Why arts were important to the nation
From the 18th century countries across the world used arts to define themselves. In contrast to states owing their authority to hereditary dynasties, democratic states were believed to derive their coherence from their distinct cultures and peoples. Romantic nationalists viewed the arts as articulating a people’s culture. For example, writers such as William Shakespeare or painters such as John Constable were seen as expressing British identity.
Most Pākehā New Zealanders shared a pride in their British heritage; but from the mid-19th century, as New Zealand achieved greater autonomy and participated in international ventures in war and sport, people expected the creative arts to help define the young nation.
During the colonial period various newspapers proclaimed that a New Zealand literature was being born. In 1860 the Lyttelton Times predicted the country would ‘become a great literary nation’,1 but conceded that, while New Zealand supplied the raw material, most publications were written by authors who had visited and returned to Britain and wrote for a British audience. The Colonist, noting the launch of another new magazine designed to encourage local writing, admitted ‘New Zealand literature has not hitherto been of a very lasting nature’.2
Cover for a nation
The Nelson Evening Mail mocked the nationalist cover of the first issue of Zealandia in 1889. The paper noted that a Māori man stands beneath a kauri tree, which ‘looks as though it had been blasted by a volcanic eruption from a blotchy range of snow-clad mountains in the distance’. He is looking at a moa which appears to have ‘an enormous tail of the peacock type,’ which proves ‘to be no tail at all, but a fern tree’. Inside, the issue contained a poem by the local master, Thomas Bracken, entitled ‘Our pet kangaroo’!3
This did not stop other magazines claiming to represent significant moments in the nation’s culture – such as the New Zealand Magazine (1876) or Zealandia (1889), which was devoted to ‘New Zealand literature, by New Zealand authors, for New Zealand readers’ and intended ‘to foster a national spirit’ and be ‘racy of the soil’.4 Few such efforts survived long.
When local critics looked for expressions of New Zealand identity in literature they pointed to Old New Zealand by ‘a Pakeha Maori’ (a pseudonym for Frederick Maning), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, or most often to Alfred Domett’s straggling epic poem Ranolf and Amohia (1872). Its use of the ‘sublime’ New Zealand landscape, and its drawing on Māori mythology to embellish the story of a Briton falling in love with a Māori ‘maiden’, gave the poem a distinctive New Zealand character. It was modelled on other epic works said to establish national literatures, such as James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian (which he claimed was a collection and translation of Scottish oral literature); or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The song of Hiawatha, which claimed similar ground in the United States. However, reviewers conceded that Domett’s work was overly long and its metaphysics ‘set the teeth on edge’.5
Paintings were included in New Zealand displays at international exhibitions that followed the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. These displays were partly intended to attract tourists to ‘beautiful New Zealand,’ so painters of picturesque scenes such as southern mountains (for example, John Gully) or of the pink and white terraces (Charles Blomfield) were praised for representing the country.