Toss Woollaston

Work History

Brownacre (1992)
Mt Arthur from Gardiner's Valley [18462]
Mt Arthur from Gardiner's Valley [18462] (ca 1950)
Pa Hill and House [8481]
Pa Hill and House [8481] (ca 1970)
Totaranui [1111]
Totaranui [1111] (1962)
Lake Brunner, Westland [8493]
Lake Brunner, Westland [8493] (ca 1955)
Untitled (Portrait of a Man)
Untitled (Portrait of a Man)
Tasman Bay [8475]
Tasman Bay [8475] (ca 1950)
Mount Malita from Upper Mahana [3535]
Mount Malita from Upper Mahana [3535] (ca mid 1980s)

Artist Information

“I wanted to paint the light, but only after it had been absorbed into the earth.”1

“Toss Woollaston’s great modernist landscapes changed the way New Zealanders saw art, their country and themselves.”2

Born in 1910, Mountford Tosswill Woollaston (1910-1998) was raised on a dairy farm in Taranaki, the eldest child of puritanical, God-fearing parents. He studied art at Canterbury School of Art, Margaret Stoddart being one of his teachers. He became interested in modernism after moving to Dunedin to study with R.N. Field. In his autobiography Sage Tea, he stated “Field’s work conveyed directly, without the intervention of subject, the excitement in the act of painting.”3 In 1934, Woollaston and his family settled at Mapua, Nelson. In 1950 they moved to Greymouth, and the landscape of the West Coast became a major subject in his work. In 1968 the Woollaston’s returned to Nelson, settling at Riwaka.

Woollaston searched for an independent way to express himself. He found it in 1935 in the teachings of Hans Hofman – the German cubist – via the artist Flora Scales. She had kept her notes from her lessons with Hoffman when she had been in Germany and made these available to him. Deeply admiring of Cezanne, Woollaston found a new way of rotating space alongside the foreshortening of foregrounds in the two dimensions of the picture plane itself which appealed to him greatly.4

Woollaston pioneered a distinctive vision: he and McCahon are acknowledged by all as the founding figures responsible for establishing modernism in New Zealand. He believed artists should concentrate on the spiritual dimension and the transcendence of art. He sought to build in his work a home for the imagination to live in. He developed a signature “ability to use colour in a manner suggestive of luminosity.”5 His paintings and watercolours introduced pictorial complexity where “the composition establishes a push-pull effect of great energy and dynamism.”6

In 1991 a comprehensive survey exhibition accompanied by a major publication, Toss Woollaston: A Retrospective, opened at the National Art Gallery in Wellington. The scale, optimism and celebratory nature of his landscapes was a breathtaking revelation. Throughout his career, Toss Woollaston was a model of artistic perseverance, and delighted by the tangible and sensuous qualities of paint as a means of expression.
1. Francis Pound, The Invention of New Zealand: Art and National Identity, 1930-1970,Auckland University Press, 2009, p 54.
2. Jill Trevelyan (editor), Toss Woollaston: A Life in Letters, Te Papa Press, 2004, inside cover.
3. Peter Wells, “Sage Tea: An Autobiography” book review, Art New Zealand, Spring 1981.
4. M.T. Woollaston, Sage Tea: An Autobiography, Collins Auckland, 1980, p. 242.
5. Hamish Keith & Gordon Brown, New Zealand Painting: An Introduction 1839-1967, William Collins, 1969, p. 156.
6. William McAloon (editor), Art at Te Papa, Te Papa Press, 2009, p. 253.


Kaleidoscope - Toss Woollaston Documentary, Television New Zealand, 1987

Solo Exhibitions

Group Exhibitions