When Tom Priest was aged around 14 and living in New Plymouth, he took a stroll through Pukekura Park, where he chanced upon a man painting by the lake. The man, whom Priest describes as “not a big chap” was standing in front of the band rotunda with a brush in his hand, applying paint to a square of hardboard on an easel.
”He was a very pleasant little man” Priest says from his Hāwera home. “He wasn't frail looking, but very sprightly. I walked over to him, spoke to him. I was so fascinated by the painting he was starting to do. Sometime later, I went back again, hung around him. He said to me, 'Do you want to paint?' I'd always wanted to paint, to tell the truth” Priest says.
The painter was Bernard Aris, and as well as painting, he was operating a small model speed boat on the water. It was the first model Priest had ever seen. Now he knows how Aris did it, something he didn't know then. “He worked for Marconi wireless” Priest smiles. “When I read that later, I realised he was controlling it from the steps. He had a crystal set, one of those little ones that kids later had.”
The boy went home but the next time he went back to Pukekura Park, Aris was there. “He had this piece of paper, and he said, 'Here you are.' So I scribbled something, the mountain, and gee, I got a knock-back,' Priest says. “He said, 'That's not like the mountain’ and screwed it up and threw it away.” But instead of putting the young wannabe off, the boy went back and tried again. “I went back because I liked him” he explains.
Priest, who still paints today, said eventually Aris showed him his secret of how to get the lines of the mountain right. “But I'm not telling anyone” he grins.
Aris the artist has entered Priest's life unexpectedly more than once. He says when he was courting his wife Leonie, whose family lived in a wonderful house in Carrington Street, he “walked into an Aris painting”. As a personal friend of Leonie's parents, Aris had painted a watercolour of the house and garden with a cane pram nestled amongst the blooms – Leonie's pram when she was a baby.
And on a wall inside hung a large majestic work called Working Overtime that gave a glimpse of New Plymouth's Newton King Wharf after dark. Priest was later given the painting as a gift. “The painting has three round lights. I was talking to Leonie's father and I said 'That's where I used to fish at night and catch fish. Pop was a real Victorian gentleman,’ and he said, 'Would you like that painting, son?’ I said I'd like it to remain in the family. And he wrote on the back of it that it was to do that when he gave it to me.”
Despite the couple's intentions to keep the painting forever, it has recently been offered to Westgate for their collection. “Leonie and I have thought what we should do about it. We would like it to stay in New Plymouth” Priest says. He knows it would be treasured and looked after at the port. “When we go through to New Plymouth next, we'll take it and let them have a look at it.”
After Leonie's parents died, more of Aris's work was found in the top of the kitchen cupboards. “Lo and behold, there were all these sketches” she says. “So we got them down but someone had stuck them on to a bit of cardboard. They were ruined.”
According to Leonie, Tom, like Aris, was always a good drawer. “We were going through the Taranaki Summer Show with the children and there was a man there who sketched people in about five minutes. Tom could draw as well as that, he can draw anything. I said, 'Why don't you do that?'”
But Priest says he didn't start painting to make money, though he can usually sell everything he turns out. “I paint as a hobby” he says. “I like painting. I can wake up in the morning and think, 'I'll do it differently today.’ But if I'm not happy, I tell you, I'll just throw them away.”
These days he's doing three-dimensional mountains, still using the secret Aris line and heeding his advice. “He said if you're going to paint Mount Egmont, paint Mount Egmont, and I never forgot that. You see some paintings of Mount Egmont and they don't look like the mountain.”
Tom Priest continues to think of the landmark as Mount Egmont, despite its change of name, but puts both names on the front of his paintings as well as an abbreviated history on the back. “I respect the other view but I still stick to 8260 feet, I don't do metres” he laughs.
His mountains make their quiet way all round the world as he caters for the tourist market and sells through several retail outlets in New Plymouth. He credits Bernard Aris, as “the man who really got me going”.
“He painted so beautifully. He was such an intriguing man. I can still see him walking down Devon Street. I never spoke to him about his private life, but I was fascinated by the way he spoke to me. He was a very genuine chap. Humble in his own personal way. I'll keep painting his mountains for him” he says.
Lambert, R., Scanlan, A.B. (1987). Bernard Aris: the modern ascetic: a selection of early works 1920's - 1950's. New Plymouth: Taranaki Museum.
Bernard Aris: A Man Mad on MountainsLink