It is always still there


Henrietta Catherine Angus was born on the 12th of March 1908, a date that in her own personal mythology coincided with ‘the time [that the] Egyptian tombs were opened, and the treasures of a long, materialist mysticism unearthed.’[1] Named after her maternal grandmother, the wilful Henrietta was only ever known as Rita—a powerful act of self-naming; a name she forged for herself. Even her closest friends remained unaware of her true name, and it was only after her death that the composer, friend and sometimes lover Douglas Lilburn discovered ‘one of her best-kept secrets.’[2] While she signed her paintings with several names throughout her life—Angus, Cook, Mackenzie—perhaps this name was Rita’s very first self-portrait.


Born into a creative family, Rita was the eldest of seven children and grew up between Napier and Palmerston North. Her parents and younger siblings will be a guiding force throughout her life as she pursues that elusive vocation: artist. In 1927, aged 19, she enrols at the Canterbury College School of Art in Christchurch, where we could say that this story begins. At the time, it was this country’s leading art school and specialised in landscape painting—but with no national infrastructure to support a professional artist, this was no career for a woman—Rita is there to train as a teacher.


At Canterbury, Rita studies under the magnetic Professor of Education James Shelley, whose lectures range across culture, epoch and religion, and who believes that every good work of art, whatever its subject, ‘is a portrait of the artist’s own self.’[3] By 1929, Rita’s own self-image is consciously fashioned in the modern female artist’s footsteps. In an early self-portrait, she sees herself seeing in a bright red beret and blue artist’s coat; curls of wavy hair edge the clarity of her bone structure, her lips are taut, fleshy, fuchsia. Like breath escaped, gestured brushwork flicks light from costume to sandy yellow ground. The flinty, searching look rendered in her tawny eyes attests to the painting’s mode of performance: as a portrait, it’s more an interrogation of the self. It’s not quite the first, but one of the earliest, a means of trying on different hats (she’s lost the sophomore pearls—is she an artist yet?). To which Shelley replies: ‘Miss Rita Angus has made a couple of brave studies of the subtle relations of complementary colours in flesh painting and the play of reflected lights.’[4]


In June 1930, aged 22, Rita marries fellow art student Alfred Cook, ‘on the spur of the moment,’ and in so doing becomes Rita Cook—no longer Miss but Mrs.[5] His family organises the wedding, hers finds out by telegram. Rita’s biographer, Jill Trevelyan, describes the pair as a temperamental inverse: ‘Alfred was Rita’s opposite, passive and retiring, while she was emerging as an increasingly assertive and opinionated young woman.’[6] We should not think it striking that a women (or artist) would find freedom, rather than passion, in marriage. It was, after all, one of the few ways to acquire a room of own’s own. But I wonder about this mismatched pairing. Did Rita ever see Alf as more than handmaiden to her art? As she wrote to Douglas, ‘[in marriage] I am left alone and free to work as I wish, and I have protection.’[7] Now Rita finds shelter, living as an artist in a country where none were thought to exist. Says Douglas in return, ‘The old predicament of being a creative artist in a small remote country without real tradition—this is an intangible oppression.’[8]


A marriage of shared commitment to art and possibly convenience, it wasn’t destined to last. Four years later, Rita nearly dies from a faulty heart valve (quite literally, a broken heart), and is nursed back to health by one of her sisters. Afterwards, she no longer considers herself a wife. Instead, she is determined to persist, to live as an artist —and as a woman against the kind of categorisation that doggedly followed the rest of her life. In a letter to Douglas Lilburn written in 1946, twelve years later after her separation from Alf, Rita offers up an explanation for the disintegration of her marriage and marks out the space between her life as an artist, and the one as a wife. 

She says:


I was unhappy during my marriage because of the repression of my talents, though it was agreed before my marriage that we both painted. At first my husband did not wish me to paint in my way, but his, and in the third year of marriage, not at all. I gave up painting for the sake of peace … A few months later, I was seriously ill and five days on the verge of dying … When I was better I knew I could not remain with my husband, because I should probably become ill again and would die.

I have no ties with my earlier life, it is years old & redeemed. I have no regrets. I have forgetfulness & talent. Cass and all the paintings since would never have been painted, had I chosen to die. And that fine thread of beauty I am discovering in myself, which I give through my work, raises the quality for the world about me, just a little, if only a few see, it is still always there.[9]


One way to make a myth is to write it yourself.





[1] Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 1944. Quoted in Jennifer Higgie, The Mirror and the Palette: Rebellion, Revolution and Resistance: 500 years of women’s self-portraits, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021, p. 206.

[2] Douglas Lilburn, unpublished memoir of Rita Angus. Quoted in Jill Trevelyan, Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life, Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2008, p. 7. 

[3] James Shelley, ‘Art Exhibition: The Pictures,’ Lyttleton Times, 26 Mar. 1925, p. 11. Quoted in Jill Trevelyan, 2008, p. 25.

[4] Shelley is reviewing the inclusion of Rita Angus’s self-portrait in the annual Christchurch Society of Arts exhibition, in ‘The Year’s Art,’ Christchurch Times, 7 Apr. 1930, p. 13.  Quoted in Jill Trevelyan, 2008, p. 31. 

[5] Rita Angus, quoted in Jill Trevelyan, 2008, p. 38.

[6] Jill Trevelyan, 2008, p. 38.

[7] Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn,1942. Quoted in Jill Trevelyan, 2008, p. 39.

[8] Douglas Lilburn quoted in Janet Paul, ‘Biographical Essay,’ in Janet Paul et al., Rita Angus, Wellington: National Art Gallery, 1982, p. 35.

[9] Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 1946. Quoted in Jill Trevelyan, 2008, pp. 54-55.



Jess Clifford is a writer, editor and curator from Te Whanganui-a-Tara | Wellington, to where she has returned after several years working in art galleries and museums in London, most recently for the Tate. Alongside work on independent projects, she is currently Online Editor for CIRCUIT Artist Moving Image.


Return to 2023 contents >