Page 1: Biography
Olds, Raymond Paul
Artist, art teacher
This biography, written by Pat Irene Winton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Raymond Paul Olds was born at Linwood, Christchurch, on 28 November 1922, the younger of twin boys of English-born parents James Olds, a tailor, and his wife, Ida Annie Saraski, who was of Polish Jewish descent. Paul grew up in Christchurch with three brothers and a sister. His mother owned a hairdressing salon, where he often worked after school. She has been described as a ‘big and scary lady’, and her four teenaged sons referred to her among themselves as ‘your mother’.
Paul attended St Andrew’s College as a day boy from 1930 to 1938. A loner, he spent time in the bush and was interested in learning about native plants and birds. When he was 11, a car ran into him as he was leaving school on his bicycle, and he was dragged along the road. Despite having plastic surgery over five years he was left facially scarred; as an adult the scar added to his charm.
From 1939 to 1943 Olds studied at Canterbury University College School of Art, graduating in 1944 with a diploma in fine arts. While continuing to paint, he taught for seven years at Christchurch Boys’ High School. At the Durham Street Methodist Church, where he sang in the choir, he met Joyce Keay. The couple were married in the church on 16 December 1944 and would have a son; they were divorced in 1965.
In 1951 Olds was awarded the first National Art Gallery Travelling Scholarship in Art for three years’ study overseas, which he took up at the Royal College of Art, London. He then studied at the British School at Rome and in 1955–56 at the Paris studio of Albert Feraud. He subsequently taught in London, and in 1958 held a solo exhibition at the prestigious Redfern Gallery.
After returning to New Zealand in 1958, Olds became an art lecturer at Wellington Teachers’ College. Before long he began to establish a reputation as a first-class artist and teacher. Using a number of mediums he developed an individual style, his abstract townscapes of hills and houses winning particular acclaim. Later he was said to be ‘a realist rather than an abstract painter’, but he was also called ‘a landscape artist in a modern idiom’. Olds painted and drew portraits as well as landscapes, and cubist elements were prominent in his work.
With his compelling personality, ‘dramatically scarred, bearded face’ and thick curly hair, Paul Olds had considerable charisma. He conveyed his passion for art and its importance to his students; his warmth, enthusiasm, appreciation of their efforts, along with a constant awareness of his environment and a pushing of boundaries all contributed to his teaching skills. It has been said that he sacrificed his art to teach and encourage. In 1963 he instituted the general design course at Wellington Polytechnic, and in 1966 was appointed lecturer in fine arts at Victoria University of Wellington’s extension department. His dream was to see an art school like the one in Christchurch established in the city.
After settling in Wellington, Olds had formed a close relationship with Elisabeth Mathilde Irene Sutorius, whom he met when she modelled for the students at the teachers’ college. In 1963 Elisabeth changed her name to Olds by deed poll; that same year she gave birth to their daughter. She later left Paul to study in Germany. Some time later he began living with Jeanne Margaret Frater, who had started modelling to help support her family. In 1973 she too changed her name to Olds by deed poll.
In addition to teaching design, Olds developed an interest in domestic and environmental design, and passionately and repeatedly altered the family home at Grafton Road, Roseneath. His love of the bush took him and his family, sometimes with friends, to his hut at Otira in the South Island; it was here he painted his ‘Otira’ series. Along with the artists John Drawbridge and Helen Stewart, and the sculptor and silversmith Tanya Ashken, Olds exhibited at the opening of the Bett–Duncan Studio Gallery in Wellington in the late 1960s.
Three and a half months after the birth of Paul and Jeanne’s only child, a son, Paul died in Wellington of bronchial asthma on 5 June 1976. He was survived by his two younger children: his older son had been killed, at 16, in a motorcycle accident.
Paul Olds was equally respected as an artist and as a teacher, and as such had become something of a cult figure in Wellington. He influenced and inspired a generation of painters. To those who were both good friends and students he was the pied piper.