Distinguished art historian and University of Auckland graduate Roger Allan Blackley died in Wellington on 15 May 2019. His was a national and international reputation built on a substantial body of publications and exhibitions which made him a specialist in the field of colonial New Zealand art.
Born in the Wairarapa in 1953, he graduated with a Master of Arts in Art History with First Class Honours from the University of Auckland in 1978, and was first employed in the Art History Department at the University to document and produce a checklist of exhibitions at Auckland art galleries. He was appointed Curator of Historical New Zealand Art at the Auckland City Art Gallery shortly afterwards in 1983, and remained in that role for fifteen years. His thesis, an exhaustive study of the painting and lively writing of the nineteenth century landscapist Alfred Sharpe (1836-1908), was published as the exhibition catalogue to accompany the exhibition The Art of Alfred Sharpe at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1992.
Blackley’s other exhibitions at Auckland Art Gallery included the nationally touring exhibition of the work of Albin Martin (1813-1888), organised to mark the centenary of Martin’s death in 1988, and as part of the sesquicentennial commemorations of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1990, Blackley created the landmark exhibition Two Centuries of New Zealand Landscape Art. He also produced a monograph on pictorial panoramas of Auckland and contributed to a study of Paul Gauguin’s relationship with Māori art before producing his landmark book on the artist Charles Frederick Goldie (1870-1947) in 1997.
Blackley’s argument in Goldie was a challenge to the orthodox art historical view that the artist’s paintings were racist and patronising. Instead he demonstrated the control which Goldie’s Māori subjects had over how they were depicted, and documented Māori veneration of his skill as a portraitist of elderly kuia and kaumatua. Now in its fourth printing, Blackley’s substantial book on Goldie made him an authority on the artist, and led to television and radio interviews about forgeries and thefts of the artist’s work.
In 1998 he became an art history lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, and he quickly became a highly regarded teacher while continuing to publish on collections, contributing to the Scala publication on the Auckland Art Gallery as well as producing two exhibitions with catalogues for the Adam Art Gallery. His research on cultures of collecting in the Victorian and Edwardian periods led him to complete a doctoral dissertation on the topic in 2016 which was published by Auckland University Press last year as Galleries of Maoriland: Artists, Collectors and the Māori World. In it, he expands understanding of the era by showing how collectors and exhibitors here were part of a global network of artists, patrons, collectors, dealers and writers. The book was described as “a work of intellectual distinction which represents a significant archival campaign and a refined understanding of the social and historical setting” by Tim Barringer of Yale University.
Roger Blackley’s wit and depth of knowledge has been greatly appreciated by both his students and the wider community of art historians in Aotearoa/New Zealand and his death is a huge loss.
Written by: Linda Tyler, Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts, The University of Auckland
Image courtesy of Robert Cross, Victoria University of Wellington