The philanthropist, the businessman and their unlikely - and extraordinary - Aboriginal art collection. Dame Rosie and Michael Horton are in Australia until quarantine rules relax but, as Kim Knight discovers, they're in good company.
The newest painting in the Horton art collection is called Rainbow Dreaming.
"I delight in telling visitors it doesn't have a single rainbow colour in it," says Michael Horton.
Charcoal, ochre, red earth and yellow dust - Australia, as seen by the descendents of people who walked there more than 50,000 years ago.
The artist is Rusty Peters. Read his story on the Warmun Art Centre website: A senior Gija man of Joowoorroo skin. His bush name Dirrji references dingo pups looking out of a hole at sunrise. He was born under a Supplejack tree. His spirit came from a crocodile his father had killed when his mother became pregnant.
The art collectors are Dame Rosie and Michael Horton. Read their stories in board reports and newspaper archives: An Auckland philanthropist and her businessman husband. Cashmere cardigans and Audi cars. Their second home is in Queensland's Sanctuary Cove, where property negotiations start at seven digits and the walls are, inevitably, white.
The truth of the Hortons' walls? You can barely see them. Visitors say their Australian home hums; that the furniture feels like an afterthought. Contemporary Aboriginal art smothers every surface. Paintings, weavings and sculptural objects. A swarm of other-worldly creatures stand sentinel beside a hearth. There are hot pink hills, turquoise blue rivers and broken-down cars. Highly stylised dingos and crocodiles. Most recently, the Hortons have become obsessed with bark paintings. New works arrive all the time - more than 300 pieces now and the collection is still growing.
Susan Chenery, a New Zealand-born journalist who reported on the collection for the Sydney Morning Herald, sets the scene: "The paintings seem to vibrate on the wall, to murmur and hum. Each one is particular to the country of the artist, how they see their world; they are memory and knowledge and stories handed down. Every image has a soul. This is a house full of spirits and dreaming, full of layers and information."
Four years ago, the Hortons announced their intention to gift the entirety to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Officials describe the collection as inspired and meticulously catalogued. Director Michael Brand says it represents "significant Aboriginal artists, collected in depth" and includes many women artists - Joan Stokes, Nora Wompi, Dolly Snell and works by each one of the five Joshua Sisters, including Angelina George.
"They're not just pieces of art," says Dame Rosie, firmly. "They're living pieces of art that portray the soul of the painter." She doesn't have favourites. "Because I don't want them to get snippy with me."
The Hortons visit their Australian home every year. But back in March, just three days before a flight to Auckland, Michael had a heart attack. The couple stayed in Queensland through his recovery and New Zealand's first Covid-19 lockdown, and now say they have no intention of returning while travellers have to complete two weeks in a managed isolation facility.
"We're both in our 80s . . . " Michael says. " . . . And we're not doing it," finishes Dame Rosie. "I say we're still 'stuck' in Australia. It happened by accident, but we've so enjoyed it. I've never lived in another country for an extended period and I've found it very interesting."
It is also the longest the philanthropist (best known for her work with Starship Children's Health and the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation) has lived alongside the art she has been collecting for almost 20 years.
"And what is so comforting is they are not sick of us yet . . . When we do get home, for my part there will be a grieving period of not being with them. They're peaceful, they're interesting. In different light they take on different hues. They're living treasures in our mind."
Nothing from the Australian collection has ever been hung in their Parnell home. Dame Rosie describes the art there as "very, very different. It's actually quite European in style . . . it's original, but not of the calibre we have here". This year, the couple made the decision to freight two large pieces by artists Nora Wompi and Mark Nodea across the Tasman. Dame Rosie can't wait to see how they're feeling about that.
"I'm dying to get home and find out whether they are going to be happy. They may not like being in New Zealand at all. And then we've got a real dilemma."
Plan B: Donate to the Auckland Art Gallery or Te Papa. There was a time, she recalls, when she bought a painting that just didn't like their Sanctuary Cove home. It was gifted to the Brisbane Children's Hospital (the couple donate annually) and the next time she saw it, she didn't recognise it.
"It was so happy. It looked so different. And I thought 'what a great lesson I've been taught'."
Michael Horton (whose family company Wilson & Horton was the longtime publisher of the New Zealand Herald) says the couple will never sell or trade the pieces they've collected. In many cases, they've met and talked to the artists. The connection is personal.
"It started years and years ago, and to begin with it was very modest. But it has become wide-ranging in its locations and the artists and the ages of the artists and what they're portraying. As Rosie says, you're looking at the Aboriginal soul in many cases. It's exciting, it's colourful, it's bright . . . we've got personal stories that are incredible. Both bad and good.
"Their background is absolutely illuminating. A number of these really wonderful artists were born in the desert in the sandhills and never saw a white person until they were in their early 20s. If they were working men, they weren't paid wages, they were only paid sugar, flour, tea - and these things have a great impact on their art, and how they feel . . . they speak their beautiful language, and there are 600-odd languages and it just flows like honey . . . one of the pleasures is that it's not just the painting, but the information that comes with the picture."
The artists' names are better known in Australia than New Zealand - all of the famous women painters cited by the Art Gallery of New South Wales director, and men like Patrick Mung Mung, John Mawurndjul, Stewart Hoosan and Helicopter Tjungurrayi. Michael Horton says, "we're not buying to realise on the deal, we're buying because we love art, we love the artists, we enjoy the areas they come from".
Gifting the collection to the gallery "suited them and suited us . . . these things have to be seen by the world . . . a collection is a pageant of time and creatively and ups and downs and when people see the collection in the gallery they'll be able to see that for what it is".
He claims to have "no idea" what the collection is worth.
"Put any sum you like on it under $10m, probably."
Dame Rosie: "No, no - it's built with love and for the purpose of handing it on."
Her passion for contemporary Aboriginal painting was sparked on a gallery visit as part of an art cruise around northern Australia. Her very first purchase was an Angelina George flower painting. She says more recent acquisitions are joint decisions. But then, "I'm a teeny bit naughty, and I go off and buy the odd thing and then tell Michael the day before it's due to arrive . . . "
She buys and he catalogues. That demarcation is evident in their responses to a collection of "bagu", mostly made by the Murray and Beeron families - modern clay versions of the wooden fire sticks used before white settlers arrived in northern Queensland.
Michael: "A tiny village display at Cardwell has one such stick. The two eyes in the bagus represent the holes where the firesticks were twiddled to alight a spark in grass and thus produce fire. They were and are very important in their culture. They were given a small hobby kiln years ago for their art centre and converted their symbols from wood to fired clay. They don't pronounce bagus as it reads in English, quite a different sound which I cannot accurately write . . ."
Dame Rosie: "I'm very keen on my wee people. When I get back to our home in Australia after we've been away, I rush to see them. They're so pleased to see me: 'She's home and we'd better watch out.' I know if they're happy or unhappy. They tell me. They communicate. They are supposed to be talked to and I talk to them. Then I ring my guy who looks after them and he comes over and we move them around and decide who is not happy with whom."
Every piece of art has a story, a conversation with an artist remembered via the photographs that Michael emails, post-interview - Dame Rosie Horton, a million miles away from charity dinners and board meetings. There are paintings that depict shopping trips necessitating five cars because at least three will break down; the kangaroo hunts that never result in a kangaroo kill; bark paintings bought from a dealer who had been storing them under her bed; a profusion of flying ants. Most of all, the living, breathing landscapes.
Dame Rosie: "You think people take poetic licence when they paint, but not at all. Quite often we've visited an area, and you see the purple hill, you see the shades of blue, the different yellows - it's almost a photographic memory of that particular area in Australia, and that's been an eye-opener to us. They're almost like birds, floating in the sky, painting what they're looking down on."