Story: Henderson, Louise Etiennette Sidonie

Page 1 - Biography

Henderson, Louise Etiennette Sidonie

1902–1994

Artist, craftswoman, art and craft teacher

This biography was written by Elizabeth M. Grierson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Louise Etiennette Sidonie Sauze was born on 21 April 1902 at Boulogne sur Seine, Paris, the only child of Lucie Jeanne Alphonsine Guerin and her husband, Daniel Paul Louis Sauze, secretary to the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Louise remembered how as a child she would go with her father to Rodin’s house at Meudon and play with chips of marble while the men talked.

Louise Sauze attended the Institut Maintenon from 1908 to 1919, passing her Brevet élémentaire in 1918. In 1919 she studied French literature, graduating with the baccalauréat, and from 1919 to 1921 she studied at l’École de la broderie et dentelle de la ville de Paris, graduating as a designer in 1921. From 1922 to 1927 she was employed to draw blueprints and write articles on embroidery design and interior decoration for the weekly journal Madame. In 1923 she also contributed embroidery designs to a Belgian journal, La femme et le home. She frequented public art galleries and was authorised to study in the museum and library of the Musée des arts decoratifs.

In Paris, Louise Sauze met Hubert Henderson, a New Zealand graduate from Cambridge University. He soon returned to New Zealand, and in 1923 became assistant master at Christchurch Boys’ High School. Hubert wrote proposing marriage, which Louise accepted, but her parents would not allow their only daughter to travel to New Zealand alone as a single woman. To satisfy their sense of propriety, she was married to Henderson by proxy in a civil ceremony at the British embassy in Paris. Then in February 1925 she left for New Zealand. On 30 April Louise and Hubert celebrated their wedding at a church ceremony in Christchurch. They were to have one daughter.

Louise Henderson enjoyed the freedom that her new life offered her, having been brought up with the knowledge that her parents did not want her to be an artist. She began to paint landscapes, showing a progressive interest in form and structural unification by interrelating shapes. Her Canterbury paintings of hills, gorges and architectural forms blend observation with the visual language and aesthetic theories of the European moderns – Manet, Cézanne, Picasso and Braque. Her movement away from the topographical view of the landscape was shared by other local artists such as Alfred Cook, Rita Angus, Roland Hipkins and Christopher Perkins.

From 1926 to 1941 Henderson taught embroidery and design at the Canterbury College School of Art. In 1926 she also enrolled in the college’s courses on methods of teaching and art study. She continued with her painting, and studied on her own in metalwork, silver and enamel. Her work at the college led, in 1931, to the granting of an honorary diploma in fine arts from the University of New Zealand. To supplement the family income over this period she gave lessons in French language and literature.

In 1933 Henderson exhibited for the first time with the short-lived New Zealand Society of Artists in Christchurch. She was soon exhibiting in exhibitions with The Group and, from 1935 to 1938, travelling by train into the Canterbury hinterland on sketching trips with other Christchurch artists such as Rita Angus.

Family commitments grew in these years with the emigration of her parents to New Zealand in the mid 1930s. In 1941 the Henderson family moved to Wellington. Louise continued her study of embroidery, and was employed to teach needlework and set up a new course in embroidery at the New Zealand Correspondence School, where she worked until 1944. Then followed a period as assistant teacher in art and craft at Wellington Teachers’ Training College, focusing on needlework and embroidery. She was appointed to a committee set up by the director general of education to revise the needlework syllabus for schools and was appointed examiner in the subject for School Certificate. She wrote and illustrated educational bulletins on embroidery, knitting and the history of wool.

From 1943 to 1947 Henderson attended Victoria University College to study for a BA, leaving her little time to paint. However, she staged her first solo exhibition at Wellington Public Library in 1948, and in 1949 her work was included in an exhibition at Helen Hitchings’s gallery. In 1948 she visited the studio of Auckland painter John Weeks and began to correspond with him. From this point on her painting undergoes a marked change. Her structures and forms are less naturalistic, and more concerned with dividing form in a cubist manner.

In 1950 Henderson became a full-time painter. Her parents had both died in 1947, and in 1950 the family moved to Auckland. Louise attended classes at the Elam School of Art, but felt frustrated with conservative teaching methods. By contrast she found encouragement from John Weeks and began working in his studio. Henderson’s painting of this period shows a move away from pictorialism and towards intellectualised abstract forms and non-representational elements. Experimenting widely with media and approach, she moved from watercolours to oil on canvas and paper, tempera on board and works on glass.

Hubert Henderson encouraged Louise’s career as an artist, building a studio in their home at Epsom, to enable her to continue full-time painting. In 1950 and 1951 her work was exhibited in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington, winning critical praise. Her inclusion in the exhibition Fifteen New Zealand Painters, arranged by Helen Hitchings in London in June 1952, was her first international exposure.

More significant international experience was to follow. In 1952, encouraged by John Weeks and supported by Hubert, Louise embarked on a year’s study in Paris. There she was taken by an exhibition of works by the cubist Jean Metzinger. She made contact, and was accepted by Metzinger as an artist at his teaching studio. Louise studied figurative cubism for a year. Cubist methods such as logical construction of form, multiple viewpoints and tilting planes characterise her work in Paris.

In 1953 and 1954 the Auckland City Art Gallery staged exhibitions of her work. Her remarkable command of modernist ideas and cubist principles was noted by contemporary critics, although later overlooked by writers more concerned with measuring an artist’s worth in terms of the development of a national identity.

In 1956 the Hendersons travelled to Beirut, where Hubert worked for UNESCO as an advisor on compulsory education. Living among new cultures allowed Louise to develop her figurative and architectural abstractions. She gathered material with quick sketches and sent drawings for exhibition in London. Her ‘Jerusalem’ series comprised rectangular shapes and forms drawn from ancient architecture. From 1956 to 1958 she visited galleries in Europe. In London she extended her interest in print through lithography and was invited to join the London Group. Her drawings and paintings from the Middle East were exhibited in London in 1958 and in Sydney on her way back to New Zealand in 1959.

The 1950s concluded with Louise Henderson a confident exemplar of abstract painting in New Zealand, and she was keen to pass this knowledge on to younger painters. In 1960 she taught drawing, design and painting at the National Art School in Sydney. This was followed in 1961 by a period teaching at Elam School of Fine Arts, and at Auckland City Art Gallery classes. Her works were included in exhibitions in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Sydney and Poland.

In 1960 Henderson was commissioned to make stained-glass windows and a metal crucifix for the Church of the Holy Cross in Henderson. Made of New Zealand slab-glass fixed in cement, designed in Auckland and fashioned in Belgium, the windows stand three metres high in the church entrance. An imposing centrepiece of the church sanctuary, her 2-metre high Christ is made of welded steel plates. Another major commission, in 1963, was for the New Zealand Room at the Hilton Hotel in Hong Kong: a mural, executed in wool, in 24 colours and measuring 1.5 x 6 metres.

On 6 June 1963 Hubert Henderson died. Louise was devastated. She put away her brushes saying she would never paint again, but later that year began a series of large-scale abstract expressionist outpourings of her grief, in the 41 canvases of the ‘Elements – air and water’ series. She accompanied these canvases to exhibitions in Brussels in 1965 and at the New Zealand Embassy in Paris in 1967, and they were also shown at New Zealand House, London. In 1966 her work was exhibited in Auckland and in 1967 in Brighton, England, and at the Royal Commonwealth Society exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

After returning to New Zealand, Henderson turned her attention to tapestry design and production, and designed and executed a large tile mosaic for St Joseph’s Church, Otahuhu. She was represented in major exhibitions in Auckland in 1968. The 1970s were marked by extensive exhibiting of paintings of bush, Coromandel landscape and urban Polynesians, and paintings from Rarotonga and Greenland. In 1972 she was awarded the National Bank Art Award, and the Tokoroa Art Award, and in 1973 the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand fellowship. This was followed in 1975 with fellowships from the Auckland Society of Arts and the Royal South Australian Society of Arts.

On 4 April 1986, at Kaikohe, Louise Henderson married Georg Thomas Lücke, a Danish-born ship’s electrician 27 years her junior. They had met while she was returning to New Zealand in 1967. She continued to exhibit widely in the 1980s. In 1987 she completed her series ‘The twelve months’. Expressing her sense of place, these 12 large canvases (one for each month) were a triumphant outpouring of strength and determination from the diminutive French artist, combining the sensibility of the European eye and mind with the lived experience of the New Zealand land and lifestyle.

In the 1990 exhibition Two Centuries of New Zealand Landscape Art, at the Auckland City Art Gallery, Henderson’s work ‘The lakes (triptych)’ took pride of place. She continued to paint vigorously, and travelled to Hokianga where her husband had established a paulownia plantation. She moved there permanently in 1991.

In June 1993 Louise Henderson was made a DBE. On 27 June the following year, after a short illness, she died in Auckland, survived by her husband and daughter. Her long and prodigious career left a huge and influential body of work, which is represented in all major public and many private collections in New Zealand.