Wayne Thompson

Wayne Thompson is a NZ Herald reporter.

Obituary: Charles McPhee

By WAYNE THOMPSON

Artist. Died aged 92.

Charles McPhee was known as the "Velvet Gauguin" - a young man who went to the South Seas Islands for adventure but found in its beautiful women the inspiration to become one of New Zealand's biggest-selling painters.

A world renowned expert in the technique of painting in oils on black velvet, he died in Waitakere City last week.

His velveteen paintings such as the Tahitian Girl, the Bora Bora Canoeist and the Maori Chieftainess were snapped up by overseas admirers through the 1950s to 1970s.

"Charles McPhee was getting 200 guineas a painting when Colin McCahon could probably not reach more than 50 quid," said McPhee's friend, Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey.

Despite some critics relegating the work as kitsch, Mr Harvey said the artist was a master of his technique, and showed his fine eye for the human form in sensual portrayals of women and athletic warriors.

Charles McPhee and his Tahitian wife, Elizabeth, also knew how to throw a good party, said Mr Harvey.

In the Auckland version of the Swinging 60s, the McPhees were renowned among the leading social lights and celebrities for their Polynesian lifestyle of warm hospitality and generosity.

Australian-born McPhee went to Western Samoa in 1939 as a muscular young signwriter and mandolin player in search of adventure.

There he married Toila and took a wartime job as a policeman.

But he wanted to be a painter. He practised his painting skills on American servicemen and warships, and the couple named their son, Paul Gauguin McPhee.

The marriage ended and McPhee moved to Tahiti, where he learned the difficult and painstaking technique of painting in oils on velvet from American expert Edgar Leeteg.

He fell for one of his mentor's models, Elizabeth.

She became his model for a series of Tahitian Girl, which he continued to paint for an eager public after the couple settled in New Zealand in 1951.

Those who have seen versions of Tahitian Girl over the years find it romantic that the girl in the painting never seemed to age along with the model, Elizabeth. In his eyes, she retained her youthful beauty. Elizabeth died 12 years ago.

His son, Paul McPhee, was unable yesterday to cast light on the mystery.

"It's a hard one. Yes, Elizabeth posed for father on a number of occasions and, yes, the look of the women stayed the same.

"Elizabeth was beautiful ... but we can't infer he used her as a body for all his paintings."

Paul McPhee said he had a collection of his father's paintings. "I had to buy them off my father because he never had any ... If he kept one it would be sold. Someone would come to the house and say, 'I'll take that one' and he would sell it to them."

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