallery in Auckland) called Dragon Ferns, in which she plans to reprise the still life, only with dragons, Tibetan ceramics and, as the title suggests, ferns. “In the 19th century, still life was considered the lowest form of art, while idealised forms were considered the highest,” she says. “But I like the way still life is very domestic. I like domestic things… One of the things about still life is that it has all this data about what people found attractive, what they valued.”
And while her father is internationally renowned for his grand-scale gestures, the daughter has built her reputation working with the miniature details, of art and life. Did Sir Ed ever actually understand her line of work? “I don’t think he had any idea what I actually do, but was just pleased I did something. But he’d been to art galleries.” She smiles. “He knew what he liked.”