Remembering Roger Blackley

Victoria University of Wellington and the wider art history community suffered a tremendous loss this year with the passing of Associate Professor Roger Blackley—but his memory lives on.

Roger Blackleywearing glasses sitting indoors infront of a wall with some paintings and a table with potted plants.

A celebrated art curator, writer, teacher, and scholar, Roger was internationally renowned for his research on colonial New Zealand art. He began teaching at Victoria University of Wellington in 1998 and remained in the University’s Art History programme until his retirement earlier this year.

His scholarship had a strong bicultural underpinning and helped to forge a new appreciation of the way painters such as Charles Goldie and Gottfried Lindauer worked in partnership with Māori rather than treating them as passive subjects. He was also an authority on spotting forgeries and was often called on by art institutions and the media to comment on forged works or thefts.

Roger was the author of many books, including the recent work Galleries of Maoriland: Artists, Collectors and the Māori World, 1880–1910, which was shortlisted for the University of Melbourne’s Ernest Scott Prize. He also curated two exhibitions at Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi at Victoria University of Wellington.

Former student Dr Rebecca Rice, who now works at Te Papa Tongarewa as a curator of historical New Zealand art, remembers Roger as an outstanding teacher and mentor.

“Roger and I both began our careers at Victoria University of Wellington in 1998. I was a slightly ‘mature’ student who thought I was majoring in music. He was a curator-turned-lecturer who’d just arrived from Auckland Art Gallery,” Rebecca says.

“The shift from museum to academia came easily to Roger. He was a charismatic teacher with an endlessly erudite and often entertaining approach to what he called an ‘anecdotal’ art history. In the face of this talent, I’d changed my major within a year and, 12 years later, I graduated with a PhD in colonial New Zealand art, guided by Roger every step of the way.

“He was proud of all his students, who have ended up all over the globe, in all kinds of roles. He instilled in us a great love of art, great intellectual rigour, and the importance of attending to both over kai!

“We are all feeling the loss of a remarkable and much-loved teacher, scholar, mentor, colleague, and friend. Moe mai ra e te rangatira.”

Emeritus Professor Lydia Wevers warmly describes a “delightful, humorous, and generous colleague”.

“He always had time for a cup of tea at the table in the Art History department, while students and colleagues picked his brains and laughed at his jokes. But his easy-going and ironic manner was just the shop window for what was an encyclopaedic and brilliant mind.

“No one knew as much as Roger about nineteenth-century New Zealand or could diverge as fluently into Victorian narrative painting, contemporary artists, or weird objects across the world.

“His presence on the Kelburn campus is deeply missed, but his intellectual presence, exemplified in his overcrowded office that broke all the rules of health and safety, lives on in the work of many of his students and colleagues.

“Haere ra Roger, life is not the same without you.”