John Blackburn was born in Bedfordshire, England in 1932 and studied textile design at Maidenhead Art School in the early 1950s. After serving in the Royal Air Force he ventured to the South Pacific, where he met his New Zealand wife.
After nearly a decade in New Zealand, by the time Blackburn returned to his native England in 1961 he was arguably the most radical painter working in Auckland. Strangely, there is not a paragraph in New Zealand art history about him, besides his inclusion as one of ten artists at the Auckland City Art Gallery in November 1959. Colin McCahon, who selected the artists for this exhibition, spotted Blackburn’s work at his first solo exhibition at Auckland’s short-lived Circle Gallery. Indeed, those were years of a general hostility towards abstraction – even Gordon Walters refrained from exhibiting at the time. Fortunately for Blackburn, local entrepreneur Les Harvey (responsible for developing Parnell village) was taken by Blackburn’s uncompromisingly abstract paintings and recognising his promise, acquired a large collection of works in exchange for tickets to Britain for the artist and his young family, so that he might further his career amongst a more responsive audience.
From his return to Britain in 1961 until his last solo exhibition before changing his focus to a business venture in 1980, Blackburn was an adventurous and exciting full-time painter. His first London exhibition was at the Woodstock Gallery, which in the late 1950s and early 1960s developed a strong identity with the progressive painting coming out of St Ives. Blackburn’s lyrical abstract paintings of simple, reduced strong forms in limited pure, unmixed colours, could easily be appreciated in the context of the work of that earlier generation of stars of the British art scene.
It was the chance discovery of some of Blackburn’s works acquired in the 1960s by the renowned collector, curator and writer, Jim Ede, which led to renewed interest in the artist. So after an absence of quarter of a century, Blackburn was re-launched back into the art world with a full-scale retrospective, including striking large new works, at Folkestone’s Metropole Galleries in 2006, followed by an exhibition at the prestigious Mayfair gallery of Osborne Samuel in London.
The Harvey family’s continuing interest in the work of Blackburn led to an offer from Nancy King, Harvey’s daughter, of accommodation and a studio at Muriwai. Blackburn took up the offer in 2008, producing work for his first exhibition in Auckland since the 1960s.
Blackburn held his first exhibition in ARTIS Gallery in 2009 and since then has exhibited with the Gallery in February each year. During these years he has continued to exhibit in London at the Osborne Samuel Gallery in Mayfair. Blackburn’s 2017 exhibition at ARTIS opens on 7 March.