Hugh Cato, 1939
Hugh Cato, 1939
Hugh Cato was an English-born Christchurch businessman who was at one stage manager of Cato Motors in the city. How Bensemann met him is unknown but it is probable that the portrait was a commission, possibly as a result of his seeing portraits by Bensemann at CSA or Group Show exhibitions. Bensemann’s portrait was exhibited at the Group in 1940 as Hugh Cato Esq. Along with portraits of Faye Pearless, Lawrence Baigent and Caroline Oliver. The Press reviewer praised these portraits as being ‘pleasing as colour-patterns and for their insight into character’.* Perhaps the portrait did not meet with Mr Cato’s approval as Bensemann seems to have retained it in his own collection. He obviously valued the work, however, as it was included later in a couple of exhibitions – at Auckland City Art Gallery in 1960 as part of an exhibition called The New Zealand Realist Tradition, and again at Bensemann’s Retrospective Exhibition at Rue Pompallier Gallery, Akaroa, in 1972. There is a photograph of Bensemann working at this portrait holding a traditional kidney-shaped artist’s palette in his hand and wearing an embroidered artist’s smock, apparently made for him by Rita Angus. The painting is attached to an easel that was made for Bensemann by his school friend Ray Gilbert.** It is probably this portrait that Bensemann refers to in a letter to Gilbert thanking him for making the easel: ‘I am working on a new portrait which I started against my better judgment but which has turned out well – largely due to the easel I suspect. However, as it’s the first thing I’ve painted on it I consider it all very auspicious.”*** Perhaps Bensemann was dubious about the portrait because he did not know the subject, a rare circumstance for him as he usually painted only close friends or family members. The subject is strongly characterised with his piercing green eyes, bald head, definite features and self-confident verging on haughty expression. There is a family story that Bensemann provocatively painted Cato with a red tie which has of course left-wing connotations and which presumably did not rest easy with the self-assured business man. The crazed effect visible in the background of the picture appears to be the result of aging rather than a deliberate effect, though it is confined to the background and is not anywhere apparent on the figure itself.
* Quoted in Simpson, Fantastica, p. 70
** See the photograph in Otto, Portraits, p. 67 and Simpson, Fantastica, p. 70
*** Quoted in Otto, Portraits, p. 66