George French Angas was born on 25 April 1822 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, the fourth child and eldest son of George Fife Angas and his wife, Rosetta French. George Fife Angas had taken over his father's thriving coachbuilding business, had established a shipping firm and expanded his financial and commercial interests, becoming chairman of the South Australian Company and the largest landowner in South Australia in the 1840s.
Angas showed an early interest in natural history and drawing, but on completion of his education at Tavistock Grammar School he was required to work in his father's London office. Leaving this uncongenial position after a year, Angas studied briefly under the natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins before making a sketching tour of the Mediterranean in 1841, after which he published in 1842 A ramble in Malta and Sicily in the autumn of 1841.
His father's business interests in South Australia provided the impetus for Angas's decision to sail for the colony in 1843. He arrived in Adelaide on board the Augustus in January 1844 and set out on exploring expeditions, first with William Giles, then with George Grey; he made another expedition with Grey in 1845, recording these trips in drawings and paintings in South Australia illustrated (1847).
In July 1844 Angas made a sudden decision to sail to New Zealand on board a South Australian Company schooner, which was bound for New Plymouth but forced by a gale to put in at Port Nicholson (Wellington). From there Angas travelled to Porirua, where he met Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata. He sailed to Mana Island, then south to Cloudy Bay, Te Awaiti and the entrance to the Wairau Valley. An eight day voyage up the east coast of the North Island brought Angas to Auckland, where he visited Ōrākei pā and other pā, and painted a portrait of Āpihai Te Kawau of Ngāti Whātua. In the company of Thomas S. Forsaith, a sub-protector of aborigines, he travelled through Waikato to Lake Taupō and the volcanic plateau, a journey that he documented in numerous drawings and watercolours, some of which were the basis for published lithographs.
During his travels Angas met a number of prominent Māori, whose portraits he painted, and made careful and detailed pencil and watercolour drawings of Māori clothing, artefacts, dwellings and customs. His journeys and perceptive observations were recorded in a journal that formed the basis for his Savage life and scenes in Australia and New Zealand (1847), illustrated with uncoloured lithographs after his own drawings. His aim was 'to describe faithfully impressions of savage life and scenes in countries only now emerging from a primitive state of barbarism'.
Returning overland to Auckland, Angas departed for Sydney towards the end of 1844, taking with him a young Māori, Hēmi (James) Pōmara, the orphaned son of a Chatham Islands chief. They sailed on the brig Coolangatta, putting in at Kawau Island before proceeding up the coast, past the Bay of Islands, to reach Sydney on 30 December 1844. In 1845 Angas exhibited his Australian and New Zealand watercolours in Adelaide and Sydney.
In September 1845 Angas set sail with Hēmi Pōmara for England, where a further successful exhibition took place, followed in 1847 by publication of the two folio volumes South Australia illustrated and The New Zealanders illustrated, issued in parts with hand-coloured lithographed plates, mainly after Angas's own work. A trip to South Africa resulted in a further folio publication in 1849, The Kafirs illustrated. Angas had been appointed naturalist to the Turko-Persian Boundary Commission, but was forced by ill health to return to England. He married Annie Alicia Moran in Monkstown, Dublin, Ireland, on 27 December 1849; they were to have four daughters.
In 1850 George and Annie Angas sailed to South Australia and in 1853 George was appointed secretary to the Australian Museum in Sydney, a position he held until 1860. After a further two years at Angaston, in South Australia, the Angas family returned to England in February 1863, and George spent the rest of his life in London, where he was an active member of the Linnean Society and of the Zoological Society, contributing papers, chiefly on conchology, to the latter's Proceedings. He died in London on 4 October 1886.
Although his stay in New Zealand was brief, George Angas made an important contribution to the preservation of knowledge of Māori culture. His interests in ethnography and natural history, combined with his artistic ability, produced a valuable record of the Māori way of life. Accuracy and attention to detail characterise his descriptions and depictions of artefacts, clothing and dwellings, but in his Māori portraits he succumbs to the prevalent fashion for the sentimental and picturesque, Europeanising the Māori features and reducing his subjects to stereotypes. This tendency is particularly marked in the lithographs, whereas the watercolour originals retain a greater sense of the individual.
Accusations of plagiarism were justifiably levelled at Angas in New Zealand by Joseph Jenner Merrett and in Australia by Alexander Tolmer. A few of Angas's Australian lithographs also make unacknowledged use of originals by Samuel Gill, Charles Rodius and W. A. Cawthorne. Nevertheless, his work is a deliberate record of the crucial transitional phase of Māori culture under the impact of European settlement.