than 30 years after her death, my grandmother Ruth Haydon Duval-Smith remains one of the most influential people in my life. It’s hard to explain why. We lived quite distantly and saw each other infrequently. Yet all this time later, thinking of her can bring tears to my eyes. It took me years to realise that she would not have died disappointed that I had failed to answer her last letter.
Ruth taught me how to identify shepherd’s purse and fuschia, morning glory and alpine strawberry. She knew how to create a tiny mauve umbrella from the flower of a scotch thistle, a trick that even now, I have no idea how to recreate.
I could tell a pied stilt from an oystercatcher before I turned five, simply by our observing together at the water’s edge on the Otago Pensinsula.
We made afgans in a blue Kenwood mixer, cross-stitched on gingham and created elaborate paper cutouts from a yellow and black hardback book I still have today. We read Thornton Burgess’ Reddy Fox and Old Man Coyote, Ernest Thompson Seton and the frightening Victorian Struwwelpeter. We read Rackham’s Brothers Grimm, the Snow Goose and the Snow Queen, the black and white illustrations of which she had coloured herself, in an act shocking to my younger eyes. Her Morris and Liberty fabrics lodged themselves firmly in my pattern consciousness.
It’s difficult to know what kind of a relationship we might have had if she had lived longer, but I would like to think that our shared interests would have endured. I find that even in some of my modern decisions, my feeling for what is right is rooted in a sense of her, and in particular her connection to Anthroposophy and the natural world.
Publically, she was well known as an accomplished watercolourist, specialising in South Island landscapes, one of which is held in the Hocken Library. I have some on my walls today. I also have a small brown vinyl notebook in which she pencilled the prices paid for some of these lovely works, heartbreakingly low by today’s standards.
Ironically, it was precisely her talent which created in me the odd idea that I would never be able to paint, let alone in ‘her’ medium of watercolour. Somehow, I absorbed the idea that watercolour is a precise, difficult, unforgiving form, intolerant of error and hidebound by a number of arcane rules about equipment, paper treatment and colour order.
To my complete surprise I have found out that quite the opposite is true. It’s fast, Great, I’m impatient! It’s portable. Excellent, I like to carry it with me! If you don’t stretch and tape your paper down it warps and creates strange blotchy runbacks in that paint. I particularly like that. My painting is nothing like hers. Doesn’t matter!
For me watercolour is primarily an expressive and emotional artform, not an intellectual one. It requires a relinquishing of a certain amount of control. You can see this in some of the more Steiner influenced works Ruth made, which were not made public.
One of my favourite things about the medium is that you never know quite how it’s going to turn out, which makes for surprises. Like many of us today, in this thinking age, my life to date has been overwhelmingly brain-led. It’s such a relief to go somewhere where thinking doesn’t matter, only creating.
I think my grandmother would have understood this.
NOTE: My father has supplied the following biographical information:
Ruth was born on 21 May 1915 and died 21 June 1978. After schooling in Gisborne and Levin, Ruth studied at the Elam school of Art for one year, but was unable to fund further training. After raising a family she studied under H.V. Miller in Dunedin. South Island landscapes were her love and watercolour her medium. Her skies are particularly beautiful.