Mountford Tosswill Woollaston was born at Toko, Stratford, on 11 April 1910, and raised with four brothers on a dairy farm near Huinga in the Taranaki backblocks. He was the son of John Reginald Woollaston, a sharemilker, and his wife, Charlotte Kathleen Frances Tosswill. Toss (as he was always known) attended the local primary school and Stratford Technical High School (1924–26). His mother was the formative influence in his early development. Her powerful personality, Christian fervour, and artistic interests – particularly in music – were a corrective to the drudgery of farming life. Although she tried to dissuade Toss from a career as an artist, he was able to talk passionately with her about art, literature and religion. After leaving home in 1928 he wrote her copious letters, and her replies encouraged him to clarify his beliefs and ambitions.
Woollaston’s early artistic ambition was to write poetry. Inspired by the English Romantics, especially Shelley, it was as an aspiring poet that he arrived in the Nelson area in 1928 to earn a living as a horticultural worker. A religious and idealistic young man, he also on more than one occasion considered a vocation in the Anglican church. But he realised that part of the attraction of the ministry lay in the prospect of escape from unfulfilling manual labour. He also knew that he was not ready to submit entirely to the dogma and discipline of the church. This had been brought home to him by the local bishop’s reaction to his advocacy of a Christian pacifism based on Tolstoy’s writings, a stance that placed him at odds with his parents and the community at large. At a court hearing in 1928 he was granted exemption from compulsory military training on religious grounds.
It was shortly after this episode that Woollaston discovered the art of painting, and was delighted by the tangible and sensuous qualities of paint as a means of expression. He did not abandon writing, but henceforth it would take second place. In 1930 his first art teacher, Hugh Scott, advised him to enrol at the Canterbury College School of Art in Christchurch. He attended in 1931, but was disappointed by the conservative nature of the teaching.
With the encouragement of a friend, Ursula Bethell, Woollaston made his way to Dunedin in 1932 to study at the Dunedin School of Art under the Englishman Robert Nettleton Field. He had chanced upon Field’s work in Christchurch and been dazzled by it. He found in Field a lively and mercurial teacher, who stressed that in order to become a painter the student must first find his own idiom. Eager to strike out on his own, Woollaston departed Dunedin after only two terms, but not before he had met two kindred spirits in Edith Winifred Alexander and Rodney Kennedy, who would remain a lifelong friend and supporter.
In 1934 Woollaston settled at Māpua, in the Nelson region, and on some borrowed land began building a tiny house out of dried mud-bricks. That year he had another influential encounter, this time with Flora Scales, a New Zealand artist who had recently returned from Munich where she had studied at Hans Hofmann’s school of art. Scales’s paintings and Hofmann’s theories, which were based on an analysis of Cézanne’s art, provided the intellectual framework Woollaston required to develop his own artistic independence. Cézanne also represented a model of artistic perseverance. Woollaston would make it his life’s work to mine the creative tension that he perceived in Cézanne between depicting a specific landscape and the formal construction of the picture.
Several works from 1936 demonstrate his progress. ‘Figures from life’ (which depicts Rodney Kennedy and Edith Alexander), with its affinities to the primitivism of Matisse, Picasso and German expressionism, demonstrates his grasp of Hofmann’s theories, but also the emergence of a distinctive vision. It shows Woollaston to have been the most modernist of painters at work in New Zealand at the time. That year he held his first exhibition in Dunedin. Among the visitors to the gallery was a young high school student, Colin McCahon, for whom the paintings were a revelation. He and Woollaston met shortly afterwards; it was the beginning of a lifelong, if not always easy, friendship.
On 20 August 1936 Toss and Edith married at Dunedin. During the late 1930s and 1940s they and their growing family lived at Māpua; by 1944 they had four children under the age of seven. These years tested Woollaston’s resolve. With no running water or electricity in the little house, daily living was a laborious affair, leaving little time or energy for painting. When he finally found full-time employment as an orchardist, he was exempted from military service because horticulture was considered essential to the war effort.
Despite the pressures of daily life, Woollaston found time to participate in the intellectual and cultural debates of the day. Most notable was the protracted exchange in 1938 with the left-wing writer Winston Rhodes in the journal Tomorrow, over the role of the artist in the face of the fascist threat. Rhodes thought the artist should be socially and politically committed; Woollaston countered that artists should concentrate on the spiritual dimension.
During this period many artists and writers advanced a self-consciously nationalist programme. Although critics have been quick to pin the nationalist label on Woollaston, because he happened to be a landscape painter, he was indifferent to political and cultural prescriptions, putting his faith in Christ and the transcendence of art.
Woollaston was not isolated at Māpua. Kennedy and McCahon were frequent visitors during the fruit-picking season, and when McCahon married the painter Anne Hamblett they made their home at Pangatōtara, near Motueka. The painters Doris Lusk and Patrick Hayman were also part of this circle. Another important friendship dating from this time was with the poet Charles Brasch. He and the critic Ron O’Reilly were to play an important part in cultivating an audience for both Woollaston and McCahon. In 1948 O’Reilly mounted a retrospective of Woollaston’s work at the Wellington Public Library, and a year later Helen Hitchings assembled the important joint McCahon–Woollaston exhibition at her Wellington gallery. Allowing for the fallow war years, Woollaston had made considerable ground. Although sales were slow, he had succeeded in establishing himself as a painter on the national stage.
In late 1949 Woollaston and his family relocated to Greymouth, lured by the promise of a relatively lucrative position as a door-to-door salesman of Rawleigh household products. He responded enthusiastically to the dramatic West Coast landscape. Over the next decade his art underwent formal changes rooted in his observation of such landscapes as the Taramakau and Grey rivers, with their imposing mountainous backdrop. The paintings of the 1950s seem to take their cue from the scale of this landscape, suppressing pictorial detail for the slashing linear rhythms that connote elemental energy. Towards the end of the decade Woollaston increased the size of his paintings, a move that further emphasised their spaciousness and liberated rhythms.
These developments were all the more remarkable since Woollaston had only the evenings and weekends for painting. By 1955, with a mortgage and a family to support, things were so tight that he considered giving up painting. It was Edith who insisted that he carry on.
Throughout his career Woollaston showed extraordinary self-reliance working in isolation, but the 1950s in Greymouth were a testing time. One of the ways he dealt with it was by writing. Back in the 1930s Ursula Bethell had suggested that he write his autobiography, and he had been working on it ever since. During the Greymouth years he also kept a painting diary, as a way of compensating for the lack of conversation with other painters.
By the end of the 1950s Woollaston’s financial situation had improved, and he was able to avail himself of new opportunities. In 1958 he travelled to Australia on an Association of New Zealand Art Societies annual fellowship, studying Old Master paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria, and exhibiting his own work at the Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne. In 1961 he received an Arts Advisory Council grant and travelled to Spain, England and the United States to study European works, to which he had always been drawn.
Woollaston began tutoring adult education classes during the late 1950s, and was in increasing demand as a speaker. His 1960 Auckland Gallery Associates lecture was published as The far-away hills: a meditation on New Zealand landscape. In 1963 the Auckland City Art Gallery’s touring retrospective exhibition of Woollaston and McCahon further enhanced his reputation. In 1966 he published Erua, a folio of 48 drawings.
During the 1960s he painted a number of commissioned portraits. These were a welcome supplement to his income, and the social contacts made in the process extended his audience. In 1963 he met an aspiring art dealer from Wellington, Peter McLeavey, who three years later suggested that he become Woollaston’s dealer. The 56-year-old artist was delighted to accept. It was all the encouragement he needed to resolve to paint full time.
Woollaston moved back to the Nelson area in 1968, building a house at Riwaka with a spacious studio. This accommodated the recently increased size of his landscape paintings, which had grown to the panoramic dimensions of 1.2 x 2.7 metres. These ambitious paintings of the 1970s transmute the familiar New Zealand landscape into a painted ‘floating world’ that invokes Monet’s late water lily paintings, which had so impressed Woollaston. Although barely known outside of New Zealand, these works are among the great achievements of late twentieth century landscape painting.
Early in his career Woollaston had recognised in Cézanne the kind of painter he wanted to be: a painter who ‘went on looking’ at his beloved landscape, getting to know it, with each depiction a further step towards realising it in paint. Woollaston’s later works show his mastery of these lessons, and represented what he once called ‘a house for the imagination to live in’. The Manawatū Art Gallery mounted a touring retrospective exhibition in 1973, but it was not until the National Art Gallery’s 1992 touring retrospective that the panoramic landscape paintings of the 1970s and 1980s were seen as a body of work.
By 1980 Woollaston was perhaps New Zealand’s most widely known contemporary painter. That year he published Sage tea, his lyrical account of his childhood in Taranaki and his early adult life. In 1979 he had been knighted for his services to painting. The 1980s were blighted only by Edith’s death, after several months of illness, in 1987.
In the early 1990s Woollaston’s health began to deteriorate, but he continued to work and travel, often to the American home of former United States ambassador to New Zealand Anne Martindell, with whom he had a close relationship. During the last two or three years of his life his health gradually prevented him from working. He died in Upper Moutere on 30 August 1998, survived by his children.