The couple behind NZ's biggest private art collection

By Kim Knight

Tim and Sherrah Francis amassed the greatest names in New Zealand art for more than 50 years. Kim Knight talks to their son about the sale of his parents’ unique collection.
Sherrah and Tim in front of Toss Woollaston's Poet by the Sea (A Portrait of Charles Brasch). Photo / Pictures courtesy of the Francis family archives
Sherrah and Tim in front of Toss Woollaston's Poet by the Sea (A Portrait of Charles Brasch). Photo / Pictures courtesy of the Francis family archives

In the end, they didn't have to block the doorway. But it was a close call.

Tim and Sherrah Francis were running out of wall space. The painting was enormous. A horizontal Shane Cotton they had to have and, as Sherrah had once said, "we've never not bought anything because we didn't have enough room".

They walked over to red-sticker the painting, but it had already sold. Tim recalls the moment in an essay from the family archives: "At least we didn't have to reorganise the house or block off a doorway ..."

Instead, they (nervously) approached Cotton and asked about a vertical commission. He agreed, and there it is, in the family photographs, in the hallway opposite the John Reynolds, next to the Ian Scott and down from the Michael Illingworth.

And there it is again: Lot 53, He Pukapuka Tuatahi ($180,000-$280,000). This Wednesday and Thursday, the Tim and Sherrah Francis collection - 481 works, with a combined pre-sale estimate of $5.2m to $7.4m - will be auctioned at Auckland's Art+Object.

Who were this couple who crammed their lives with art?

Tim was born in 1928; Sherrah in 1929.

They met at the University of Auckland and both graduated with MA Honours in history. They married in London in 1954. Sherrah was a researcher at the London School of Economics and Tim was on a scholarship to Oxford. He was offered a professorship but chose, instead, to join the New Zealand Department of Foreign Affairs.

They lived in Washington, Singapore and New York. They had three children. They partied with prime ministers and presidents. When they retired, they volunteered at food banks and literacy programmes. They are remembered, universally, as a couple who loved each other - and loved art. They died this year just nine weeks apart, both aged 87. At the time of Sherrah's funeral, there was an unopened package of three Peter Robinson felt works in the sitting room.

Sherrah and son Paul, in New York.
Sherrah and son Paul, in New York.

"Being part of the international diplomatic scene involved putting on a tuxedo and going out to cocktail parties," says their son, Paul Francis. "But that wasn't where their real lives were. They were very much New Zealanders, and that's what mattered to them most. When they were in New Zealand, they lived modest lives, they never spent extravagantly on anything, they never spent to keep up appearances. Every penny went into art. That's how they built their collection. We didn't go out to fancy restaurants, we never had a fancy car."

Mince in the fridge, fish and chips for dinner. "All the traditional New Zealand staples," says Paul. "They were not wine connoisseurs, they suffered - I guess this happened to many people - that awful fate of drinking wine out of plastic casks. They didn't have any of the trappings of that kind of life, that extravagant life."

The art world was smaller back then and Tim and Sherrah were doing more than just buying paintings, they were committing to the development of a contemporary New Zealand art scene. They bought work, as it was made, by the names that would go on to become absolute giants: Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, Gordon Walters and Rita Angus.

They couldn't conceive of those paintings just being one on a wall. That just wasn't their style.
Jim Barr, art collector and friend

"Toss Woollaston was introduced to us by [Wellington gallerist] Peter McLeavey," says Paul. "They met him and suddenly he was coming to stay at our house. I can remember him sketching out the window, and I'd be sitting in front of the TV. He would tell the most amazing stories, he was a great raconteur."

His parents collected, "with uninterrupted intensity", for more than 50 years. Their stories and purchases are immortalised in essays released from the family archives for the auction.

Works by Rita Angus (including Portrait of the Artist's Mother), John Weeks, L. Budd and Elizabeth Lissaman.
Works by Rita Angus (including Portrait of the Artist's Mother), John Weeks, L. Budd and Elizabeth Lissaman.

Here's Tim, on meeting Rita Angus: "We walked nervously up the shrub-lined path to her front door, knocked on it even more nervously and, quite quickly, it opened a little way and Rita Angus peered out. Apparently she thought we were OK and she opened the door wider. Behind her, on the wall, was that painting of a small tree, arms outstretched, bare of leaves, standing alone in what looked like a chilly, empty landscape. That picture has been reproduced widely. It has certainly stuck in my mind as a sort of symbol of what Rita was: small, sturdy, brave and determined, everything cut down to essentials, a survivor of tough times and experiences and totally focused on her work."

In Angus' final days, ill in hospital, Sherrah was one her visitors. She took the artist a bunch of violets.

In 1969, the couple bought McCahon's The Canoe Tainui. They paid $550. "The buyers," gallerist Peter McLeavey reported to McCahon, "are a young married couple who just had to buy the painting".

The upstairs lounge, home to McCahon's The Canoe Tainui and works by Ross Ritchie, Maria Olsen, L. Budd, Gordon Walters and Richard Killeen.
The upstairs lounge, home to McCahon's The Canoe Tainui and works by Ross Ritchie, Maria Olsen, L. Budd, Gordon Walters and Richard Killeen.

Tim describes the moment they first saw the work that, today, could be worth as much as $2m: "It was stunning, lyrical, subtle, glowing ... You know, up to that point, I had been - apprehensive I think is the word - about Pakeha taking Maori objects, symbols, even history, and making it into something of their own. But this was not like that. The words, the names, were handled reverently. The whole feel of the painting was one of honouring Maori, acclaiming Maori culture ... here is a profoundly expressive celebration of Maori identity, Maori nationality."

The painting, eight panels that Tim and Sherrah always hung in a line ("you are meant to walk alongside it") went to Washington twice, lived in New York once, and had pride of place in the high commissioner's residence in Singapore. In Wellington, it stretches the length of upstairs pelmet, casually flanked by works by Richard Killeen.

Tim and Sherrah at their wedding party.
Tim and Sherrah at their wedding party.

"It was part of our family," says Paul.

He says his father came from a modest, working class English background. His mother's father was a doctor. Ordinary people with an interest in art and history who, together, had an unbeatable inner confidence. "Unquestionably, absolutely key to their success, was their partnership. They supported each other in everything and they were so perfectly matched."

Fellow collector and friend Jim Barr says they pushed for Foreign Affairs to buy art. "They totally believed this stuff would show us in a good light and show people that we were a sophisticated country, that we did understand what was going on in the rest of the world. You could say, 'Oh these people, on this island, in the middle of nowhere.' But if you looked at a McCahon, it does understand the painting of the last 100 years. They are aware of what's going on."

He remembers his first visit to their Wellington home. "Were those really two classic koru paintings by Gordon Walters we had just whisked by?"

Thinking back, Barr writes in the upcoming auction catalogue, "There must have been about 18 works by Toss Woollaston, the same number by Gordon Walters, four by Rita Angus and at least 14 by Colin McCahon."

The hallway, with Shane Cotton's He Pukapuka Tuatahi.
The hallway, with Shane Cotton's He Pukapuka Tuatahi.

Painting after painting, hung from wall to floor on every available space. Barr says it was the same wherever they lived. At the embassy in Washington, "They had their collection hanging, just the same way as they did at home. It was just extraordinary, it was just like walking into their house. They couldn't conceive of those paintings just being one on a wall. That just wasn't their style."

Their style was brown bread, salmon and cream cheese for visitors ("Always," says Barr, "they were creatures of habit"); they would return from their travels with piles of art catalogues; they developed a certain competitive zeal for acquiring.

Barr remembers Sherrah visiting, and honing in on a small Philip Trusttum painting.

Sherrah: Why have you got this?

Jim: Well, we bought it.

Sherrah: But I was going to buy it. It's mine!

And so it was: We gave it to her, I think ...

Breakfast in New York.
Breakfast in New York.

Barr believes there will be interest in the collection because "you can see where it fits into an idea. People like buying stories, people find that very attractive".

Just a handful of works will stay with the family, including the Woollaston portraits; and the Dennis Knight Turner landscape that was the first painting Tim and Sherrah bought together, en route to their first posting to Washington.

"It feels like the right thing," says Paul. "Our family enjoyed those works of art for many, many years and I think we are all feeling that it's time now for someone else to enjoy them, and have them enrich their lives the way they did for us."

The Tim and Sherrah Francis collection is open for public viewing at Art+Object (3 Abbey St, Auckland) from 11am-4pm today and tomorrow; 9am-5.30pm Monday and Tuesday and until 2pm on auction days (Sept 7 and 8).

- Canvas

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