Helen Stewart’s Portrait of a woman in red, painted in the 1930s, is one of the most striking representations of modern femininity in Te Papa’s collections. Yet the identity of the woman with the strong gaze and raspberry-red lips remains unknown. Ellen Harriett Eames (1864–1927), the woman whose bequest enabled Te Papa to buy this portrait in 2006, is also a mysterious figure. Since the first acquisition was made in 1970, 545 art works have been acquired with the Ellen Eames Collection Fund. But who was this woman? Where did her money come from? And why did she choose to leave funds from her estate to aid the erection of a national art gallery, and for the ‘purchase of pictures’?
So far we have only been able to answer these questions partially and unsatisfactorily. Eames was born Ellen Cooper, the firstborn of seed merchant Frederick Cooper and Ellen Louisa Carpenter. Her maternal grandfather was politician and bookseller Robert Holt Carpenter, the eccentric proprietor of the Old Identity Book Shop in Thorndon, Wellington.1
In 1885, Ellen married Harry Eames, and together they had one daughter, Ruth. In 1893, Ellen was one of 24,000 New Zealand women to sign the historic suffrage petition, which records her as living in Wallace Street in the Wellington suburb of Mount Cook, close to the future site of the National Art Gallery, Te Papa’s predecessor. Yet the gallery, which opened in 1936, was still only a pipe dream during Ellen’s life, and even by the time of her death, no foundation stone had been laid.
It is presumed that proceeds from shares in her father’s seed company, F Cooper Ltd (which was brought out by Yates in 1974), enabled Ellen to make her bequest. But what prompted Ellen towards philanthropy to the arts? In this she may have been motivated by Sir Harold Beauchamp’s 1923 bequest to the future National Art Gallery. Eames’s will is dated 27 November 1926, just three years after Sir Harold donated the former family home (and daughter Katherine Mansfield’s last New Zealand residence) at 47 Fitzherbert Terrace in Thorndon to establish a fund to buy pictures for the fledgling national collection. It is possible that the publicity around Beauchamp’s gift inspired Eames to make a similar gesture.
As with Beauchamp’s bequest, it was some years before Eames’s fund was able to be put to use. In 1968, after Ellen’s daughter died without heirs, and with none of her brothers or sisters surviving, her trust fund was invested with the Public Trust Office. Eames had stipulated that the fund was to be used to buy pictures selected by the gallery’s board, which were to be referred to as the Ellen Eames Collection.
A 1947 painting by the British abstract artist Ben Nicholson was a significant early purchase, in 1970, and important works continued to be acquired, from old master Albrecht Dürer’s print The beast with two horns (1497–98) to Colin McCahon’s iconic Northland panels (1958). Paintings by New Zealand artists Gretchen Albrecht and Emily Karaka were both purchased within a year of their making, in 1976 and 1988 respectively. The most recent purchases, made in 2016 include a 1902 photographic panorama by American Melvin Vaniman, a suite of works by modernist photographer John Fields, and Richard Killeen’s 1977 painting Pacific plywood.
The Ellen Eames Collection Fund has made a significant contribution to the growth of the national art collection. While all acquisitions have been of art, purchasing has been eclectic and encompasses many different periods, media, and artists of diverse nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. This ‘top 10’ pays tribute to this remarkable and largely anonymous woman, her generosity, and forward vision.
Thank you very much, Ellen Eames!
The Ellen Eames Collection Fund top 10
If you know anything more about Ellen Harriett Eames, or if you’re a relative, please email us
- Kathleen A Coleridge, ‘Carpenter, Robert Holt’, from Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/1c6/carpenter-robert-holt, accessed 1 October 2016.