Two Sisters: the lasting legacies of Ruth Nelson and Gwen Malden

MTG Hawke’s Bay is pleased to be highlighting the work of two visionary sisters whose dedication, generosity, and lifelong love of the arts left a lasting impression on the region. Two Sisters: the lasting legacies of Ruth Nelson and Gwen Malden, openson Thursday 13 April.

Born into affluent and influential Hawke’s Bay families, the sisters led lives of luxury, travelling overseas, and pursuing their creative interests. Over the course of their education, both developed a fascination for anthroposophy: an esoteric school of thought founded on Rudolf Steiner teachings that expounds a path of spiritual development. While overseas, Ruth meet Steiner in person, a meeting that turned her resolutely towards anthroposophy. 

The Nelson girls attended Woodford House under the tutelage of headmistress Mabel Hodge, a liberal thinker and committed anthroposophist, who became a great influence in the sisters’ lives.  Showing artistic promise from early childhood, they went on to attend Christchurch School of Art, Ruth to study woodcarving and Gwen to study landscape painting. 

Ruth and her lifelong partner, Edna Burbury, delved deeply into Steiner’s teachings and his principles guided their aims and achievements. The two women known as “the Ladies” built a home for themselves in Havelock North and christened it Taruna meaning ‘a meeting place of friends.’ Taruna became the venue for summer conferences and study groups of the Anthroposophical Society. Keen for New Zealand children to have the opportunity of a Rudolf Steiner education the Ladies also established a school in Hastings, now known as Taikura Rudolf Steiner School. 

Gwen carried her early interest in art right through her life, spending the first decades of her adulthood studying, travelling and exhibiting her paintings. In her late 40s she married Henry Malden, also an anthroposophist. After her marriage, she began exploring the artistic principles of anthroposophy, resulting in paintings that were in clear contrast with her previous style. 

Gwen became a driving force behind the establishment of Weleda, a pharmaceutical laboratory making natural medicines based on anthroposophical principles. Her commitment lead her to supplying the land and buildings that allowed Sylvia Walters, an English anthroposophy pharmacist to set up Weleda in Havelock North. A very knowledgeable and expert gardener, Gwen planned and planted a thriving medicinal garden near Taruna, to supply the Weleda distillery. 

In 1946, the sisters jointly purchased the extensive Kereru Station. Their astute management of the farm, combined with a deeply-held philanthropic spirit, enabled them to direct the profits into local charitable causes. Ruth and Gwen each formed a charitable trust to own the farm in perpetuity, and both trusts continue the sisters’ legacy of giving to this day. 

The AR Nelson and Gwen Malden Trusts have distributed funds among hundreds of benefactors, including the Taikura Rudolf Steiner School in Hastings, Taruna College in Havelock North, Hohepa, and MTG Hawke’s Bay. This exhibition features carvings by Ruth Nelson and paintings by Gwen Malden (née Nelson), along with photographs and stories of their extraordinary lives and achievements. 

5 April 2017

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