A Matter of Taste: the Fate of the Archdeacon Smythe Collection of British Watercolours in New Zealand
Francis Henry Dumville Smythe, a humble clergyman from England, spent a lifetime amassing his private collection of watercolours. During the 1950s, he decided to gift them to two art institutions in New Zealand – Dunedin Public Art Gallery and the National Art Gallery in Wellington. They were welcomed with open arms and celebrated as “the finest collection of water colour pictures in the Southern Hemisphere.” However, they soon fell out of favour: rarely exhibited, the collection remains poorly understood and unexplored to this day. Was their initial praise simply a matter of taste?
This project looks at the rise and fall of the Smythe collection and aims to reveal the circumstances that led to its current low profile within its respective institutions. The collection itself will be analysed in depth for the first time, and the impact that changing artistic tastes have had on its status will be examined. In New Zealand’s case, these shifting tastes are symptomatic of the redefinition of national and cultural identity during the 1950s-1980s. How did this redefined national and cultural identity contribute to the continued drop in status of the Smythe collection in New Zealand? This dissertation considers the geographical contexts of both Britain and New Zealand and seeks to explore new ways of engaging with New Zealand’s public art collections, through combining the different research fields of watercolours, taste, and identity. While British watercolours are now mostly considered old fashioned, this thesis will find new ways of making them relevant again.