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Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill

“It was inevitable that Douglas would become a painter. As long as he could remember, everything came to him in colour, even the days of the week – Monday was grey-bluish green, while Tuesday arrived as a pale-bluish pink. Wednesday was luminous light yellow, and Thursday appeared a light-brownish yellow. Friday was heavy-ish dull blue grey, then came Saturday in warm tan. Sunday presented itself as radiant white. Colours can be applied in words, of course, but for him they came alive under the brush.”

Born in Taihape in 1922, DOUGLAS KERR MACDIARMID, the younger son of local doctor and surgeon Dr Gordon MacDiarmid and his wife Mary, went on to become one of this country’s most diverse, prolific and cultured expatriate artists, with his works held in many of the world’s best public and private collections.

In Colours of a Life, MacDiarmid’s niece, journalist Anna Cahill presents an accessible and fascinating biography of this talented bisexual man who had to leave New Zealand to find a life as a painter on his own terms. “The choice he faced in 1950 was “live in New Zealand and suffocate – or choose Europe and hope for a measure of root adaptation”.

Now almost 96, still resident in Paris (Montmartre), MacDiarmid is the oldest survivor of his extraordinary generation of creative New Zealanders, and perhaps a missing link – the one who got away and slid under the radar for choosing to pursue an international career rather than a domestic living. His life and insights have the distinction of straddling almost a century of cultural trends and influences, in New Zealand and abroad.

Despite living most of his life overseas, MacDiarmid has always remained acutely in tune with his homeland, as evinced by his 34 local solo exhibitions between 1949 and 2017. He revelled in his time in Christchurch in the 1940s. Described by Cahill as “a rare place to be… An unprecedented fusion of time, ideas and people made it, for a brief, glorious season, the centre of New Zealand creativity, culture and progressive thinking… This was the milieu of musician Frederick Page and his painter wife Evelyn; of composer Douglas Lilburn interacting with painters and poets; of big minds like philosopher Karl Popper and the inspiring Ngaio Marsh, to name but a few. They shared ideas and collaborated in a fluid exchange inspiring creativity and change.” They were his close friends, along with other artists, musicians, poets, progressive thinkers over several generations such as Rita Angus, Charles Brasch, Allen and Betty Curnow, Theo Schoon, Frank Sargeson and James Weir.

Not only is MacDiarmid a prodigious painter, he has been an illustrator, published poet and novelist, art tutor, and has written art critiques published in New Zealand and overseas.

Colours of a Life is divided into 13 chapters. It explores his early life, sexuality, vast creativity, significant relationships, important friendships and influences, successes and travels, as well as his beliefs and philosophies. The text uses Douglas’ voice as widely as possible, including a sprinkling of poems and quotes from his extensive correspondence. It is splendidly illustrated with 150 high-quality images, including reproductions of art work, personal photographs, and newspaper clippings.

It reveals a man of many contradictions: disciplined but wayward; generous but self-centred; articulate, erudite and classically grounded but mischievous and irreverently funny. He is an extraordinary individual, with a unique global view that has retained its intrinsic New Zealand-ness, and has a compelling story to tell of a life richly and unconventionally led.

This book is for anyone looking for inspiration to liberate their potential and dedicate their life to doing what they love.

“Anna Cahill’s biography is a paean to free-spiritedness, and to a colourful, passionate life, lived well beyond accepted boundaries. With many works in public collections nationwide, Douglas MacDiarmid is increasingly being recognised as a unique and indispensable figure in the artistic life of Aotearoa.”–  GREGORY O’BRIEN

Anna Cahill, biographer is a New Zealander, based in Brisbane, Australia. Born in Auckland, she grew up in Port Chalmers before moving across the Tasman with her own young family. Anna co-authored Fruit Fly Fighters, a history and crisis-management reference on the successful Queensland eradication of one of the world’s most invasive exotic pests, that was published by CSIRO in 2002. She is prouder of a volunteer assignment helping a woman paralysed by cerebral palsy find her voice to write and publish Wonky, a personal view of disability, in 2015.

Colours of a Life was a challenge of a different sort, working across three countries to chronicle the extraordinary career of a remarkable uncle, made possible with unlimited access to his personal papers, thoughts and considerable recall.

Colours of a Life: the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill |
Mary Egan Publishing | Full colour hardback | Published 18 July 2018 | RRP $80

For a review copy, extract enquiries, or interviews with Anna Cahill please contact Penny Hartill, hPR, 021 721 424,



12 July, 6pm     New Zealand Portrait Gallery. Supporting exhibition Colours of a Life: Douglas MacDiarmid of 16 portraits and figurative paintings from private and public collections in the Wellington area, dating from 1945 to 2013, will be on public display from 13 July to 23 September 2018. 

14 July, 11am   New Zealand Portrait Gallery. Biographer Anna Cahill and Director Jaenine Parkinson present a Curator’s Talk on the stories behind the MacDiarmid paintings on display.

18 July, 6pm     Wallace Arts Trust’s Pah Homestead at Hillsborough, 6pm. Auckland book launch, including a one-night ‘Circle of Friends’ show of paintings to celebrate MacDiarmid’s life and work.

Christchurch Art Gallery           Colours of Life book talk, and potential exhibition, at a date to be confirmed in the gallery’s September-November 2018 public activities programme.

Dunedin           Book talk later in the year at a date and venue to be confirmed.

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