Alister Austen Deans, OBE

austen painting rangitata

Alister Austen Deans, always known as Austen, followed his two passions – painting and the great outdoors – throughout his life, with a career as professional artist that spanned more than 60 years.

He was born on 2 December 1915 at Riccarton House, Christchurch, the home of his great-grandmother Jane Deans, and was raised at ‘Morven’, at the Sheffield end of the Deans’s original ‘Homebush’ run. Two years after his birth, his father Alexander Deans was killed at Passchendaele, France. Austen passed away on 18 October 2011.

He was educated at Medbury School and Christ’s College and showed artistic ability from an early age. He attended Canterbury College during the mid 1930s and soon gave up his studies for a BA in favour of Fine Arts at the Canterbury College of Art, where he was taught by Archibald Nicholl and Cecil Kelly. He chose painting as his major as it allowed him to work outdoors instead of being tied to a studio.  As a keen mountaineer and adventurer he ascended many of New Zealand's major peaks. His canvases are often studies of scenes from his forays into the Alps. As he has said, "I've always stuck to landscape, because it's my chief enthusiasm in life. And it's been a very happy life".


He joined the territorial army in 1938, and in 1939 he volunteered for war service and set off overseas with the 20th Battalion to Egypt, Greece and then Crete. He was commissioned as War Artist two days before being wounded in the Battle of Crete and taken prisoner by the Germans. Supplies of painting materials through the Red Cross allowed him to continue painting while incarcerated in POW camps in Greece, Poland, Germany and Austria from 1941 – 1945.

January 1947 Austen married Elizabeth Hutton of Darfield, daughter of Major George and Mrs Mairehau (nee Rhodes) Hutton. In 1948 Austen, with Liz and their first son Alister, sailed for England so he could take up a War Bursary and further his art studies at the Sir John Cass Institute, London. Returning to NZ they settled in Peel Forest, South Canterbury on a property that they named "Chawton" after the ancestral home of Jane Austen, his namesake and multiple-great-aunt. There they raised their seven sons and Austen settled into a routine of painting  while Liz managed the farm.

Austen was twice the first place recipient (and once second) of the Kelleher Art Award. Under duress he wrote an autobiography, ‘Pictures', which was published in 1967. In 1981 he visited Antarctica, another lifetime ambition, for three weeks. He spent time sketching, painting watercolours and photographing the environment. He travelled to the Dry Valleys, a landscape that fascinated him for its similarities to parts of New Zealand.

He was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his services to the arts.

He left several hundred artworks to his family, many at the Chawton, Te O’Manga (both at Peel Forest) and Morven homesteads. Paul and Kate Deans have catalogued these and now Austen’s collection has a safe, dry storage facility where eventually all the  AA Deans Trust collection will be kept. A selection of these works is shown on this website and the trust will make works available for loan or inspection on request.