Guy Stanley Overton and Rudolf Gopas
In the College Archives is a large portrait of a World War I soldier in uniform. We know the portrait is of Guy Stanley “Swannie” Overton 7/384 of the 1st Yeomanry Cavalry Squadron of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles.
Overton[i], and his brother Percy John Overton[ii], were both at Gallipoli and both died as a result of that encounter. Percy reconnoitered the route for the attack on Sari Bair Range by the Australian, Indian, Ghurka and New Zealand units and, according to Australian World War I correspondent and historian Charles Bean, “At dawn, on one such ridge near the last fork of the Agyhyl Dere, this very gallant officer was killed.”[iii]
Guy Overton worked on his father’s station Winterslow at Alford Forest, and then as the Inspector of Canterbury College Reserves before enlisting.[iv]He was badly wounded during a silent attack from the rear on a Turkish machine gun position at Walden’s Point. The next day he was on the beach at No 2 Outpost, waiting transport on the Hospital Ship Delta to Alexandria. He died on 10 August 1915 and was buried at sea.[v]
Why does College have the portrait?
The clue lies in the words written on the back of the portrait: “Miss ER Overton”. Ethel Rose Overton, who died 5 June 1963, made a bequest to the University of Canterbury and, in 1966, the university established a scholarship to support postgraduate students studying art history, art theory or fine arts.[vi]
Further investigation uncovered her will and the associated probate and there was the answer: “I give and bequeath to Christ’s College Canterbury as a Memorial to my late brother Guy Stanley Overton the sum of one thousand pounds free of all death duties to hold the same upon trust to invest the same in such manner as the Fellows of such school shall decided [sic] and to provide out of the income of such a sum a portrait of my said brother to be hung in some part of the school”.[vii]
The next two questions that emerged were: what was the source of the image for the portrait and who painted the portrait?
The first part of the question is relatively simple. Overton’s photograph can be found in the Christ’s College Register of December 1915 and in New Zealand’s Roll of Honour 1915, published in the Auckland Weekly News. And the artist who painted the portrait – a refugee from the next great global conflagration – arrived in New Zealand after the traumatic upheaval of World War II.
Rudi Gopas seems, at first sight, to be an unlikely artist for this portrait. His contribution to New Zealand art history is as a modernist artist, introducing first-hand knowledge of German expressionism to the New Zealand art community, exhibiting widely and teaching at the Canterbury School of Fine Arts between 1949 and 1977.
Rudolf Gopas (1913–1983) was born in a small German village on the Baltic coast, in present day Lithuania. At this time the village was a favoured summer retreat for members of the German expressionist groups who were experimenting with new, avant-garde ideas.[viii] They used vibrant colours and free, expressive brushstrokes, following the lead of artists like van Gogh and Gauguin who had paved the way for radical change in art.
Gopas studied painting in Lithuania, under teachers who espoused these advanced artistic ideas. A successful student, he gained his diploma, in the first category of his class, in 1939. War intervened, and after enforced military service with the Wehrmacht, he and his young family fled Lithuania as refugees as the Russian forces advanced.
The Gopas family arrived in New Zealand in 1949. World War II displaced numerous European artists to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and Gopas is interesting as the most noteworthy New Zealand example.[ix] Within the New Zealand art scene, his work must have been a breath of new life to those aware of international artistic trends. His modern practice was welcomed by the artists of the Independent Artists’ Group in Dunedin and the Group, the influential Canterbury artistic community.[x]
His significance for New Zealand art was confirmed by his appointment to the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts in 1960, a position he held for over 15 years, influencing a generation of significant artists – and many of them, like Philip Trusttum, Philippa Blair and Philip Clairmont, following his expressive pathway.[xi]
So, to the Overton portrait. Knowledge of paintings like The Trawlers (1959)[xii], Christchurch Art Gallery, or his later, near abstract, astronomical works, like Nebula (1969)[xiii], Auckland City Art Gallery, make this art work, at first sight, a surprising example of his oeuvre. Closer inspection, of course, reveals the deft brushstrokes in Overton’s moustache, facial modelling and uniform, the rough treatment of the sky and clouds and the swan-like neck which contradicts the realist requirement of a memorial portrait. The likeness is obvious when compared to the photograph used as the model, but Gopas has asserted a small touch of his own style to create a painting of its time.
Familiarity with Canterbury painting, still unacknowledged in the standard texts on his work, reveals Gopas’s extensive work in portraiture. Continuing a pattern established in his early years in Europe, he regularly supplemented his income by painting portraits. Although these were rarely exhibited, wealthy farmers and professionals throughout the South Island commissioned portraits from Gopas, who met demand with competent works, largely in watercolour. It was fashionable to have one's children painted by Gopas and he almost became a society name.[xiv] Though others – for example, Bill Sutton, who also taught at the School of Fine Arts – could have been commissioned, Gopas’s popularity and extensive experience clearly inspired Christ’s College in the choice of artist.
Thanks to Art History teacher Robyn Peers for her contribution.
[i] Guy Stanley Overton (1662). At College 1895–1904. Head Prefect, 1st XV 1901–04, 1st XI 1902–04, Captain of Cadets 1904; Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Lone Pine Memorial, Turkey, 71. https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/720380/overton,-guy-stanley/; Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kawanantanga Personnel Record
R 2138107 AABK 18805 W5549 108 0089219. It appears he was known as “Swannie” as his birthplace was Swananoa.
[ii] Percy John Overton (1542). At College 1892–94; 2nd and 7th contingents South African War. Queen’s Medal (3 clasps), King’s Medal, MID; Major Canterbury Mounted Rifles. Killed in Action, Gallipoli 11 August 1915. Now buried in the 7th Field Ambulance Cemetery, Turkey, https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/605626/overton,-percy-john/;
Archives New Zealand Record Te Rua Mahara o te Kawanatanga Personnel Records R12052254 AABK 18805 W5515 44 0004304 and R121383109 AABK 18805 W5549 108 0089221.
[iii] Quoted in Stowers, R (2005). Bloody Gallipoli: The New Zealanders’ Story. Auckland. David Bateman. p346.
[iv]Sun 18 August 1915; Christ’s College Register December 1915, p289.
[v] See “Unsung Gallipoli Heroes of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles”, https://ww100.govt.nz/unsung-gallipoli-heroes-of-the-canterbury-mounted-rifles
John Christopher Rolleston (1544) was also wounded in the same attack see The Press 22 October 1915, quoting a letter of Major Acton-Adams of 28 August 1915.
[vii] Overton, ER. 1963. Probate. Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te KawanaTanga ID R22317271 CAHX 2989 CH171 626/ CH1479/1963.
[ix] Furniss, KJ (1987). Rudolf Gopas (1913–1983). Unpublished thesis, University of Canterbury. p116.
[xiii] Art New Zealand 27, Winter 1983 https://www.art-newzealand.com/Issues21to30/gopas.htm
[xiv] As note 9, p32.