One of New Zealand’s Most Famous Artists, Robert Ellis, Dies at 92

New Zealand artist Robert Ellis died this week at the age of 92, leaving behind a prominent body of artwork that fused pakeha and Māori influences.

New Zealand artist Robert Ellis passed away this week at the age of 92.
Photo: John McIver

His artistic images can be found all over Auckland. Ellis’ most visible work includes the stained glass windows of Auckland’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, and what has been called one of the world’s largest tapestries hangs in the foyer of Aotea Centre.

The Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tāmaki also has many of his most famous pieces.

Art critic and author Hamish Keith had known Ellis for decades and wrote a study of his work, Robert Ellis by Hamish Keith, which came out in 2014.

Rakaumangamanga, October 20 (1980), by Robert Ellis

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

“As a painter, he brought together two cultures, the pakeha and the Māori. He would say, ‘Don’t yell at each other, hug each other!'”

Ellis’s work was heavily influenced by Māoritanga, as were the landscapes of Tāmaki Makaurau.

Artists and art lovers across Aotearoa paid tribute to Ellis this week.

“My lasting memory of Bob will always be his endearing smile and the ever-present twinkle in his eye, right up until the end at age 92,” wrote Gary Langsford of the Gow Langsford Gallery on Facebook. “A true gentleman and scholar has now begun his next journey.”

Born in England, Ellis came to New Zealand in 1957 to take up a position at the Elam School of Fine Arts, where he taught until 1994. He was appointed ONZM in 2001 for his services to the fine arts.

Ellis came in the wake of World War II and a childhood growing up watching his country be bombed.

“He had no idea about New Zealand, no idea at all,” Keith said. “He just wanted to get away from a destroyed society.”

“When he got here, he became something of a healer, if you will. What he saw were two cultures looking at each other.’

“As an outsider, he said, ‘Wait a minute, you all have things to give to each other, keep it up.'”

Conjunction IV by Robert Ellis

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

Ellis first learned to drive when he moved to New Zealand and later created a series of paintings depicting Auckland’s highways and roads in an abstract way, almost as if the roads were a hidden map of the world beneath the streets.

Many of Ellis’s photographs contain impressionistic views of Auckland’s highways, maunga and waters.

“To me they’re not really abstract, they’re realistic paintings,” he told RNZ in 2016.

Ellis’s work often harked back to Māori concepts and the idea that Aotearoa had a much older, richer history than many realized at the time.

In his work, Ellis would “cut out and reveal patterns for hundreds of years, and show us what was there, but we couldn’t see it,” Keith said.

Ellis’ work in prominent public spaces such as Aotea Center and Holy Trinity Cathedral gave him visibility beyond artists only found in galleries.

Bishop Selwyn Chapel in Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral

Ellis designed some windows, right, of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell.
Photo: Delivered

“What Bob was really good at is that you had a dream and he made it come true,” Keith said.

In 2017, Ellis spoke to RNZ about meeting renowned British artist Francis Bacon when he was a young painter.

Ellis said Bacon told him, “You have to work and be committed, or you’ll never become a painter.” And I thought well, that’s the best advice I’ve ever had from anyone… So I decided that this was going to be my credo.”

Keith said Ellis’s work stood out at a time when Aotearoa was still figuring out its cultural identity apart from the British Empire.

“Bob actually saw that we were looking for ourselves and what we didn’t really realize is that we had already found it.”

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