Monday, January 04, 2016

Tim Francis 1928-2016

Visiting exhibitions with Tim and Sherrah Francis could be a challenge. The first-stop-bookshop, quick look round the exhibition and then off for coffee routine was not for them. Infinitely curious and lovers of detail and history, they would stare down the works on show as if their lives depended on it. In Wellington there weren't many important openings or interesting talks (and some pretty uninteresting ones too) where Tim and Sherrah didn’t make an appearance. It is hard to believe we will never see them again as a couple coming up the stairs at 147 Cuba Street, standing around with the rest of us at openings or ushering us around their collection in Talavera Terrace. If that is a great sadness for us it must be almost unimaginable for Sherrah and a huge loss for his children and family.

Tim spent his professional life in the diplomatic service. He was one of a group of Foreign Affairs staff who from the 1960s understood the importance of culture in NZ's dealings with other nations and in particular the role the visual arts could play. The result was not only an important collection assembled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself, but a lifelong commitment to New Zealand art by many of its senior staff. The Corners, the Norrishes and the Francises all collected art as families and all had a close connection with the Wellington art dealer Peter McLeavey. His exhibitions year after year introduced this appreciative audience to works by Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters, Toss Woollaston, Rita Angus and more recently Julian Dashper, John Reynolds, Peter Robinson, Yvonne Todd and so many others. Wellington was certainly the richer for the support and sophistication of this generation of collectors.

Tim and Sherrah were always private in their obsession with art and their passionate support of New Zealand artists but their home was a revelation. Every evening with them ended for us with a leisurely circuit of paintings we came to know very well along with lengthy discussions of what was new, what was interesting, what had to be moved to make room for an addition. And always conversations about artists, about exhibitions in NZ and overseas, about books and history and what it meant to live in this place. Their travels were always focused on art whether it be to study collections they already knew well or to find new inspirations.

When Tim was Ambassador to the United States in the late 1980s, it was during the difficult period following NZ's declaration that it would be nuclear free. The United States was not at all happy and made sure that our ambassador knew this every single day. Tim quietly went about his profession and even spearheaded during this challenging period the presentation in the US of the exhibition Pacific Parallels. Thanks to his tenacity some of the greatest New Zealand paintings as selected by Charles Eldredge were secured for tour outside the country. In such a climate it was a remarkable achievement. Tim wrote in the preface of the publication of his hope that this exhibition would 'emphasize once again how many things our two peoples share, not only our language, a sense of justice, and belief in democracy but also an energetic and lively artistic tradition.' And that hat was pure Tim Francis, staunch, idealistic and a committed New Zealander.

Then there was his famous charm and self-effacing manner, always backed up with a resolve that was rarely thwarted. Put that together with Sherrah’s unbending determination and it was little wonder they so often managed to snag the very best works from some legendary exhibitions. To be part of the Wellington art scene and never again see Tim standing shoulder to shoulder with Sherrah is going to take some getting used to.