Blackburn’s early works were created in New Zealand from around 1955 until his return to the UK in 1961. Many of these were shown in Auckland’s Circle Gallery in Queen Street in 1959. It was around this time that Blackburn met Les Harvey, the Parnell entrepreneur, who may have assisted with the organisation of the exhibition. It was not a commercial success but more importantly it led to Blackburn’s enduring friendship with Harvey who would soon become a benefactor and collector as well as a mentor. In November that year Blackburn was included in the Auckland City Art Gallery’s exhibition Paintings, one of a dozen local artists including Robert Ellis, Hamish Keith and Tim Garrity.
Blackburn’s last paintings during this Auckland sojourn were perhaps a step too extreme for the New Zealand art scene. He alarmed his neighbours when, in his Wairau Road garden, he doused his newly-made large encaustic paintings in petrol, set them alight and then extinguished the flames with wet sacking.
Les Harvey, convinced of Blackburn’s talent, advised him to return home to the UK to develop his career. He then purchased the entire contents of Blackburn’s Glenfield studio, thus financing the Blackburn family’s voyage back to England. Once there Blackburn continued to paint as time allowed, but he rarely exhibited after the late 1970’s until his rediscovery several decades later.
Whilst visiting the Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair in London in 2007, on Mayfair’s Osborne Samuel Gallery stand, by pure serendipity, I came across John Blackburn’s connection with New Zealand. With the help of The Harvey Family Trust I was able to re-establish Blackburn’s antipodean presence with an annual ‘Artist in Residence’ at Nancy Harvey’s Earthskin studio at Muriwai followed by annual exhibitions in ARTIS Gallery.
In 2018 Dr Ian Massey published the book John Blackburn: The Human and the Abstract which included an excellent chapter on Blackburn’s New Zealand years written by Christopher Johnstone.
In June 2022 we celebrated the milestone of John’s 90th birthday and four months ago he sent us a collection of stunning new paintings for his 2023 exhibition. It was whilst those paintings were at the framers in preparation for this exhibition that we received the sad news of John’s passing on October 22nd.
Since 2009 John has been a massive supporter of ARTIS Gallery and a valued mentor to our younger artists. We have formed a strong personal friendship with John and Maude. John’s elegant presence at his exhibition openings will be sorely missed. As John said to me in 2017, ‘there’s no point in simply doing what you already know; the important thing is to search for what you don’t know’.
– Jonathan Gooderham,
Director ARTIS Gallery - January 2023