From the New Zealand Life & Leisure Magazine archives – July 2011
Tucked away in Clyde is a villa that’s been both frame and backdrop for Neil Driver’s art.
Hidden away behind a high hedge in Clyde, the hot heart of central Otago, is a patched-up Edwardian villa that has provided inspiration for a lifetime of painting. Some of Neil Driver’s most recognisable images show the Central Otago landscape, or an uninhabited seashore, as if glimpsed through a window or door frame in the house where he has lived with his wife Christine since 1974.
“Neil’s paintings concentrate on the doors and windows here; the chairs, tables and vases – things we’ve collected over the years,” says Christine.Neil nods in agreement. “I knew I wanted to be a realist painter working with interiors, mood and atmosphere after seeing a book about the work of the American artist Andrew Wyeth when I was 18 years old. Later I was influenced by the 17th century Dutch painters Vermeer and de Hooch – looking through doors and windows and creating a frame within a frame.
At high school, Neil studied art for the first two years but was then encouraged to take academic subjects. He later went on to gain a degree in accountancy, which he hated, but continued to draw and paint as a hobby. “When we got married, Christine was still at teachers’ college and we needed to pay the rent so I offered to do black and white pen and wash sketches of Maori Hill [Dunedin] houses.” Three sketches a week at $20 per house gave them enough money to live on. Then Neil mounted an exhibition at Dunedin’s Moray Gallery with renowned artist Shona McFarlane and the proceeds helped them raise the deposit they needed to buy the villa in Pyke Street, Clyde. It had been built as a vicarage in 1906 but had fallen into disrepair. “The house was a wreck when we bought it and we’ve had a lifetime of running repairs,” says Neil. He learned on the job, initially practising what he calls chainsaw joinery to remove built-in cupboards that he turned into doorways. He gibbed the walls and replaced the bearer boards and joists.”The floors were full of borer,” Christine remembers.
“Part of what is now the sitting room was the original master bedroom. When we first moved in, Neil jumped up to grab the tangled cord of a window blind and crashed through the floor when he landed.” The house is never static. During the time of the Drivers’ tenure, every room has served more than one purpose. Through the French doors leading to the verandah of what is now the third incarnation of their bedroom, Neil and Christine can hear the constant sound of falling water as the Earnscleugh water race spills into the pounamu-green Clutha River. “We’ve never lost the sense of how lucky we are to live here,” says Christine. “And it’s a privilege to be surrounded by so many of Neil’s beautiful paintings.” Neil’s sister Joan Lawrence (whose house and garden appeared in NZ House & Garden in September 2005 and June 2006 went to university with Grahame Sydney who became Neil’s mentor when he began painting and remains a good friend. “In the early days he gave me constructive criticism, which made me re-evaluate my work,” says Neil.
“Elizabeth Stevens, an artist from Alexandra who was of my parents’ generation, was another mentor. Other than their influence, I’m self-taught. The Drivers were married for 10 years before starting their family and Neil, who had vowed never to use his accountancy degree, looked after the children – Josh, now 27, and George, now 22 – for 10 years while Christine taught full-time.
“We had a friend who liked to weave, so Neil would have her little boy and ours one day so she could weave then they’d swap the next so he could paint. He’d bring the little one to school so I could breastfeed down by the river and he’d prepare the meals at night while I looked after the children.”
Over the years Neil and Christine have bought two neighbouring properties so their grounds now cover about 4000sqm, including a guest house overlooking the Clutha River. Quail and rabbits scuttle through the shrubberies and dry stone walls of the garden, which is Christine’s domain. “I hate gardening. I never garden. I take the loads to the tip and do the construction work,” says Neil. “When you’ve been at school all day, gardening is pleasurable,” says Christine. “Neil has this calm, peaceful atmosphere all the time but for me at school, there’s none of that. I let the garden look after itself in summer and I do the hard work in the August-September school holidays. It’s been paradise to have that land down by the river.” Neil has always had a tightly disciplined approach to his art. He starts work five days a week between 8am and 9am, takes regular breaks for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea and stops just before the evening meal. His paintings have taken on a new dimension since he and Christine bought a campervan in 2009. Travel to coastal locations has allowed him to draw inspiration from a wider geography. The images seen through the doors and windows in the Pyke Street house now depict not only the sere plains of Central Otago but also the shores and seascapes of Bull Creek, Moeraki, Kaka Point, Taieri Mouth, Brighton and the Catlins. He photographs the scenes then works on the computer in his studio, making composites from which to paint. “The art is in the idea and constructing that to create a mood with light,” he says. “The rest is part judgment and part technique.
The bravest thing we did around the house was: Shifting the kitchen to the sunny north end of the house. Neil managed to do this himself while looking after a one-year-old. (Christine)
A renovation low point was: Lowering a 5m flue down an existing chimney while friends manoeuvred it with climbing ropes, only to discover we had inserted it upside down. It was a much more difficult job getting it out of the chimney! (Neil)
The thing I want to change next is: Turn our current bedroom into a living room to take further advantage of our north-facing verandah; add more French doors for the winter sun. (Christine)
We love this part of New Zealand because of: The amazing landscape, the opportunities to enjoy nature, the clarity of the light, the usually hot, dry summers and crisp winters. (Neil).
If you’re visiting the area we recommend: Cycling the Clutha River track, which you can enter just below the Clyde Bridge. I try to fit this into my daily routine. (Neil).
The one thing you must see when you visit is: The historic precinct with the stone buildings and schist walls, built when Clyde was the centre of the gold rush. (Christine)
The best time to visit the region is: The seasons are so marked that every time has something different to offer, from the hot, dry summers to the spectacular autumn colours, the clear, crisp winters and the spring blossom. (Christine).