Les Stapp, 1937
Les Stapp, 1937
For a period in the mid to late 1930s, imaginary portraits existed side by side with more conventional portraits but by 1938 were being phased out in preference to oil portraits of known people. This transition is evident in Bensemann’s contributions to CSA exhibitions between 1935 and 1938. In 1935 his three contributions are all watercolour landscapes; his first portrait, Smiling Man (a probable self-portrait), appears in 1936; in 1937 three portraits are shown, two in the imaginary portrait mode
(the well-known St Olaf and St Francis, both now in Christchurch Art Gallery), while the third is ‘Portrait of a Young Man’, probably the portrait of Denis Glover (Simpson, Fantastica, p. 28), though it is also possible that it was the portrait of an unknown young man wearing a hat which is dated 1937 (Otto, Portraits, p. 47). In 1938 all three of the portraits shown at the CSA were of known people – a self-portrait, a portrait of his sister Peggy (Simpson, Fantastica, p. 5) and Les Stapp. Huntsman (see below) shown at the Group Show in 1938 is apparently the last portrait in imaginary mode done by Bensemann until he returned to the mode in the 1960s.
In September 1937 Bensemann wrote to Lawlor, ‘I am up to my neck in unfinished work – five unfinished portraits in oils and four more black and white drawings’.* It is a reasonable inference that one of these five portraits was that of Les Stapp since it is signed and dated 1937 and was shown at the CSA annual exhibition in March
1938. Stapp, who lived in Wellington with his wife Marge – his address 35 Sugarloaf Rd, Brooklyn is given on the verso of the picture – was a cousin and family friend. Leo obviously knew him well and liked him since they sometimes corresponded with each other between the late 1930s and the late 1950s. In 1939, for instance, Leo sent Les a print of his first woodcut, Strange Outlandish Fowle, and gave him news about Caxton publications and Group Show activities. They had a common interest in Japanese and Chinese art. In one letter Bensemann promises to return a book about Hiroshige he had borrowed from Stapp, and in a later letter (early 1950s) describes various Japanese woodblock prints he has acquired.
In the first surviving letter (7 November 1939) there is discussion of a damaged frame. Leo writes: ‘Now, I’m sorry that frame got damaged. I couldn’t get another piece – Gibb, who framed it, went bankrupt and out of business last year. Fisher had nothing that would do. Picture mouldings, for some reason I’ve never been able to understand, mysteriously disappear every now and then. Or so I’ve found: or else I’m talking a lot of damn rubbish. However, I’ll have another go at Fisher – next time I’m buying a lot of stuff. Then he may be eager to please.’**
It is quite possible this refers to the portrait of Stapp because on the back of the picture is a sticker from Fisher & Son, Fine Arts Dealers, Christchurch, suggesting that Bensemann had arranged for the damaged frame to be replaced as he mentions in the letter.
As for the painting itself, the subject is a man in his forties or fifties wearing an open-necked white shirt and black jacket. His hair is dark, greying at the sideburns and somewhat thinning on top. His features are strongly delineated, with black eyebrows, pale blue eyes, a squarish face with somewhat heavy jowls and a prominent dimple in his chin. He is depicted against a dark green background which merges into black on the right hand side. There is a vivid strip of dark pink, probably a drape, extending down the left hand side of the picture, bringing a welcome touch of colour to the otherwise rather sombre colouring of the piece.
* LB to Lawlor, 16 September 1937, quoted in Simpson, Fantastica, p. 21
** LB to Les Stapp, 7 November 1939