Appeal to identify Scots in New Zealand painting

'Two Auld Wifies, Dundee'. The McManus Art Gallery is attempting to identify the two women. Picture: Contributed
'Two Auld Wifies, Dundee'. The McManus Art Gallery is attempting to identify the two women. Picture: Contributed
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ONE of Scotland’s leading art galleries is launching an appeal to discover the identity of two elderly Dundee women depicted in an oil painting which has been gifted to the city by a leading New Zealand artist.

Ron Stenberg’s Two Auld Wifies, Dundee (1982), which is due to go on display later this year at The McManus art gallery and museum in Dundee, features the women who used to meet up for a chat and sit outside Boots the chemist at the corner of Reform Street near the City Square every Friday afternoon after doing their shopping.

Ron Stenberg. Picture: Contributed

Ron Stenberg. Picture: Contributed

In the painting the two friends are dressed in their heavy winter coats and woollies against the cold weather. On their feet are sensible, sturdy shoes. One of them, dressed mostly in brown and clutching a bright red purse, is talking, while the other, wearing a jaunty hat, has her head turned towards her friend, listening.

Stenberg, 96, turned down two “considerable” offers – one of around £100,000 – from private collectors eager to expand their collection of Scottish art, to give the painting to the city of Dundee. It has arrived in Scotland after being shipped over from Auckland.

Stenberg, who was head of department at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in the city before returning to New Zealand, did sketches of the pair before completing the work at his studio in Wormit, Newport-on-Tay.

“These two old women would sit outside Boots the chemist on a bench at the corner of Reform Street and City Square, discussing their shopping and chatting away. I happened to see them one day and I sat on the other side of the square with my sketchbook,” he said.

When I showed the painting at the university one of the janitors came in and said ‘that’s my auntie, she’s there every Friday’

Ron Stenberg

“I think it was all the gossip from the Hilltown, a part of Dundee, probably about their neighbours and what they’d bought that day.

“I’ve been looking at people all my life. I like characters and thought they’d make a grand painting. These two characters were sitting there completely oblivious to everyone else. I sketched them a couple of times. They never even saw me.”

Stenberg added: “When I showed the painting at the university one of the janitors came in and said ‘that’s my auntie, she’s there every Friday’. It’s a lovely picture. I think people will enjoy it, it is so much part of their home.”

Susan Keracher, art curator at The McManus, said the gallery wanted people to come forward if they recognised the women.

“One of our staff looked at the painting and said ‘I’m sure I recognise those women’. We would be interested in finding out who they are and would love to hear from anyone who recognises them.

“We’re absolutely delighted to have this painting. It’s a fabulous double portrait of very ordinary people, two wifies.

“A lot of our portraits are of lord provosts and well-known men who were large in the history of Dundee, though there are some of women too. Stenberg’s painting is very modern, very evocative of the spirit of Dundee. It’s a quite unusual painting, very refreshing.

“When you see it you smile, it makes you feel you have an familiarity with them.”

Keracher added: “Ron sent a letter with the painting which said ‘My regards to Dundee. I still miss Scotland very much’.”

Stenberg was accepted into the Elam School of Art in Auckland at the age of 12. He serving as a mapping officer in the Second World War, arriving in Dundee in 1960. He became artist in residence with the Black Watch in Germany and has a painting in the Queen’s private collection.

Stenberg returned to New Zealand in 1991.