Friday, March 04, 2016

Sherrah Francis 1929-2016

Just two months after Tim, her long-time companion, husband and fellow collector, Sherrah Francis has died. It ends one of the great art collecting adventures New Zealand has seen. From their shared fascination with history sparked at the University of Auckland, they walked in step. They married in 1954 and from then on through a life of family, travel and art Sherrah’s vitality and ardor propelled them. Before heading for London in 1957 Sherrah worked at the National Library in Wellington honing her knowledge of New Zealand history. This expertise found its scariest expression when she and Janet Paul worked with manuscripts and art works at the Alexander Turnbull Library. In those days the Library was on the Terrace and Janet and Sherrah made formidable guardians with a deep and sometimes challenging knowledge of the collections. 

By the early 1970s her three children Paul, Sarah and Emma were growing up and a few prints and paintings were turning into a major collection. Of the many highlights of this remarkable collection were Colin McCahon’s The canoe Tainui, possibly the first and certainly one of the greatest of Gordon Walters’ koru paintings Te Whiti,  and Toss Woollaston’s portrait of Charles Brasch. They also became friends with the reserved Rita Angus purchasing a number of works. 

If Tim was the quiet mind of consideration Sherrah often headed up the hunt. Naturally acquisitive and often alarmingly curious, she delighted in developing her own point of view and fiercely advocating for it. Her personal interest in early studio ceramics in New Zealand quickly focused on the work of women such as Olive Jones and Briar Gardner. Another passion perhaps sprang from her years at the Turnbull and her fascination with how early British settlers in New Zealand struggled to come to grips with this new landscape. What the resulting works often lacked in polish they certainly made up for in commitment and honesty giving the Francis collection an edge that made every visit to Tim and Sherrah pure pleasure. 
Image: Sherrah and Tim Francis checking out a jewelry exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum

(Sherrah's funeral will be at 2pm on Thursday 10 March at St Peter's, Willis Street Wellington.)