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Juliet Peter A major influence in the New Zealand Art Scene

July 9, 2012

Juliet Peter‘s childhood was almost tragic. She saw it, however, as the catalyst for a creative life which began with drawing when she was barely out of infancy. She was born on her father’s sheep farm, Anama, in the Canterbury foothills in 1915. There was a big gap between her and the three other children in the family and she was sent, as a baby, to live with her mother’s sister and was happy there until her aunt’s death, while Juliet was still a pre-schooler. She was returned reluctantly to her birth parents. A governess gave her a love of words and she took pleasure from her pets and drawing.

By the time she was 11, both her mother, Violet, and her often absent father, Charles, were dead. Her elder sister took her to Kent, in England, where she lived until she was 19, including a brief period in boarding school. For pocket money, she sketched the neighbours’ houses.

With the help of a very practical Aunt, she was enrolled into the School of Arts In Christchurch studying for a diploma in the fine arts. Here’s a couple of her paintings of Wellington from the late fifties.

After the Second World War, Peter worked full-time for the School Publications Magazine, a unit of the Education Department in Wellington. She was one of the New Zealand School Journal’s most prolific designer/illustrators between 1946 and 1960, contributing hundreds of drawings and dozens of cover illustrations. Her line drawings and two-colour covers from the 1950s shaped the visual character of this magazine.

Her work demonstrates a strong interest in social and environmental issues and her subject matter is wide-ranging.  Here she illustrates the bush and wild-life around her Wellington home…

Creating  strong memorable images which speak of the artist’s love of people, animals and places, her art reflect a sharp wit and a keen, observant eye.

She met her future husband Roy Cowan when he, too, was working on school publications. Not long after they married in 1952, he won a two-year travelling scholarship and they went to London where he studied at the Slade School and she studied lithography and pottery part time at the Hammersmith School of Building and Crafts. They travelled – in a cheap old London taxi they bought – spent time in the Victoria and Albert Museum and were both influenced by Ken Clark, a New Zealander potting in London. Here are some of her London pieces.

Peter’s art practice combines an interest in painting, potting and printmaking.

I particularly like these two images. The former is called ‘ World of the Night Kiln Firers ‘ (1973) and is quite 2-D flat and poster-like. The oil fired kiln in their garden in Ngaio, Wellington. Roy is the one on the roof, Juliet is the other figure. The black cat was their cat Tinkerbell of 73. (They had a succession of Tinkerbells!)  The second image ‘ Circus Parade ‘ has much more form and shape with a wonderful circular movement to it, which is echoed in the yellow and blue sweeps of watercolour that surround the main focus, the Circus Tent. You get a real birds eye view of the whole event, with the Wellington skyline in the background.

Although I’ve not featured Juliet or her husband’s ceramic work in this post, I feel I must point out that they were both very influential figures in this area. On their return to NZ  in 1955, their most significant contribution to modernism was probably in terms of studio pottery – both through their own pottery, and their contribution to the New Zealand Potter magazine which they helped start in 1957. They are notable early stoneware potters who created ceramics outside the dominant tradition of stoneware that developed from Bernard Leach’s writings about Japanese ceramics, and which might be called Anglo-Oriental pottery.

In 1999 she was awarded the OBE in recognition for her outstanding contribution to the visual arts in New Zealand.  Juliet passed away in 2010, aged 94.

My thanks to Steve MacDowall, Maxine Bennett, Carter’s Antique Guide and for their help with this post.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2012 3:01 pm

    Juliet’s work is fantastic! She is new to me, hate to admit it, bc I’m sure she’s influenced many artists. Nice mix of styles and incorporation of printmaking with painting & love her charming London pieces. My very favorite painting may have to be that wonderful circus 🙂 Thanks for bringing yet another interesting influential artist to my attention!

  2. July 11, 2012 10:14 am

    wow, you have done a wonderful job of presenting Juliets work, so great to see her work in such good company-you feature some great artists

    • July 11, 2012 11:26 am

      Thanks Maxine, your images helped inspire me to look at her work again, so thanks for that. Hope this finds you well.

  3. January 10, 2014 12:47 am

    great blog. will email you a pic I have entitled tv One if you want it. was shown in the group exhibition in chch in the 60s.

  4. September 30, 2015 6:25 am

    One of the best artists who was a regular over the decades for New Zealand School Journal. A beautiful illustrator. She did many of the B/W covers of the 1940s along with E. Mervyn Taylor.

  5. October 26, 2019 12:39 am

    Thanks Simon, great piece on Juliet and her work. She will appear as part of an exhibition about NZ’s unofficial wartime artists, with reference to her work at the AEWS on the Army’s Korero magazine with Linwood Lipanovic, Bill Sutton, Jim Bowie and Russell Clark later in 2020.
    Like your site a lot. Thanks again for posting.

    • October 26, 2019 9:59 am

      Thanks Greg, it’s Craig not Simon lol Appreciate the news of your exhibition and I hope it goes well next year. Do send me some images if you get the chance.

  6. M-H permalink
    January 17, 2022 5:56 am

    Hello Craig. I have two of Juliet’s paintings in my home in Sydney. She was a long-time friend of my natural mother Margaret (Pat) Dennehy, their connection being that Pat worked as an editor on the School Journal. After Pat died in the late 90s I was given these paintings. My daughter in Palm Nth has a third one that I couldn’t bring with me. They are a great joy to me, and it’s always good to read more about Juliet and her life.

    • January 17, 2022 9:29 am

      What a lovely story and great connection. Thank you for sharing

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