Is it in New Zealanders to be neutral?

New Zealand foreign policy neutrality Frank Corner

In July 1953 Frank Corner, then External Affairs Officer at our High Commission in London, sent a long letter to Alister McIntosh, head of External Affairs in Wellington. At that time New Zealand was in the process of adjusting to changing centres of power and the changing reality of our own place in the world as we turned, slightly, away from Britain. We had to reassess the capabilities we would need, where limited money should best be spent to advance core security interests, and how we could best lean on the resources of other countries as we faced the reality that Britain could not be relied upon for defence in the Pacific.

“I take it for granted that we shall make a commitment somewhere. Realistically speaking we have no need to do so. No country is less likely than New Zealand to be attacked; we are protected by enormous stretches of water, by our unimportance, by the naval weakness of Russia and the Asian powers and by the fact that Russia’s naval force must in war be in great demand in European waters; and, above all we are protected by the fact that no power could invade New Zealand without first defeating the sea power of the United States. Our geographical position suggests a policy of neutrality, and such a policy might increase our security, since it is only our belligerency which is likely to cause a foreign power to think of attacking us… It would not be impossible for New Zealand to follow a policy of neutrality and it could be argued that we would be more secure if we did so. Certainly more attention would be paid to us if we were not, as now, taken for granted. But this is irrelevant talk. It is not in New Zealanders to be neutral, and it is inconceivable that we could stand aside, like India, when the West is threatened by the Soviet Union… And though our division would hardly swing the balance it does seem important that we should consciously link our fate with that of Britain and Western Europe and fight to defend it. We can take it for granted that we are going to make a commitment; the only question is as to the area in which we can best do so.”

Today we find our foreign policy contortions risk becoming permanent injuries. We want an “independent” foreign policy, but we won’t criticise Trump nor investigate Chinese steel dumping. We want an American defence umbrella but would not, until recently, have any of its ships visit, and now will only take those that are least capable of defence. (We smell the uranium on their breath but spray some strong cologne and comment on the notes of Hawaiian frangipani). We wanted a democratic Pacific, but in criticising Fiji only left a vacuum. We want to grow trade with China, but thereby increase our dependence and frustrate our allies by our eagerness.

“The present period of indecision”, Corner wrote in that same 1953 letter, “gives us the chance to look again at this question of our commitment, probably the most important policy question facing us… I find this whole problem extremely complex, as it must be, because we are not free agents and because our history and civilisation and interests are hard to reconcile with our geography.” 

Our history and civilisation and interests are still hard to reconcile with our geography: this is the premise of New Zealand foreign policy. But with Britain turning her back on the world, Trump stabbing everyone’s, and the Chinese not letting on whether or not they hold a knife, now is the time to think seriously and broadly about our present period of indecision.

The Eyes and Times of Frank and Lyn Corner

Frank Lyn Corner New Zealand Art Collection Art+Object

This essay was published in the catalogue of The Collection of Frank and Lyn Corner by Art + Object. My grandparents’ significant collection of New Zealand art was presented to the market on Sunday 18th March 2018.


Growing up with Frank and Lyn as parents and grandparents meant growing roots firmly in New Zealand, no matter where in the world we happened to be. Our eyes became tuned, through the art, books and conversation that surrounded us, to see New Zealand as a firm part of the modern international world, holding its own from the bottom of the South Pacific.

But this view of New Zealand’s place in the world wasn’t always so clear for Frank and Lyn. Their backgrounds—in 1920s and 30s Napier for Frank, and Hamilton, Masterton, and Whanganui for Lyn—were happy but not remarkable ones, apart from a very memorable earthquake and considerable academic self-discipline. Frank always maintained that “Life, for me, began when I came to Wellington.”

It has even been said that, in the 1940s—when Frank and Lyn came to Wellington, met, and started discovering art together—New Zealand didn’t exist yet: “it remains to be created—should I say invented—–by writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers; even a politician might help”, went Curnow’s cry in 1945. That period between when New Zealand “didn’t exist yet”, and now, when New Zealand seems to stand upright here and when we can travel abroad, to Venice, to see our emissaries, is the period of Frank and Lyn’s lives.

When we stand amidst Frank and Lyn’s lifelong collection of artworks, in their lifelong home, we view a record of that invention of New Zealand, a visual and a personal history of New Zealand’s declaration of intellectual independence.

It is not the only record, and nor is it the largest; Frank and Lyn certainly never set out to create a survey collection, and in fact they long resisted entirely the idea that they were “collectors”. But theirs is a unique collection, and a significant one, because of the two sets of eyes that created it—and, as Frank and Lyn would be the first to point out, because of the sheer good fortune of the times that they happened to live in. Through this collection, and in the lives of Frank and Lyn, we see the abundance of New Zealand life.

— — — —

First, the eyes. Frank and Lyn always spoke of “having [their] eyes opened” to the world, and to art, during their years studying at Victoria University. From the time they met in 1941, at the Easter Tournament, theirs was a partnership of minds and of eyes. In their library one can see the intellectual efforts of their university years and of those afterwards. Frank was studying history, and Lyn French; but their books show little of this, so widely did they read. They studied the classics, but seemingly in equal measure would pick up all the latest books that arrived in Wellington from overseas (Forster’s What I Believe, for instance, they found as soon as it arrived, and his case for “tolerance, good temper and sympathy” seems to define Frank and Lyn’s outlook).

The great good fortune of Frank and Lyn’s university years was the intellectual stimulation provided by John Beaglehole and the circle of faculty and students he surrounded himself with. Their first invitation to the Beaglehole house in Messines Road, Karori, was also the occasion of their awakening to art. There, Lyn later recounted, “He [Beaglehole] had art hanging on the walls—including some of the very early breakthrough artists like John Weeks, Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston. This was different from the tame drawing-room landscapes we’d seen before, and excited us.” It seems important to remember in this context, however, that art was always just a part of Frank and Lyn’s education and of their lives. Frank describes the kind of discussion they would have at the Beagleholes’ house:

“On some occasions he would play Bach’s preludes and fugues, share his delight in newly acquired paintings of John Weeks or Woollaston, or pewter plates, or great examples of typography, or would introduce us to the works of E. M. Forster, or Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set.”

The Beaglehole influence extended through the full range of culture that Curnow described as necessary for the invention of New Zealand, down to architects, and even politicians. Frank and Lyn were later to copy the Beagleholes in their commissioning architect Cedric Firth to design modern cabinetry for their 1930s house; and it was likely in Messines Road that they first heard of the arrival of a distinguished Austrian architect, Ernst Plischke, to Wellington. Frank was intrigued; he arranged for Plishke to give a series of public talks, and they got to know one another. Plischke would later design the modernist pavilion across the garden from the Gray Young-designed, Cedric Firth-renovated house that Frank and Lyn lived in for the best part of their lives.

The Beagleholes and the Corners remained lifelong friends, but after graduating from Victoria in 1942 and joining the fledgling Department of External Affairs in 1943 Frank soon began travelling, and the couple continued their informal education overseas. Frank was one of the first to visit postwar Japan in late 1945, and Frank and Lyn both worked in Paris for several months in 1946 during the Peace Conference. Postings took them to Washington D.C. twice, to London and New York. They read widely and kept everything. In their attic are boxes of gallery catalogues, many in French, that they collected while haunting the galleries during their travels.

— — — —

And then there were the times they lived in—times so full of activity and excitement, in both art and world affairs, that from the perspective of grandchildren in 2018 they seemed always to be in the very middle of history in the making. They were in London for the Queen’s coronation, the same day Edmund Hillary summited Mount Everest; they were in New York during the fraught days of the Cuban Missile Crisis; they were in Washington D.C. when Lyndon Johnson visited New Zealand, with Frank overseeing the visit. Yet this was work and everyday life for this diplomatic couple, however thrilling it all may seem from a perspective half a century later.

The upheavals going on in the world of art were almost as grand and exciting as those happening in world affairs, so much so that Lyn later described art during this period being an “automatic, easy addiction.” They certainly appreciated their good fortune to live in London, New York and Washington during these formative decades. While Frank was busy at the United Nations, Lyn would head to the galleries, often with two young children in tow. In London, it was during a brief lunch break that Frank dropped by the Redfern Gallery and returned with Frances Hodgkins’ Pleasure Boat.

As with their eyes, for which art was just one of many great passions, the times they lived in seem to have blurred the boundaries between work and other parts of life. The eyes and the times are one and the same, in the end: so that social and political changes are reflected in the art they bought, and the art they bought influenced diplomatic and political advances. When Lyn was once asked if they had consciously bought artworks that would serve to represent New Zealand well abroad, she rejected any such idea: “We simply purchased the irresistible.” We have to take that statement at face value; and yet Frank and Lyn knew that the art they bought would be the backdrop to so many diplomatic functions, and that art has a unique power to represent and to find commonality. We have always thought of Lyn’s comment as a sign of how inseparable their lives were from the times they lived in, the work they did for New Zealand, and their passion for art, books, music and architecture. What was irresistible to Frank and Lyn Corner, a couple who spent their lives serving New Zealand abroad, was precisely the kind of art that represented the modern, confident and vibrant country they represented and spoke about to countless dignitaries every day.

So when Frank wrote in 1962 that “…for the greater part of the first half of the twentieth-century NZ turned its eyes away from the Pacific”, this was at once a statement of foreign policy and of national and personal outlook. He went on: “Has not a country become in some way unbalanced when it knows little and cares less about its own geographic environment?” He argued over many years, after New Zealand’s two great twentieth century crises—the fall of Singapore, and Britain’s decision to join the European Economic Community—that our future lay in this part of the world, in the Pacific. He made this argument formally for New Zealand’s foreign policy; but it was the argument that increasingly our writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers, and, yes, even our politicians, were formulating in their own realms. For Frank Corner, the search for national security was also a part of the search for national and cultural identity.

— — — —

In the minds of diplomats one’s country can paradoxically seem closer while living in a foreign capital, for it is while there that your everyday experience is marked entirely by your nationality. You are only in Washington, London or New York by virtue of being a New Zealander; you only meet people as a New Zealander. In many ways you live through your country’s identity, and are forced to understand on a deep level what it is that you are representing. This seems different from the expatriate’s experience: he or she goes abroad by their own volition, and for the duration that they are away from home they are more or less cut off from home. They are expatrias. The point is the great extent to which Frank and Lyn’s life experiences were marked by being New Zealanders and, in turn, how their vision for New Zealand affected their art collecting.

To Frank and Lyn Corner New Zealand was a modern, vibrant, educated Pacific nation. Naturally, their art collection—much of which was bought while they were living overseas (including, notably, McCahon’s Landscape Theme and Variations, I and Angus’ Storm, Hawkes Bay)—should be informed by such a view. Now we today inhabit the New Zealand that was created and invented during their lifetimes. To look at the individual works in this collection is to see a New Zealand coming to its modernity, coming to terms with its geography, and coming to understand its identity. But to look at this collection as a whole: well, that is to see the modern, vibrant, educated Pacific New Zealand that we now know. To look at this collection is to see the abundance of New Zealand life.