Douglas MacDiarmid: Coming full circle

A sense of place is important to most of us and particularly so for expatriates such as painter Douglas MacDiarmid who lived most of his life in France but never lost touch with his ‘New Zealandness’.

On the eve of his centenary, Takapuna Library’s specialist Angela Morton art history collection has drawn from its substantial trove of MacDiarmid materials and memorabilia to profile this remarkable expressionist painter’s connections to his homeland, and especially to the Auckland North Shore and Piha communities, through his art, writings, photographs, significant friendships and other personal memorabilia. 

Image: Douglas MacDiarmid with Bathers, early 1960s. Private collection. 

Douglas Kerr MacDiarmid was born in Taihape on 14 November 1922, the younger son of Dr Gordon and Mary MacDiarmid. He read prolifically, drew and painted from a young age, enthralled by sensuality and the beauty of landscapes and the human form, and had a fervour for the ancient world as the source of our civilisation, culture, language. These are influences that imbue his work.

He graduated from Canterbury College, Christchurch with an arts degree in Music, English Literature, Languages and Philosophy. Here, Douglas “came alive” in an older circle of artistic, literary and philosophical thinkers, his self-taught appetite for painting fired by mentors Evelyn Page, Rita Angus, Theo Schoon and Leo Bensemann and his view of the world increasingly shaped by exiled Jewish intellectuals from war-torn Europe.

Like many inquisitive, adventurous young folk of his generation, as soon as the war was over, young Douglas headed abroad to “devour the world”.

His parents chose a change of life too – from the constant load of a large rural medical practice, to a city surgery at 5 Lake Road, Takapuna and a suburban mansion up the road at 216 Lake Road. The North Shore of Auckland became home; they later retired to Roberts Avenue, then finally Lady Allum home.

Approaching Auckland from the sea on his return from Europe early in 1949, Douglas saw his homeland with new eyes:

“Had no idea it would be like this to come back – the first glimpse of the country – islands beyond the coast, but with that scorched golden tussock taking light up & down spurs & mountain sides – rocky cliffs, & rough outlines, shoals of fish, sunlight & seabirds, & coming down the harbour with little houses among pines, the black & green vegetation up Rangitoto – looking at the gay little houses & wondering where in all this poignant powerful empty poetry was Dad’s house, & what does it all have for us here…”

His parents’ place was “a paradise of a house – cool, shuttered, on a cliff looking down the harbour, & at Rangitoto, pine, red roofs, & all changes of sea…”

Image: The MacDiarmid house at 216 Lake Road, Takapuna, around 1950. Angela Morton Room collection.

By this time, the cultural heart of the country had shifted from Christchurch and many of his friends in that inspiring circle that nurtured him had dispersed north. In Auckland, he reconnected with poet Allen Curnow and his artist wife Betty, poet Helen Shaw and her art photographer husband Frank Hofmann, and these comradeships continued. Douglas’ new social circle embraced other familiar creative figures on the Auckland scene, such as writer Frank Sargeson, artist Molly Macalister and fellow painters Dennis Knight Turner and Una Platts.

Betty Curnow’s art prints on the walls of Takapuna Library’s Angela Morton Room are a poignant reminder of their good friendship. 

At the end of 1950 however, after anguishing over what life held for him in New Zealand, with no certainty of ever making a living as an artist, Douglas returned to France to dedicate his life to paint. Gradually, through hardship and tragedy, he forged an international reputation but visited and exhibited in New Zealand regularly.

Once established in France, he exhibited there at least every two years, as well as showing in London, Bristol, New York, Connecticut, Morocco and Athens. His paintings can be found in New Zealand and French public art collections and private collections all over the world

Before Douglas settled abroad, his parents had bought a holiday cottage at Piha, overlooking the beach, in the hopes of anchoring their son in this beautiful spot. That did not work, but their best efforts were not in vain: they enjoyed a happy semi-retirement in the beach house for many years before age and frailty brought them back to the city, while notebooks of sketches Douglas made on visits home became the inspiration for several series of Piha paintings, including the major ‘Creatures in Space’ theme meditating on the human condition.

Image: Douglas and his mother Mary on Piha Beach, 1960. Angela Morton Room collection.

As well as being a sought-after painter, known for his mastery of colour and artistic diversity, this strikingly tall, charmingly courteous and erudite individual was also a published author and poet. 

Of course, he had his detractors and was an easy target for art critics who could not categorise a painter who changed his style and approach from abstract to figurative with ease to suit the subject of the moment. His popular appeal in the media might also have had something to do with their lack of appetite for his work – he was talkative, funny, articulate and passionate. When they wanted an artist to interview, MacDiarmid was always good for an engaging quote or point of view.

In 1990, Douglas was brought back to New Zealand as an official guest and a solo exhibiting artist for the nation’s Sesquicentennial celebrations. He was declared a ‘New Zealand Living Cultural Treasure’ on that visit and, while in Auckland, sat for an official portrait by Jacqueline Fahey, one of the first five painted for the fledgling New Zealand Portrait Gallery. The first sketch for this study, made at Fahey’s home studio in Titirangi Bay, appears in the exhibition, from an Auckland private collection.

The completed portrait cleverly shows a contemplative figure, looking both ways, looking forwards and backwards between two worlds at a time when his beginnings and wanderings were eventually pulling together. “Your vision of two hemispheres, two aspects, have taken you an amazing distance indeed. Bravissima”, Douglas wrote to thank his portraitist.

Image: Douglas MacDiarmid, painter, Paris 1991 by Jacqueline Fahey.  Image from: Anna Cahill. Colours of a life: the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid. (Auckland: Mary Egan publishing, 2018). The written inscription on the painting reads: ‘Douglas MacDiarmid, the expatriate, who had to leave in order to understand what it was he left. There was no other way – then’.

Although Douglas MacDiarmid slipped under the radar of mainstream New Zealand art history for decades because he chose to pursue his painterly vocation overseas, references to his work and life can be found throughout this country’s serious art literature – Landfall Literary Journal, Art New Zealand, New Zealand Year Books to name a few of the titles mentioning the painter in the Angela Morton collection. His presence on the Kiwi art scene is substantiated by 41 solo exhibitions held in New Zealand alone between 1949 and 2018.

Image: From the ‘Journeys & Gateways – Art and the Millennium’ 1999 exhibition catalogue, Ferner Galleries. Angela Morton Room collection.

Douglas MacDiarmid’s loyalties reflected the extraordinary post-WWII generation of New Zealand painters, writers, musicians and creative thinkers to which he belonged. When Auckland poet Riemke Ensing was thinking of writing a tribute to their mutual friend Helen Hofmann after her death, Douglas promptly penned a beautiful letter of remembrance that is part of the exhibition. He was very fond of ‘Hella’, whom he first met when as a schoolboy boarder in Timaru, and was delighted when she married his wartime immigrant friend Frank Hofmann. 

Image: Portrait of MacDiarmid by Frank Hofmann December 1968. Angela Morton Room collection. 

Discussing his origins in the 2006 French documentary film of his life, work and beliefs ‘A Stranger Everywhere’, Douglas observed that “you don’t snakelike cast off your former skin”. 

“My experience in France has put me at ease here, but as I’ve said quite often in conversation before, I will never and can never forget that I am a New Zealander, but I do often forget that I am not French. I am constantly brought up to realise the fact that I am not French by reactions everywhere. And my accent in French will never be completely convincing. My hopes for being a spy in the next war are completely lost!”

MacDiarmid rarely engaged in collaborative projects, but when he did the results were splendid. His last creative liaison was with C.K Stead in 2017, illustrating the writer’s wonderful hand-pressed collection of poems, In the Mirror and Dancing in his term as New Zealand Poet Laureate.

Image: Douglas’ evocative cover drawing, In the Mirror and Dancing, 2017. Angela Morton Room collection.

There was another significant string to MacDiarmid’s bow, as one of New Zealand’s last great letter-writers. An enormous correspondence kept him in touch with folk at home. This was his life thread, the anchor as it were, particularly after his parents died, through which he kept abreast of people, happenings and social changes in the community. Being an expatriate with a penetrating interest in all things New Zealand, and a passion for people, he often had a better grasp of what was occurring in New Zealand than many who lived there.

Douglas’ longest and fullest communication was with his close friend and first great love, the composer Douglas Lilburn. A selection of his letter extracts and poems Letters to Lilburn – Douglas’ MacDiarmid’s conversations from the heart written between 1944 and 2001 has been published for the centenary.

He painted every day in his Paris studio and exhibited regularly into his nineties. 

At the time of his death in France on 26 August 2020, almost 98, Douglas MacDiarmid was acknowledged as New Zealand’s longest-lived and longest-working painter. He is also considered to be one of the most technically and formally accomplished, imaginative, and intellectually and philosophically sophisticated artists to emerge from this country. Douglas is survived by Patrick, his Guadeloupean partner of 52 years who made him complete.

The exhibition Coming full circle – A Centenary tribute to Douglas MacDiarmid (1922-2022) is open daily in the Angela Morton Room at Takapuna Library, from 3 November to 29 November 2022, as part of a national MacDiarmid Centenary Art Trail of activities from Dunedin to Auckland.

We also invite you to join us at the launch of Letters to Lilburn on Wednesday, 16 November, from 6-7.30pm. Please email RSVP for catering purposes to

Takapuna Library Angela Morton collection sources:

MacDiarmid by Dr Nelly Finet (Paris), art history monologue (2002)

‘A Stranger Everywhere’ documentary film by Eric Grinda (2006)

Strangers Arrive – Emigres and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930-1980 by Leonard Bell (2017)

Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, by Anna Cahill (2018) 

Letters to Lilburn – Douglas MacDiarmid’s conversations from the heart, compiled by Anna Cahill (November 2022)

Author: Anna Cahill

Auckland-born Anna Cahill is based in Brisbane Australia. She is Douglas MacDiarmid’s biographer, niece and a director of the MacDiarmid Arts Trust that exists to manage the artist’s copyright matters and to protect and nurture his creative legacy.