Peter Siddell's first one-person show at Moller's Gallery in 1972 was a sell-out and the love affair that Aucklanders in particular have with his work has continued ever since.
His reputation is not limited to this city - most major New Zealand galleries have examples of his work - nor is his subject matter confined to Auckland (more of that later), but it is as a painter of Auckland's isthmus, estuaries and harbours that he has built his career.
To some extent the appeal of Siddell's paintings to Aucklanders involves an element of self-flattery: "Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of us all"; for in one sense it is a flattering mirror that he holds up to his viewers.
This is an Auckland confined to the most attractive urban and suburban views. Lovely old domestic architecture, festooned with coloured glass and attractive mouldings, crawls picturesquely up the sides of the comfortingly maternal shapes of green volcanic cones; there are water views to gladden the heart of the most hard-bitten real estate salesman; skies are filled with spectacular cloud formations; no ugly power lines, graffiti, cars, buses, traffic-clogged streets, billboards, untidy gardens, or even people disturb the idyllic scene.
But it would be wrong to see Siddell's world as sanitised or escapist. His is an intensely personal vision. Siddell has lived his whole life on the isthmus - Grey Lynn, Blockhouse Bay, Mt Eden - and this life history establishes the clear parameters of his visual world.
Furthermore, although some paintings contain modern buildings - mirror-glass high rises and the Sky Tower, for example - many of them recall the Auckland of his childhood in the 1930s and 1940s (he was born in 1935). A particularly telling painting in this regard is Herald (1980), a portrait of himself as a newspaper delivery boy in the 1940s - one of his rare works including figures. In an accompanying note he writes: "Each morning I rose early and walked empty streets in the pre-dawn light."
This experience proved crucial for the later painter. Not only did it fill his memory with images of empty streets and houses without people, but it makes explicit the retrospective angle of his vision.
The world of Siddell's paintings is by and large a remembered world, and it is memory which edits out the unwanted details and bathes the scene in what Wordsworth called "the glory and the freshness of a dream".
And as in Wordsworth there is a strong underlying melancholy, "The things which I have seen I now can see no more"; or in words Siddell writes to accompany Looking Out (1998): "The window ... acts as both a pathway and barrier to the recollected and reassembled architecture of my childhood - a place where I cannot go again."
Occasionally in his paintings Siddell lights out for more distant places. A favoured site is the coastline of the West Coast near Karekare, subject of the remarkable 1990 sequence Western Walk, which in five long paintings constituting a single panorama depicts with uncanny realism the coastline from Muriwai to Whatipu (not a finial or stained-glass window to be seen).
Other paintings depict scenes as remote from Auckland as Milford Sound and the mountains of the Southern Alps (remembered from mountaineering expeditions). Particularly haunting are paintings which depict buildings and military statues in the context of rural scenes such as Separation (1998) or Plateau (1999).
This large handsome book puts the emphasis squarely on the paintings - nearly 150 of them, including details of some works - its sensibly broad shape well suited to the landscape format of most if not all of the paintings.
The works, admirably reproduced, are organised chronologically from 1969 to 2010; not that chronology counts a great deal in Siddell's work once he has arrived (within five years of starting out as a self-taught artist) at his mature style and themes. Not for him the restless pursuit of novelty and change; rather his work plays endlessly subtle variations on a few well-established motifs and effects.
The artist's introductory essay, "In My Own Words", brief and to the point, is admirably honest, informative and unpretentious.
Michael Dunn's essay, "Peter Siddell: Time, Space & Memory", is thoughtful and empathetic, and is particularly good on defining the various ways in which Siddell both is and is not a "realist" painter.
It is well known that Siddell is gravely ill with a brain tumour; he tells us so himself in his comments on the 2007 work Premonition (Self Portrait): "When I painted it, I had no idea of what was in store for me a few months later." It must have been an heroic effort to bring this excellent book to fruition under these circumstances. Everyone involved in the production deserves great credit, not least the artist and his family.
Not all of us can own an original Siddell but through this fine book we can participate pleasurably in his outstanding achievement.
* Peter Simpson is an Auckland reviewer.