28 Jan 2017

Art, Life, Music - Robert Ellis

From Art, Life, Music

Robert Ellis weaves text and paint and symbolism together to make us think about what it means to be a New Zealander, and about our relationship to the sky and the land. Charlotte Wilson visits him in his studio to ask about the role of music in his life and work.

Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis Photo: John McIver

The works of Robert Ellis occupy a uniquely important place in this country’s art. In 60 years of activity he has held over 60 exhibitions: and not just paintings, either. There are the stained glass windows of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Auckland: the world’s largest tapestry hanging in the Aotea Centre; the smaller works in etchings, metal casting, lithography, photography, film. He is so prolific that he admits that there are some of his works that he doesn’t even remember.

Conjunction IV by Robert Ellis

Conjunction IV by Robert Ellis Photo: Robert Ellis, supplied by Milford Galleries Dunedin

What he is most famous for, though, is his connection to Māoritanga: through his wife, Elizabeth Aroha Ellis, who is herself a distinguished figure in the arts and comes from Ngāti Porou and Ngāpuhi in the far north. Hence the Rakaumangamanga series from Rāwhiti, the motorways period of the 1970s, or the recent survey Tūrangawaewae, A Place to Stand: Ellis’s works weave Pacific and European symbolism together with text and paint, in a deep exploration of what it means to be a New Zealander and our relationship to the sky and the land.


Rakaumangamanga, 20th October (1980),  by Robert Ellis

Rakaumangamanga, 20th October (1980), by Robert Ellis Photo: Robert Ellis, supplied by Milford Galleries Dunedin

Born in Northampton in England in 1929, Robert Ellis studied at the Northampton School of Art and later the Royal College of Art in London, before moving to Auckland in 1957 to take up a position at the Elam School of Fine Arts – first as Head of Design, then Head of Painting, and retiring as Emeritus Professor after a career of 37 years.

And he loves music! He plays flamenco guitar, and has an extraordinary instrument collection that includes a Paraguayan harp and an Indian sitar.

He was appointed ONZM for services to Fine Arts in 2001, and the magnificent, full-colour book Robert Ellis by Hamish Keith for Ron Sang Publications, came out in 2014.

Images courtesy of Milford Galleries Dunedin and Charlotte Wilson


Music Details:

Frédéric CHOPIN: Piano Sonata in B minor, Op 58: I Allegro
Performer: Martha Argerich
EMI CDC 5 56805

Bertold BRECHT/Kurt WEILL: Mack the Knife
Performers: Frankie Armstrong, Louis Armstrong
“Louis Armstrong Gold”
Hip-O B000 7 357

Canalejas DE JEREZ: Bulerías
“Arte Flamenco”
Mandala MAN 4932

Art, Life, Music is a series in which Charlotte Wilson explores the connections between music and art, visiting celebrated NZ artists, in their studios, to talk about their work and their life and their love for music – because each of these artists has a connection to music, in some way. Here, they choose their favourite pieces, and explain in their own totally unique and various ways, what makes them tick.

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