Wide-Eyed in Tonga: paintings and drawings by Noelle Sandwith

An exhibition of paintings and drawings by Noelle Sandwith celebrating Tongan culture in the 1950s.


An exhibition of paintings and drawings by Noelle Sandwith celebrating Tongan culture in the 1950s.An exhibition of paintings and drawings by Noelle Sandwith celebrating Tongan culture in the 1950s.This stunning exhibition is the first time that this collection has ever been publicly displayed. The collection of striking sketches reflect Tongan society and culture in the 1950s as captured through the eyes of British artist, Noelle Sandwith (1927-2006), based broadly on her unpublished manuscript Wide-eyed in Tonga; A South Seas Odyssey (1954).
The works illustrate aspects of social life and customs in 1950s Tonga including technology such as tapa cloth making, dye making, kava ceremony and reflections of women living in the Tongan Islands during this time.

Noelle Sandwith (1927-2006) trained at the Kingston-upon-Thames Art School (1944-45), Croydon Art School (1946) and Heatherley Art School (1947-48). In 1950 she accompanied her uncle to Tonga where she taught and travelled. Following a sketching holiday in the outbacks of Australia, she returned to Tonga in 1953, living with a Tongan family, sketching and recording the islands' social life and customs before returning to England in 1954 to train as a nurse.

Ta'ahine Tavali, 'The Drawing Girl', as she was referred to by the Tongans, regarded her practice of constantly recording as a form of ethnographic drawing. She shunned the use of the camera as she felt that draughtsmanship captured minute detail and a spontaneity not achieved by photography.

This exhibition offers a view of life in Queen Salote's realm as seen through the eyes of a young Englishwoman who warmly embraced Tongan life. Her experience in the Friendly Isles is skillfully and sympathetically rendered; it is sensitive, intimate and immediate. Through the artist's sketches and writings, the exhibition captures the feel and look of Tongan daily life of the early 1950s.

Wide-Eyed in Tonga; a South Seas Odyssey is the name Noelle Sandwith gave the proposed book which she hoped to have published recording her two sojourns in the Friendly Isles. The typescript for the book is held in the Auckland Museum Library.

The exhibition Wide-Eyed in Tonga displays her sketches and paintings along with extracts from her diary. The exhibition follows one at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, In Search of the Birdsville Track (2005) which displayed Sandwith's experience of the Australian out-back.

The opening of Wide-Eyed in Tonga coincides with the international exhibition Vaka Moana, which traces the incredible story of the exploration of the Pacific.

When: 8 December 2006 - 28 January 2007
Where: Pictorial Gallery, Ground Floor, Auckland Museum
Entry included in admission donation

Written by

Kerryanne Brett

17 Nov 2006

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