Dames down under

Posted by on January 23, 2018 in Art, Blog, Dame designate, News | 2 comments

Dame Gillian Whitehead by Nigel Brown/damesnet

It may seem somewhat bizarre in this age of at least notional meritocracy, but the fact remains that in 2018 the Queen of England is still also the Queen of New Zealand. The practice of awarding British Orders of Merit to deserving citizens in the then colony was established in the mid-19th century. This lasted until 1996, when a Royal Honours System specifically for New Zealand was established.

From then on, any deserving woman became a DNZM or Dame Companion of New Zealand, and my recent visit to the beautiful Land of the Long White Cloud introduced me to some of the country’s notable dames. The one who most easily springs to mind is Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, but a visit to the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington was a revelation.  I chanced upon a temporary exhibition featuring portraits of creative women and their work, and several of them were Dames.

Take, for example, Dame Gillian Whitehead, considered one of the most significant composers not only in New Zealand, but in Australasia. Born in 1941, she has written operas, choral works, chamber compositions, orchestral works, solo works and pieces involving taongo puoro, which are the traditional musical instruments of the Maori people. She has won the SOUNZ award three times; this organisation promotes and champions the music of New Zealand. You can listen to her award-winning composition the improbable ordered dance here.

The accompanying portrait of her was painted by Nigel Brown, one of the country’s leading figurative and narrative painters.

Dame Alison Holst by Freeman White/damesnet

I then came across Dame Alison Holst; she is a food writer and television chef who has changed the face of home cooking in New Zealand with her repertoire of recipes. Holst premiered her first television show in 1965 and published her first cookbook the following year. In total, her cookbooks have sold more than 4.5 million copies of 100 separate titles.  Her recipes are intended to be nutritious, easy and affordable. The Delia of Down Under perhaps?

Her portrait was painted by Freeman White, a painter and illustrator who was part of the artistic team who worked on the film of The Hobbit. ‘Nuff said.

My last dame is Doreen Blumhardt (1914 – 2009). She was one of New Zealand’s leading ceramicists and played a pivotal role in the development of the country’s pottery movement from the 1950s onwards. Blumhardt was a gifted experimental potter and passionate educator. She travelled widely to countries such as Japan, Mexico and Jordan, bringing back samples of pottery from these countries to share with other enthusiasts. She developed strong working relationships with a number of Japanese master potters, and encouraged them to present workshops in New Zealand.

Dame Doreen Blumhardt by Brian Brake/damesnet

She established the Blumhardt Foundation, which promotes craft and object art in New Zealand, using Blumhardt’s personal collection and supporting new generations of artists and researchers. The accompanying photograph of Blumhardt with a slab bottle was taken by Brian Brake, one of the country’s most celebrated photographers.

As the first country to give women the vote, New Zealand encouraged the emancipation and independence of women. These dames are just a few of the very positive outcomes of such a policy.

Finally, while I was there, the new female Prime Minister Jacinda Arden announced her pregnancy. She will take six weeks’ maternity leave and then her partner will stay at home with the baby. Another dame in the making, methinks.




  1. You never disappoint Barbara! I found this article fascinating as they all are. My knowledge is scant about dames down under but I’m inspired to find out more

    I expect you have other gems from your travels!

    • Thanks! I knew nothing about dames down under either – what a revelation.

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