Dear Louise started with a question about an old painting, leading to the discovery of my great aunt Louise Laurent’s work as an artist in Auckland in the 1890s. Born in France in 1873, Louise’s life spans the family’s emigration to South Australia, her pregnant mother’s solo journey to Auckland with three young daughters in 1877, growing up in Kingsland and Karangahape Road in the 1880s, art school, marriage and life as mother and orchardist in Mangere.
Following up on clues about the oil painting and its maker, I googled her name, and discovered a group photograph from the 1890s. The photograph shows Louise with her classmates or fellow teachers at Elam School of Art around 1897, 124 years ago. The photograph appears in Women Together – Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, a book edited by Anne Else celebrating the centennial of Women’s Suffrage in 1993. Re-edited and put online for the 125th suffrage anniversary in 2018, the book documents a vast number of women’s groups. It’s full of glorious historical photographs of women drawing, sculpting, weaving, carving – whole rooms full of them.
Back when Louise was a student at Elam, in the late 1890s, art school was a sensible choice for the daughter of a working single mother. For many women of the time, art training was a practical grounding leading into paid employment. Louise was an active (and prizewinning!) member of the Auckland Society of Arts and worked as a photo retoucher, but like so many female artists of the time, disappears from the public record after her marriage.
In the photograph, the women pose in their high-necked, full-sleeved, Victorian frocks. Some are stiffly corseted. The studio background has a ruined summerhouse, classical columns, plaster boulders and a slightly wilted aspidistra in a cane basket. There is an easel in the frame. The women hold palettes, a mahl stick and brushes, looking serious. The whole thing is haunted by Lisa Reihana’s brilliant Native Portraits n.19897 (1997), which deconstructs and enlivens the ethnographic photography of the same period. So I imagine the shuffling of props, and the negotiations between shots.
There is a second photograph. Here the women have been rearranged, the painting on its easel is now central, but one someone has moved during the exposure, and so appears, poised, but utterly headless, adding a surreal and ghostly touch to the image.
Dear Louise includes a photograph and x-ray of Louise Laurent’s only known extant painting, the page of the 1893 suffrage petition signed by her mother and sister and the photograph of her and her classmates.
Thanks to Peter Brennan for the painting, David Perry for the X-rays, and Anne Else, Ann Calhoun, Geoff Winn, Maurice Winn and Ross Galbreath for their research.