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Helen Blair (1907 - 1997)

Scene from the Book of Job, 1936

Catalogue essay by Mervyn King

The death of Job’s sons – “behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead” – is depicted by Helen (‘Nell’) Blair in a modern form of an almost Renaissance setting, with a biblical allegory in the foreground and scenery in the background. The collapsing walls provide a geometrical frame for the evocative expression of the fate of Job’s sons. We see the table at which they were eating and drinking before destruction arrived.

The stylised figures, and the biblical subject, suggest that the painting was influenced by the English Modernist movement, which included artists such as Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, and there are similarities of composition with Winifred Knights’ The Marriage at Cana, which was widely reproduced in art journals of the period. Blair was recognised by contemporary critics as highly innovative and “attacking the real problems of painting”.

Before Blair and her husband, the glass engraver John Hutton, left New Zealand for England in March 1936, they mounted an exhibition at Kirkcaldie and Stains, Wellington’s leading department store, in which Scene from the Book of Job was described by the local newspaper as “intriguing”. Little is known about the life and work of Helen Blair since her arrival in England, but for this striking painting alone she deserves to be remembered.

x W76.2cm
Oil on canvas. Signed and dated.
Blair, Helen

Helen Blair (1907 - 1997)

Helen Sarah Blair was born in New Zealand. By 1922 she had already achieved some commercial success,providing the illustrations for The Why Fairy Book by L.T. Watkins.After returning to New Zealand from her studies in Paris, she metfellow artist John Hutton (1906 - 1978). Together, they embarkedon a successful and prolific collaborative relationship (eventuallymarrying in 1934), holding a joint exhibition in Wellington in1936 before relocating to London that same year. They had threechildren ‘ including Warwick Blair Hutton (1939’1994) whowas to become a noted artist, glass engraver and illustrator ‘ andcontinued to work and exhibit together in England even after theirdivorce in 1960. Blair made distinctive modernist works, often painted with apalette knife. Many of her paintings also contain classical or biblicalreferences, particularly her landscapes, which recall the backdrops tothe figure paintings of the Old Masters. Later in life she turned to making collages were mostly non-figurative (although sometimes one or two small images of people appeared in them). Many of these were shown at exhibitions in Cambridge where she lived until her death in 1997. She wrote a book on Collage (The Technique of Collage) and also wrote other books – on Rug weaving, Gemstone craft, Mosaics and Woven structures.