Nelson Suter Art Society
One Hundred and Twenty Years of Art in the Nelson Region
Nelson has always been a community entrenched in, and fascinated by art. For 120 years, the Nelson Suter Art Society (NSAS), formerly The Bishopdale Sketching Club, has embraced and nurtured the whirlwind of talent and culture that has developed in the region. By keeping artists in touch with each other, spreading ideas and organising exhibitions, the Society has held together a community of artists and helped spread the beauty and joy of art throughout the city, aided by their close contact with The Suter Memorial Art Gallery, Nelson.
The strong arts culture in Nelson emerged with Bishop Suter and his founding of The Bishopdale Sketching Club in 1889, which paved the way for a strong emphasis on enjoyment and participation in arts in the Nelson community. London-based Anglican Bishop, Andrew Burn Suter, arrived in Nelson with his wife Amelia Damaris Suter aboard the Cissy on 26th September 1867. ‘Full of energy'1, the Bishop was the perfect man to become the second Bishop of the Nelson diocese, after the previous Bishop, Edmund Hobhouse, resigned. His ‘robust hardworking' nature and ‘wide interests'2 provided him with the ability to appeal to people from around the community, whilst his ‘scholarly, energetic, generous, public spirited'3 nature enabled him to make friends easily and form a strong base of supporters in the region. His friendship with John Gully, a local painter, encouraged and extended in the Bishop a strong interest in art, and his personal art collection grew over the years as he further developed relationships with prominent artists of the time.
On August 13th 1889 the Bishop furthered his interest in art by founding the Bishopdale Sketching club, a group of fourteen members of the Nelson community with interests in the fine arts. The group met monthly at the Bishop's school to discuss and share drawings of a topic chosen the previous month by the Bishop in his role as president. The club helped Nelson artists to share ideas and gather inspiration while also keeping artists in touch with the art community in the region. The club's critic was Bishop Suter until 1891 when B.A. Branfill took over the role. In the third official record book of the club, Branfill has written critiques of each month's works, including studies of topics as broad as ‘oranges and bananas (July 1891)' and ‘silver and gold (October 1891)'.4 The Bishopdale Sketching club continued to meet monthly and grew over the years, branching out into three different sections of membership: life, ordinary and working. In 1892 the club participated in its first sketch exchange with another club, forming artistic relationships which shared works around the country.
As the Club grew and developed further, however, Bishop Suter's health deteriorated considerably, resulting in a decline in his participation in the final years of his life. The Bishop had been sick since suffering a stroke in 1890, and in 1895 his death came as an expected blow to the club and Nelson region alike. ‘Mourned by the whole Nelson community'5, the Bishop's passing was a fitting reason for the establishment of a memorial in the region to commemorate his life of work in the community. The Bishop had discussed with his wife Amelia his, ‘long cherished wish'6 to present an art gallery for the enjoyment of the people of Nelson in the years before his death, and it seemed fitting to Amelia that the Bishop's love of, and enthusiasm for the arts be remembered in the form of a gallery for others to enjoy. Amelia, honouring her husband's wishes, gifted the Bishop's entire art collection (including several of John Gully's paintings), money from the Bishop's estate and a piece of land. She then left Nelson, to die a year later in her hometown of London.
The Bishop's long-time friend and successor, Bishop Charles O. Mules, became chairman of a committee to establish an art gallery in Nelson. He also took over presidency of the Sketching Club, which underwent a name change to ‘The Suter Art Society' (NSAS) shortly after Bishop Suter's death, commemorating its founder. Bishop Mules and Miss Nina Jones (secretary of the art society since its formation) worked together with the rest of the society and a Suter Memorial Gallery board of trustees to gather funds and support for the gallery, which opened in May 1899. It seemed fitting then, that the first exhibition held in the gallery be for members of the Suter Art Society, which had, ‘in the eleven years since its formation.. .become an established local identity'7. The exhibition was in conjunction with the camera club of Nelson which gave the exhibition a distinctly local feel. In 1901 the NSAS and board of trustees formalised their agreement to work alongside each other stating that, ‘The society has free use of the gallery for exhibitions and meetings, and the Society renders what assistance it can to the trustees'8. This relationship between gallery and society still stands today and, with the addition of the McKee Room in 1973, to which the Art Society were given and still hold indefinite right of occupancy, the bond was strengthened between the two groups.
As time passed, and Nelson grew larger and began to flourish, the region held onto its arts' roots, and developed as a society deeply embedded in the art world. Annual events such as the WearableArts and Nelson Arts Festival show the city's obvious passion for the arts. The Art Society has had a tremendous involvement in nurturing and developing art in the region. Phillipa Askew, president of the NSAS wrote in 1989, said that "The fact that the Society still flourishes after one hundred years is testament to the importance that many have placed on the visual arts and their contribution to the cultural life of the province."9 Nelson has embraced the passion and dedication to the arts of Bishop Suter and brought it to life in a now thriving city, aided by a society that allows artists to meet and share ideas and inspiration monthly.
Janet Bathgate joined the NSAS when she moved to Nelson in 1976, after studying fine arts in Christchurch. She saw the Society as an "inexpensive way to exhibit as a young up and coming artist" and have her work exhibited in a "well respected gallery (The Suter)." Janet went on to become a prominent Nelson artist, holding exhibits around the region and around New Zealand. She said the art society was "nurturing" and provided "networking opportunities"10 when she was first finding her feet in the art world. The NSAS has helped some high achieving artists to find their way in the art world, supporting now well known Nelson artists such as Jane Evans, Sally Burton, Grant Pallisar, Austen Davies and Toss Woollaston as an early member. What the society has gained from providing a stepping stone to stardom for these artists is a loyal base of prominent local artists, who now play their own part in inspiring and nurturing young aspiring artists. Bishop Suter had a strong belief in the importance of art and culture in community, and Nelson is now a testament to the dream he had of a community fashioned by culture and art.
Today, the Nelson Suter Art Society is considerably larger than the original fourteen members. Though much has changed in the 130 years since its establishment, the Society still holds monthly meetings and distributes newsletters to its members, highlighting the month's exhibitions and featuring artist profiles and information about other members. Members still hold regular exhibitions in the McKee Room at the back of the Suter Gallery, and the Society still holds an exhibition twice yearly in the Gallery, open to any members to exhibit.
For a society such as The Nelson Suter Art Society, established in a tiny European settlement in 1889, it is amazing to think that one man's enthusiasm and passion for the arts has influenced Nelson's growth and development as a region. The foundations that Bishop Suter established in 1889, when he began the Bishopdale Sketching Club, have influenced Nelson's growth and recognition as a major Arts centre in New Zealand and it will continue to support Nelson's growth as a celebrated artistic community.
Eleanor Holland, 2009, Nelson College for Girls
Updated: April 2020
Sources used in this story
- Lash, Max D. (1992). Nelson notables 1840 - 1940: A dictionary of regional biography. Nelson, New Zealand: Nelson Historical Society.
McAloon, Jim. (1997) Nelson: A regional history. Whatamango Bay, N.Z.:Cape Catley Ltd.
Butterworth, S. (1999). The Suter : One hundred years in Nelson. Nelson, N.Z.: Nikau Press.
Official Record book of Suter art Society 1891. Retrieved from Nelson Provincial Museum Archives.
- The Suter's History. Retrieved from :
Neale, J. (1989). Nelson Suter Art Society, 1889-1989. Nelson, N.Z.: The Society.
- Janet Bathgate. Interview June 7 2009
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Further sources - Nelson Suter Art Society
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