Christopher Edward Perkins (registered at birth as Edward Christopher) was born on 21 September 1891 at Peterborough, England, the son of John Edward Sharman Perkins, an agricultural engineer, and his wife, Margaret Charlotte Long. After attending Gresham Free Grammar School, he studied at the Heatherley School of Art, London, in 1907 and at an academy in Rome in 1908. He then enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art where Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Stanley Spencer and C. R. W. Nevinson were among his fellow students. By 1914 he was familiar with French post-impressionism, including the paintings of Cézanne, and was launched on his professional career. He was married that year, on 1 April in London, to Agnes Berry Shaw. There were three children of the marriage.
After serving in the First World War, during which he rose to the rank of acting captain, Perkins slowly returned to painting, and in the 1920s he and his family lived for a time in France. He published an essay, On museums, at St Tropez in 1925, and paintings of French subjects dated 1926 are recorded. Despite this absence from Britain, his work was becoming known there. He was supported in 1925, for example, by Roger Fry, A. M. Hind and William Rothenstein when he tried to gain a teaching position in Cape Town. He did not get the job and in the spring of 1927 was teaching in England, where he held a major but unsuccessful exhibition in London. One commentator noted 'a strict attention to the contours of objects, the way they cut against each other'. This technique would later be developed in New Zealand.
In 1928 Perkins was appointed to the staff of the Wellington Technical College under the La Trobe scheme (an attempt to improve the calibre of art teaching in New Zealand). He sailed from England with his family in January 1929, dreaming of a temperate South Seas paradise. With definite views on the making and purpose of art, he hoped to share in the birth of a New Zealand idiom, and was convinced that a different art would evolve in a different environment. Soon after his arrival he articulated the idea that the country's distinctive, harsh light would impose on artists a new perception of the landscape.
He was disappointed, however, with the standard of art – and of art criticism – in New Zealand, and would be startlingly frank in expressing his views. He was also unhappy with the level of work produced by some of his Wellington students. After a year he was able to relinquish the routine teaching of younger students, and in 1932 let his contract lapse. The family then moved to Rotorua.
Perkins exhibited regularly with the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts from 1929 to 1933. He held a major solo exhibition in 1931 and occasionally sent works elsewhere. In 1933 he visited Sydney, where he held another substantial exhibition.
Perkins stressed the importance of surface pattern in composition, shown for example in 'Silverstream brickworks' (1930) and 'Taranaki' (1931). The dramatic simplification of forms and the deliberate repetition of verticals and diagonals in these two works, and the analogies between the cranes and the labourers in 'Activity on the wharf' (1931), emphasised the picture plane and introduced new strategies into New Zealand painting. Conversely, his figures and portraits were strongly modelled and their physical presence was stressed. 'Meditation' (1931) is indebted to Picasso's classical period of the early 1920s, and there is a direct link between Perkins's portrait drawings and his Slade training. The genre studies of people working and the sometimes satirical drawings of urban life, which date from his Wellington years, anticipate the scenes of rural life that would become a major theme in his later painting. Conservative critics were often shocked by his rejection of conventionally picturesque subjects, but sympathetic reviews demonstrate that Perkins's example and his ideas were not wholly lost on the New Zealand public.
The family had moved to Rotorua because it was thought the climate would improve Berry Perkins's health, but the availability of Maori subjects was another attraction. Perkins greatly admired Maori art, and his portraits of Maori sitters are devoid of any hint of condescension. Nevertheless, some unpublished book illustrations and the combination of forms borrowed from Maori carving with human figures in 'Haka' may raise for later viewers the issue of cultural appropriation, or – in the case of 'Maori meeting' – exploitative exoticism. In working from the first version of this painting towards the final version (1932–34), Perkins placed more stress on the Maoriness of his subjects, removing some evidence of European influence and inserting what he considered to be more typically Maori details. Romanticism is here in clear conflict with his approach to landscape.
Perkins and his family returned to England in February 1934. He served again during the Second World War and also worked as an unofficial war artist. Two of his war pictures, reproduced in Art in New Zealand in 1943, demonstrate his continuing interest in genre subjects and in compositions articulated by strong patterning. He achieved a modest reputation as a portrait painter, showed occasionally at the Royal Academy of Arts and held numerous exhibitions, but never regained anything approaching the position he had occupied in New Zealand. An air of despondency blows through his poem 'Posthumous glory': 'It may be said the genuine genius touch / Was never mine.'
Christopher Perkins, a romantic at heart, was a striking figure whose normally unruly brown hair and craggy features are dramatically emphasised in numerous portraits and self-portraits. He died at Ipswich, Suffolk, on 8 April 1968, survived by his wife and three children. The formal values that underlay his work had challenged contemporary practice in New Zealand, and he stands as a key figure in the development of this country's art between the wars.