Miranda Looks Back – a reminiscence of John Gully

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Myrtle Lee was born in Taranaki in 1876. Her father was the educationalist Robert Lee, and her grandfather the painter John Gully. Lee studied at the Slade School of Art, London, and became art mistress at Heathfield School, Ascot. In the 1950s she wrote ‘Miranda Looks Back’, an unpublished book of illustrated childhood reminiscences written for children. In one chapter Lee recalls her impressions of her grandparents’ and their house at Nelson in the 1880s:

Our grandparents lived across in the other island and we all loved to go and stay with them in their large gabled wooden house with a verandah all round and a big rose garden. I slept in a wee fairy-tale bedroom up in one of the gables.
They both seemed incredibly old but I think now it was their solemn ways and clothes, and because I was so young.

There was a mystery about them – especially my grandfather, who disappeared all day and was not to be disturbed. He appeared at meals. There he sat with his white whiskers and his kind eyes with their heavy eyelids like my mother’s. I scarcely took my eyes off his face and wondered what he did all day.

I knew what grandmother did. She bustled about the house seeing to old May who did the housework. Seeing to the gardener who produced the fruit and vegetables. Seeing to her sewing parties. These latter were made up of legions of good women doing good works for the poor. They sent off crates of strange and useful garments for Dr Barnado’s Homes in England.

It wasn’t exactly a house for children – we had to be so very good, and what was worse, we wanted to be. Were they not the mother and father of our mother? Yes, and so gentle and kind. These quiet old things living in a sleepy hollow of a town were the same doughty pioneers who landed on a rough beach some 50 years before.

One never-to-be-forgotten day I was exploring the rather rambling house and found a door, usually shut, wide open. There was no one in it. It was full of light which came from a skylight, and big French windows with shutters opened into a rose garden bright with the sun. There among the roses was my grandfather. But it was the room that caught my attention.

So that was it – a studio! My grandfather was an artist. I stared at the unfinished picture on the easel, at the paintboxes and the brushes, at all the lovely paraphernalia, and I crept away, most satisfied, for from that house I knew what I was going to do when I grew up.

[Lee, Myrtle: Reminiscences entitled ‘Miranda Looks Back’. Misc-MS-1997.]

Blogpost researched and written by David Murray, Assistant Archivist.

This entry was posted in Painting and Painters by Anna Blackman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Anna Blackman

I'm Head Curator Archives here at the Hocken Collections and one of my tasks is to maintain this blog.

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