The story of the development of European art in New Zealand had, as one would expect, an unpromising beginning and a tenuous course. Granted that many of the early artists had both talent and training, their visits to this country were too brief for them to discern the significant qualities of a new land and its people. A further handicap was their reliance upon a sombre palette and a stylised mode of drawing–conventions which were satisfactory enough for turning out a European landscape or portrait la mode but hopelessly inadequate for the task at hand. Moreover, as there was little opportunity for painting on the spot it was inevitable that these cursory sketches should undergo, in the course of time, a studio metamorphosis, with a consequent loss of topographical accuracy and sense of atmosphere. If, by a miracle, some feeling of vitality still remained, the technical improvisations of the engraver and lithographer completed the work of destruction. For these reasons, the paintings, engravings, and lithographs of the pre-1840 period contain little of that subject-matter which enables us to recreate the past. At their best they may be regarded as hovering vaguely on the borderland of history, and seldom–if ever–entering the realm of art.
Pictorial art in New Zealand dates from Tasman's brief visit in December 1642, the subject being his unfortunate clash with the Maoris at Murderers', now Golden, Bay. The sketch by an unknown artist of the attack on the Zeehaen's cockboat is crudely drawn, with a fine disdain for the rules of perspective, but it certainly serves as an intelligible complement to the Journal entry and gives as accurate a delineation of the natives' features as do the later sketches of the more talented artists of the Cook era. Sydney Parkinson (first voyage), William Hodges (second), and James Webber (third) all made numerous drawings of this country and its inhabitants. Hodges was the most gifted and, as a former pupil of Richard Wilson, was a skilful painter in oils in the classical tradition. But none captured the spirit of old New Zealand, though the published engravings and aquatints, hand tinted, were of a high technical quality. Where these artists failed was in their inability to depict the Maori as a peculiar racial type and, consequently, from an anthropological viewpoint, their work was of little value.
Of greater interest, if not merit, were the sketches of the French artists who accompanied the expeditions that followed in the wake of Cook. Piron, the first to arrive, was a member of the expedition which searched for the ill fated La Perouse. Although Piron's pictorial record of New Zealand is slight, his successors, Lejeune and Chazal, who visited the country in 1824 in the corvette La Coquille under the command of L. J. Duperrey, found some very interesting subjects near the Bay of Islands, eight of which, as lithographs, illustrated Duperrey's Voyage Autour du Monde. But the most prolific artist was de Sainson who came with Dumont d'Urville in the Astrolabe in 1827. He was an accomplished draughtsman and his lithographed drawings, many also from the Bay of Islands, were published in the Voyage de la Corvette L'Astrolabe. In 1840, when d'Urville paid his second visit to New Zealand, the artist was L. Le Breton, who broke new ground in depicting east coast scenes of the South Island, notably the anchorage at Otago Harbour and the Weller whaling station, and Akaroa. Nevertheless, despite their technical and artistic excellence, these early productions were nothing more than transitory impressions. Their main value was the interest they aroused, both in England and in France, in the new land and its picturesque–if fearsome–inhabitants.
If for no other reason than that Augustus Earle was the first artist to spend several months in New Zealand, studying the Maori people from his headquarters at Kororareka, his work is of more than passing significance. Of a wandering disposition, Earle had already travelled extensively when, at the age of 29, he arrived at Hokianga on 20 October 1827. As an artist Earle was unable to resist the appeal of the magnificent kauri forests of the north, and many of his best sketches, later lithographed, depict these subjects. He was also attracted to the Maori and, though portraiture was not his forte, he did succeed in part in expressing something of the spirit of a proud and warlike race, When, for instance, Earle met the famous Ngapuhi chief, Hongi, then wounded, the scene made such an appeal that the artist begged permission to sketch the group. The oil painting based on this study is the finest of the period. With its restrained colour, sound draughtsmanship, and balanced design it is a moving portrayal of savage dignity, despite its tendency to romanticise a sorry episode in a bloodthirsty era.
Explorer-artists of the 1840s
A fresh impetus to painting the New Zealand scene, though the emphasis was primarily topographical, arose from plans for the colonisation of the country by the New Zealand Company. Under its aegis there arrived on the scene a small group of surveyors cum artists whose work was partly utilitarian, partly propagandist. The most talented was Charles Heaphy, who came with the Tory in August 1839. Without delay, Heaphy was caught up in a host of activities which included exploring and surveying, writing copy for the company's publications, and gathering material for his own Residence in Various Parts of New Zealand (1842) and, withal, sketching. His qualities as draughtsman are shown in such topographical studies as Early Wellington. But his claims as artist are vindicated by far finer work, notably his painting of timber cutting at Hokianga, which is a landmark in the history of art in this country. The brooding calm and majesty of the giant kauris, in sharp contrast to the pigmy figures of the timber cutters, the bold design with its sense of spaciousness, and the decorative quality of the drawing are subtly and perfectly harmonised. Kauri Forest must properly be regarded as a freak, for never again, not even remotely, did Heaphy approach this standard. The explorer-surveyor-artist combination appeared again with Captain William Mein Smith, who had resigned his professorship at the Royal Military Academy to become Surveyor-General to the New Zealand Company. He arrived a few months after Heaphy, to whom he was greatly inferior in artistic talent. He carried on the topographical tradition with some panoramic views of the infant settlement at Port Nicholson (Wellington), and it is a matter of historical regret that sketches which he made in the course of a three months' survey of the east coast of the South Island in late 1842 were lost when his cutter, The Brothers, foundered in a squall at Akaroa. Mein Smith's successor was Samuel Charles Brees, who spent three years in the colony compiling a book of sketches mainly panoramic studies in the vicinity of Wellington which, in the Heaphy manner, were designed for Company propaganda. In 1847 Brees published a series of sketches in Pictorial New Zealand, and although the drawing was tight and over-concerned with topographical detail, the engravings had a popular appeal and did much to attract immigrants to the colony. Poorer in quality, both as drawings and as lithographs, were the Otago sketches of Charles Kettle, who for a time had been a member of Mein Smith's staff.
Another explorer-artist of the early forties was George French Angas, who in 1843 had accompanied Sir George Grey to South Australia. In the following year he arrived at Wellington and at once began to explore and sketch certain districts in both islands. Upon his return to England in 1846 he published New Zealanders Illustrated, which is an extremely valuable record of native life of the time. The value of Angas lies in two fields–the anthropological and, to a lesser extent, the artistic. To his credit he appreciated the rare qualities of a native culture already fast disappearing, and he copied, with patience and skill, many examples of rare craftsmanship. His anatomical training as draughtsman enabled him to set down accurately the features of many leading chiefs. Although these portraits are all superficial and err in presenting the “noble” rather than the “savage”, they depict the intricacies of moko (tattooing) and the rich and rare ornaments and dress. The Angas manner was repeated with some success by Commander R. A. Oliver, who came in H.M.S. Fly on a brief visit. In 1852 he published A Series of Lithographic Drawings, from Sketches in New Zealand. Like those of Angas, his portraits of such famous warrior chiefs as Te Rangihaeata suggest gentlemen in fancy dress rather than ferocious savages. The sentimental appeal of Oliver's drawing is strengthened by the excellent lithography and refinements of colour, standards which soon fell away before the increasing vulgarity of popular taste.
The most accomplished artist in this field was John Alexander Gilfillan, who had had the benefit of a thorough art training in Scotland, not least in anatomical drawing. Within a few months of his arrival in 1841 he had settled in the Wanganui district where he varied farming with sketching. When, however, his wife and three children were murdered by the natives in April 1847, he soon left New Zealand for Australia. It was in Sydney that, from the material of his sketches, he executed the splendid painting of a pa near Wanganui. The original has been lost but lithographs of the subject are common. In its way it was the finest study of native life yet attempted and its composition and drawing mark it out as the achievement of a sensitive and discerning artist. Gilfillan's sketch books, now in the Hocken Library, Dunedin, show his command of drawing, and give more than a hint of what might have been done.
Had these artists of the forties remained here, something of the nature of an indigenous art might gradually have emerged. But Brees, Angas, Oliver, and Gilfillan drifted away, and Heaphy became involved in other interests, including fighting and politics. Thus there was no unity to sustain art development. Spasmodic and often surprisingly good attempts to sketch the configuration of the little-known interior of the South Island, with its magical lake and alpine scenery, were made from time to time by explorer-surveyors like John Buchanan who for good measure was also botanist and draughtsman. Much of his work has been lost, but by a stroke of good fortune there remains his masterly “Milford Sound”, a water colour surely born out of time, for not until the modern era has there again been set down the simplified structure of mountain scenery, with an overpowering sense of unchanging solidity. But, in general, these men were surveyors and not artists, and their interests were topographical rather than imaginative. And it was this emphasis on the superficially picturesque that can properly be regarded as the one art legacy bequeathed to the colony from the early pioneering period. It was also a legacy that succeeding generations of artists were to exploit to the full. In the vanguard were John GullyC. D. Barraud and, in lesser degree, J. C. Richmond. The settler-artist had arrived.
It would have been quite remarkable if, from among the early settlers, there had not been some who found time for sketching, since a proficiency in water-colour painting was one of the recognised accomplishments of “gentlefolk”. This was especially true of the New Zealand Company emigrants, many of whom had talent, though largely undeveloped. But they had a sound knowledge of the works of the English water colourists and, as amateurs, they sketched for pleasure. There was Francis Dillon Bell, and there was James Edward FitzGerald, the first Superintendent of Canterbury; there was W. B. D. Mantell, with his delicate pen-and-ink drawings of the Otago coastline (1848); and there was William Fox, who, as a much travelled official of the Company, jotted down his impressions in hasty water colours which, at their best, are vigorous and direct. But it was a gifted trio of amateurs–for Gully and Richmond were farmers and civil servants and Barraud was a chemist–who made the greatest impact on colonial society. J. C. Richmond, a man of culture and of education, had no time to make his painting anything more than a hobby. Yet his powers of observation, his innate good taste, and his love of nature stamped him as one who might have gone far had not politics absorbed more and more of his time. In the early sixties, as Commissioner of Crown Lands, Nelson, he made several journeys inland or along the coast, with a sketch book as his inseparable companion. Later, accompanied by his lifelong friend, John Gully, he broke new ground by sketching in the Manapouri–Te Anau area. He loved the New Zealand forest and alpine vistas, and his pencil and water-colour drawings are often very good indeed, direct in execution, and free from sentimentality.
The Gully Influence
The most extravagantly praised artist of his day was the self-taught water colourist, John Gully, who carried to an extreme the topographical tradition of his predecessors. When farming and, later, clerical work at Taranaki proved uncongenial, Gully moved south to Nelson where, in 1863, he joined the provincial Land Survey Office, under Richmond, as draughtsman and surveyor. In the course of his duties he, too, travelled widely and, by trial and error, found in water colour the ideal medium for expressing those qualities he soon discovered had a popular appeal–the depiction of ethereal distances, snowy peaks, and delicate, bush-clad mountains. There is little real inspiration in his inflated panoramas, though a good deal of technical skill. It was his uncompromising fidelity to nature that appealed so strongly to a generation steeped in the sentimentalism of Victorian “art”, and this non-intellectual portrayal of a refined prettiness was bound to attract where a more vigorous treatment would repel. Gully's influence on a host of minor imitators was marked with unhappy results, for it was his many faults rather than his few excellences that appealed. Thus C. D. Barraud, another hopelessly over-rated artist of the day, has Gully's worst mannerisms without any of his saving graces. One painting of exceptional merit, however, emerges from this period, Southern Alps of New Zealand, by the Dunedin solicitor-water colourist, W. M. Hodgkins, father of the famous Frances. The antithesis of the products of the Gully school, this fine expression of “Nature in the raw” gives us, perhaps for the first time, the true essence of a South Island landscape pattern. Hodgkins' work is understandably very uneven, as was that of Nicholas Chevalier who arrived in Otago in the mid-sixties. He was one of the earliest professional artists–if not the first–to exploit the scenic possibilities of the south, and his many mountain water colours, smooth and clean in colour, were more reminiscent of Switzerland than of New Zealand. But they sold well and were applauded for their “tourist appeal”.
This concentration by southern artists on alpine scenery, especially that of the fastnesses of Western Otago, is perhaps the most striking feature of New Zealand painting at that time. Although communications throughout the interior had improved greatly as a result of the gold rushes of the sixties, it is a matter of wonder today just where these carefree painters in holiday mood penetrated in search of subjects. In their day there was little incentive for artists to linger in the now popular sketching ground of Central Otago, for the willows and poplars which at the present time provide the artist-cum-photographer with a wealth of lush, autumnal, kodochromatic material were as yet mere saplings. Scorning the camera, therefore, they jotted down their hasty sketch-book notes which developed later into studio paintings, with memory filling in the details. Under such circumstances it was inevitable that a sort of “formula” painting would evolve, with an easy reliance on atmosphere–the snow-capped mountain, the mist-enshrouded bush, the middle distance of lake or stream, and a tussock or rockstrewn foreground, with the added appeal of driftwood. Nevertheless, the best exponents of this school did produce some charming studies, notably George O'Brien and L. W. Wilson, of Otago, and William Menzies Gibb, of Canterbury.
The Maori in Art
While landscape painting in New Zealand was wedded to the Gully tradition, representational but non-realistic, a revival of portraiture, especially of the Maori, was brought about by the Czech artist, Gottfried Lindauer, who arrived in the colony in 1873. His ethnological interest in the Maori was of significance for, since the time of Angas, native culture had been ignored, a gap due in great degree to the turmoil of the Maori Wars. Apart from Barraud, who had painted some execrable portraits of native chiefs, and H. G. Robley, who, in spite of the limitations of the ill-trained amateur, had set down something of the intricate tattooing fast vanishing from the scene, art had no place for the Maori. Lindauer thus fulfilled a useful function and his prosaic and cameralike portraits, with their detailed accessories of garments, ornaments, and weapons, record in subdued colour his impressions of the character and culture of a race which he believed to be dying.
Art Schools and Societies
During these years the population of the colony had been growing rapidly. The discovery of rich goldfields in Otago, Westland, and the Coromandel Peninsula had attracted thousands of adventurers to the diggings. With the increase of population there arose a demand for better educational facilities, combined with a general interest in art among the community, which was stimulated by the New Zealand Exhibition held at Dunedin in January 1865. The upshot was the foundation at Dunedin in early 1870, by the provincial Government, of the colony's first art school, under the direction of a Scot, David Con Hutton. The venture justified itself and by the mid-eighties many of its students were going overseas and doing well. The other centres tardily followed Otago's lead. In 1881 an art school opened at Christchurch, followed by Wellington in 1886 and Auckland in 1890, the latter the result of a bequest by J. E. Elam. A natural consequence of these foundations was the emergence of art societies, which were constituted in the four main centres through the combined efforts of private citizens and artists. Auckland came first in 1871, followed by Dunedin in 1875, Christchurch in 1881, and Wellington in 1883, the last named in 1889 adopting the impressive but misleading title of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. They were essentially local groups concerned mainly with sponsoring art exhibitions in their own centres, arranging lectures and demonstrations, social evenings, and the like. While these art schools and societies did much to stimulate the development of New Zealand art, their emphasis was, on the whole, towards the conservative. If the teaching was sound and conscientious, it adhered rigidly to South Kensington standards which stultified all initiative.
This stagnation ended with the arrival in 1890 of two men, James Nairn, the Scot, and Van der Velden, the Dutchman, who between them, and in different ways, were destined to exercise a strong influence on a number of young painters of promise. A member of the Glasgow Art Club, Nairn was closely associated in spirit with McTaggart and other leading Scottish impressionist landscape painters, and his arrival at Wellington as a prophet of the new order was a cultural event. Nairn was a sound draughtsman and unenterprising colourist, and his rather cautious impressionism attracted, rather than repelled, the public. He was never in the first flight as an artist, but came into his own as teacher and leader of a small group of disciples who gladly surrendered to his winning charm. It was through them that his influence gradually spread to all parts of the colony, and his early death in 1904 is all the more to be regretted since it robbed the Wellington group of his leadership at a time when there was still much to be done.
Petrus van der Velden was an artist of a different category. He settled in Christchurch where, by the close of the century, he had established himself as teacher and painter steeped in the Rembrandtesque tradition of Dutch painting. His early promise as artist was never fulfilled and the bulk of his work displays a mediocre talent. But his great achievement, Otira Gorge Waterfall, one of the treasures of the Dunedin Art Gallery, is a tour de force. Like Nairn, therefore. Van der Velden achieved his greatest success as a teacher, and soon gathered around him a number of talented pupils who were trained, perhaps too rigidly, in the disciplines of the mid-nineteenth century Dutch school. Robert Proctor, Archibald NicollCecil and Elizabeth Kelly, Raymond McIntyre and Sydney Thompson were of this company, and their subsequent successes are a tribute to the influence of a sound teacher.
In the early years of this century it was apparent that the colony was not devoid of talent. In every centre there were many young artists of promise, some of whom, like David Low, Frances Hodgkins, M. Sherwood, M. E. R. Tripe. J. F. Scott, Mabel Hill, D. K. Richmond, Harry Rountree, M. O. Stoddart, Heber Thompson, Eleanor Hughes, and Owen Merton–to cite a few–followed up their New Zealand training by journeying overseas in search of wider opportunities. At the same time, within New Zealand itself, Alfred Walsh, perhaps the finest water colourist this country has produced, was interpreting the landscape in an impressionistic manner which owed little, if anything, to outside influences. In Auckland, too, the Wright brothers and C. F. Goldie had turned for inspiration to the Maori and were continuing with great success the Angas-Lindauer tradition.
Despite the impressive achievements of the late nineteenth century, it was apparent by the outbreak of the First World War that there was no evidence of the emergence of an indigenous art which would interpret the characteristics and mood of the country. New Zealand's geographical remoteness from the art centres of Europe, the paucity of art scholarships, the dull conservatism of her art schools and institutions, had debarred the great majority of students from any direct contact with the works of the post-impressionists or with current movements abroad. Moreover, within the Dominion art was local rather than national, and students in the four centres, still largely isolated one from another, drew their inspiration from the few overseas artists who had settled in their midst. For a time it seemed possible that these local groups would make their own distinctive contributions. In the nineties at Dunedin, for instance, where there was then a cosmopolitan art society which could boast as its leader Pieri Nerli and where, furthermore, there was a cultured and wealthy community, largely Jewish, one might have expected something essentially distinctive to have emerged. But, as with similar groups in other centres which coalesced only to disintegrate rapidly, the Dunedin school drifted away, Nerli himself returning to Italy.
The First World War took its toll of young men of promise in art as in other spheres. As a compensation, New Zealand in the post-war years benefited greatly from the impact of new ideas from abroad and, above all, from the invasion of art specialists who came from England and Scotland to revitalise art teaching and to interpret as best they could the complexities of post-impressionism–men of the calibre of R. Donn, J. A. Johnstone, F. A. Shurrock, R. Hipkins, W. H. Wright, W. H. Allen, R. N. Field, T. H. Jenkin, and F. V. Ellis, many of whom were associates of the Royal College of Art. It was a period of innovation and experimentation and, not unnaturally, there was much dabbling in the backwaters of streams already grown stagnant. One cannot help feeling that the experiments somewhat defiantly conducted by the daring innovators of the twenties were essentially imitative and rested on no deep social or cultural basis. At the same time there were healthy signs that the content of art was broadening and that interest in sculpture and applied art, as distinct from painting, was at last evident.
But such promising trends, and there were many, were summarily checked by the outbreak of the Second World War. In its essentials, therefore, the art stream of the early 1940s differed in slight degree only from that of the 1860s, for the one abiding characteristic of our national art has been, and still is, an amateurish culture, with an unswerving devotion to topographical landscape painting, or, as the Kelliher award lays it down, “through a realistic or natural representation of the chosen subject”. And this tradition will undoubtedly harden as colour photography comes more and more into its own as close ally of the topographist.
by Alexander Hare McLintock, C.B.E., M.A., DIP.ED. (N.Z.), PH.D.(LOND.), Parliamentary Historian, Wellington.