Spring by Joan Dukes


This article first appeared in The Press as 'Spring, a breath of fresh air' on 7 July 2016.

Joan Dukes’s Spring, depicted as a young woman with flowing locks and a daisy crown, is a superb piece of illustration design, and likely made before her arrival in New Zealand in 1936. Encircled by British woodland flowers, a bending branch and hazel catkins, the graceful figure embodies nature’s renewal and the season’s return. Frolicking lambs and a nest of baby birds complete the complex, multi-layered composition.

Joan Dukes is not well known, but this highly accomplished work – one of sixteen bequeathed by the artist in 1994 – should make us want to see and know more. Born Joan Ivory Packham in Croydon near London in 1903, she was the eldest child of Claude and Emma Elizabeth Packham; her father an industrial chemist with a local mineral water manufacturer. Joan studied and then taught at the Croydon School of Art, and was recognised for her talents, being commended for her book illustrations in the Royal Society of Arts’ Competition of Industrial Designs in 1926 and 1927. She also began teaching at this time, specialising in figure drawing, illustration and the history of costume, adding dress design to her teaching responsibilities at a school in nearby Surrey in 1933. She also took commissions for illustration and stage costume design.

Joan Packham moved to New Zealand after marrying the Northland-born Russell Dukes, and they settled in New Plymouth. Although finding little scope for her work at first, she exhibited to critical success from 1937 with the Auckland Society of Arts and from 1938 with the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington. Joan Dukes gave private art lessons in New Plymouth during the war, and began illustrating for the School Journal in 1945. She also began exhibiting paintings, drawings and illustrations with the Canterbury Society of Arts in 1948. She and her husband moved shortly afterwards to St. Kilda in Dunedin. At the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts exhibition in 1950 she was praised by a reviewer, who found it ‘refreshing to see such varied and inventive stitchery by Joan Dukes. Her delightful embroidery was such good fun with the needle and thread’. The Dukes moved to Christchurch in 1952, and this city remained their home.

Joan Dukes had a retrospective exhibition at the Canterbury Society of Arts in 1983, and mentioned at this time latter career highlights including designing costumes for Coppelia for the opening of the Town Hall in 1973 and set design for the Southern Ballet’s version of the same production in 1976. She also described her lifelong interest ‘in draughtsmanship and the art of book illustration endeavouring to follow the tradition of the great masters of line’ describing her principal aim as ‘the expression of subtleties of line and structure in natural form, but with a sense of their underlying pattern.’ These goals reflected her early Arts and Crafts movement-influenced training, as did the inspirations she listed – ‘formal and stylised realism in ancient Egyptian and Asiatic art, in Romanesque and early Gothic carving, and from Victorian illustration and 20th century wood cuts’.

This watercolour painting is currently on display, and it feels like a discovery.