Annette Grace Weeks was born in Bowling, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, on 22 May 1893. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Stevenson and her husband, George Methven Weeks, a commission agent, who was later a railway clerk. She attended the Glasgow School of Art, influenced by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. She was living at Carlisle when on 19 May 1917 she married Leonard George Pearse in Portsmouth. He was a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. In 1918 the couple had a daughter, their only child, and in 1923 they came to New Zealand to farm in Central Otago. From around 1936 they were living in Dunedin. Leonard was again a serving naval officer when he died in Auckland in 1942.
Annette Pearse was thinking of returning to Britain when she was approached by Sir Lindo Ferguson, president of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery Society, who suggested she apply for the position of curator, at that time the senior post. She allowed herself to be persuaded and was appointed in February 1946, ahead of R. N. Field and Colin McCahon. The gallery had a larger income for acquisitions than its New Zealand counterparts. Its founder, William Mathew Hodgkins, had envisaged a collection illustrating European and colonial New Zealand art history. After 1919 it had built up the foreign holdings while expanding controversially into the decorative arts, and there had been criticism of its neglect of contemporary New Zealand artists. Annette Pearse accentuated these tendencies.
Within months of her appointment the artist and historian A. H. McLintock led a deputation suggesting a new wing be dedicated to New Zealand work and saying some works on show should be removed. Pearse resisted, and soon was buying paintings by André Derain, Matthew Smith, Richard Wilson, George Romney and Joshua Reynolds. She went on several buying expeditions to Britain (the first at her own expense), where she formed a useful association with Sir Alec Martin, the managing director of Christie’s, the art auctioneers, and managed to inspire a number of donors. Among these was Archdeacon F. H. D. Smythe, who never visited New Zealand but, under Pearse’s charm, was induced to present 1,300 British watercolours of the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, an uneven but nevertheless important collection, which still has no equal in Australasia. She persuaded a Scottish collector to send pieces of eighteenth century costume and accessories, while fostering New Zealand donors such as Eleanor Joachim. She also included Doris Monheimer and Dorothy Theomin in her web: their bequests soon after Pearse’s retirement in 1964 were the outcome of her nurture. The acquisition that perhaps meant most to Pearse, and was certainly a great personal triumph, was her 1958 purchase of Thomas Gainsborough and John Hoppner’s full-length portrait of Charlotte, Countess Talbot, a wonderfully vixenish society beauty of the 1780s.
Pearse’s title was changed in 1958 to director, reflecting an important shift. Her predecessors had been very much the servants of the gallery’s council, which decided most aesthetic questions. Pearse won that prerogative for herself and thereafter such matters have usually been decided by the staff. She fostered professionalism in other ways, establishing new standards of recording and a more active public programme.
Throughout her reign the feeling persisted that contemporary New Zealand art was being neglected. This came to a head in 1963 when the gallery society commissioned Esmond de Beer to report on the institution. He underscored the deficiency and recommended the gallery try harder, while redoubling its efforts to collect the works of the old masters and foreigners.
The following year Pearse retired and ultimately returned to Central Otago, where she died at Alexandra on 24 February 1981. If people first remembered her failure to collect the work of local contemporaries, the success of her other endeavours has become more apparent over the years. It is now clear she did much to build the Dunedin collection into the outstanding assembly of overseas paintings in this country. This remarkable legacy is testimony to her indomitable spirit.