Rita Angus (1908–1970)

Te Papa

Adapted from: ‘Rita Angus: Life and Vision’, William McAloon and Jill Trevelyan (ed), Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2008

Self-portrait (1947) by Rita AngusTe Papa

An illustrated biography of Rita Angus’s life


Henrietta Catherine Angus was born in Hastings on 12 March 1908, the eldest of seven children of William McKenzie Angus and his wife Ethel Violet Angus (née Crabtree).


Angus moved to Ōtautahi Christchurch in February 1927, to study at the Canterbury College School of Art.


On 13 June she married fellow artist Alfred Cook. They travelled to Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland to study at the Elam School of Art.


Angus returned to Ōtautahi Christchurch. She continued to study part-time while pursuing her interest in modern art. In the winter of 1932 she and Alfred Cook spent several weeks in Ahuriri Napier, where they sketched the ruins of the recent Hawke’s Bay earthquake.

The aviatrix (1933) by Rita AngusTe Papa

Angus taught part time at a girl's school, and painted her important early work, The aviatrix. This is a portrait of her sister Edna - the first woman to hold a pilot's license at the East Coast Aero Club.


During the winter months Angus was very ill with a faulty heart valve. After her recovery she and her husband decided to separate. Later in the year she began to earn her living as a commercial artist.

Rita Angus painting Self portrait, Jean Bertram, 1936/1937, From the collection of: Te Papa
Show lessRead more

In May 1936, Angus spent ten days sketching at Cass, in the Canterbury back country, with her friends Louise Henderson and Julia Scarvell. She began work as a fashion illustrator at Ballantynes department store - later saying that this job made her feel ill because it stopped her from painting.

Mountains, Cass, Rita Angus, 1936, From the collection of: Te Papa
Show lessRead more

In February Angus' friends Leo Bensemann and Lawrence Baigent moved into the flat adjacent to hers. She and Bensemann shared models and painted each other.

Leo Bensemann, Rita Angus, 1938, From the collection of: Te Papa
Marjorie Marshall, Rita Angus, 1938/1943, From the collection of: Te Papa
Show lessRead more

Angus spent several months in Wānaka, staying with her friend Marjorie Marshall. Back in Ōtautahi Christchurch, she exhibited watercolour paintings of Central Otago. In this year her divorce from Alfred Cook became official.

Angus was a pacifist. To avoid war work, she picked tobacco at Pangatōtara. In July she moved to Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington to design toys for a pacifist organisation.

Angus met the young composer Douglas Lilburn in late 1941. When he returned to Ōtautahi Christchurch, she followed soon afterwards. Angus conceived a child with Lilburn in late October, but suffered a miscarriage in late January 1942.

Self-portrait (with moth and caterpillar), Rita Angus, 1943, From the collection of: Te Papa
Douglas Lilburn, Rita Angus, 1945, From the collection of: Te Papa
Show lessRead more

In October Angus appeared before the Industrial Manpower Appeal Committee, after refusing factory work to support the war effort. Her statement said:

‘I object to direction into essential industry on the grounds that I am a conscientious objector to war, and, as an artist, it is my work to create life and not to destroy.’

Angus's case was dismissed. She was ordered to report for work, but continued to ignore this.

Rutu (goddess painting) (1951) by Rita AngusTe Papa

Angus began the three paintings in her ‘Goddess’ series, which expressed her vision for a pacifist, multicultural future in New Zealand. 

With my love of painting, I touch for one rare moment, that which can only come from peace …

Her work was featured in an article in the Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand. She described her aims as a painter:

To show to the present a peaceful way, and through devotion to visual art to sow some seeds for possible maturity in later generations.

After seventeen years of signing her paintings ‘Rita Cook’, she changed her signature to ‘Rita Angus’.

Angus was in poor health. In October she was found wandering the streets, disorientated, and taken to Sunnyside Mental Hospital for assessment.

She responded quickly to treatment and was released into her family’s care nearly two months later.

Angus spent much of the year recuperating at her parents' house in Waikanae. She painted watercolour sketches of plants in their garden, and completed this luminous painting of waterlilies.

Waterlilies, Rita Angus, 1950, From the collection of: Te Papa
Show lessRead more

Central Otago (1953/1969) by Rita AngusTe Papa

Angus made a sketching trip to Central Otago in February. She began a large composite oil of the region - a painting that she would work on, on and off, until 1969.

After starting the year in Mangonui, Angus moved to Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington in late 1955. She bought a cottage in the city suburb of Thorndon.

Self-portrait with fruit, Rita Angus, 1960/1961, From the collection of: Te Papa
Show lessRead more

In 1957 Angus had her first solo exhibition. In 1958 she was awarded a fellowship that enabled her to travel overseas for the first time. She spent a year studying art in England and Europe.

During the winter Angus became fascinated by the night sky, and began to sketch and paint the phases of the moon. In this and the following years she turned down invitations to exhibit in dealer galleries, preferring to retain complete independence.

Self-portrait, Rita Angus, 1966, From the collection of: Te Papa
Show lessRead more

Ill-health took a toll, but Angus continued to complete major works. Late in the year, with her friend Juliet Peter, she began to make weekly sketching expeditions to the local Bolton Street cemetery. The cemetery was being razed to make room for a new motorway.

Flight (1969) by Rita AngusTe Papa

Preoccupied with a series of new works featuring the headstones from Bolton Street cemetery, she painted her last completed picture, Flight, in early winter. From July she suffered from recurring bouts of illness, but even when she was hospitalised in November she reassured friends that she was on the mend.  

Angus died from cancer in Wellington Hospital on 25 January.

Credits: Story

Adapted from: Rita Angus: Life and Vision, William McAloon and Jill Trevelyan (ed), Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2008.
Text edited by Te Papa curator Lizzie Bisley, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2022.
All images reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps