Sarah Greenwood recorded in letters and drawings her experience of pioneer life in the Nelson district, where she lived for 46 years. She was born in Lambeth, London, England, and was baptised there on 20 December 1809. Her parents were Mary Ann Jones and her husband, John Field, a wax chandler. Her early education included the study of drawing, music and languages. It is not known where or from whom she received her art training. Her extant work includes two skilled copies of figure drawings and a charcoal copy of a group by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Their technique suggests that she did not draw from life and may have been taught by a lithographer. Two medals, inscribed 'To Miss S. Field. MDCCCXXV for a copy in chalk of a head.' and 'Miss S. Field, for a copy of a portrait a miniature. MDCCCXXIX.', indicate that she may have received formal training over a long period of time.
On 18 May 1831 Sarah Field married John Danforth Greenwood, a physician, at Mitcham, Surrey. Greenwood was the grandson of a Boston portrait painter, who had settled in London and became a fellow of the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain. The Greenwoods' long, companionable marriage was founded on a common background in art and music. Thirteen children were born to them.
After their marriage Danforth Greenwood continued medical practice in Mitcham, until ill health forced his retirement about 1837. The family then moved to Charenton-le-Pont, near Paris, France. In 1842 Sarah Greenwood wrote to her grandmother asking for books on New Zealand. Late that year the Greenwoods returned to England and raised capital to buy New Zealand Company sections in Wellington, Nelson and Motueka. They embarked on the Phoebe at Gravesend on 16 November 1842. Danforth Greenwood, as the ship's surgeon superintendent, received free passage for his family. One of Sarah Greenwood's letters written during the journey includes a laconic description of the birth of her son Alfred.
Arriving at Nelson on 29 March 1843, the Greenwoods found that their balloted town section was a swamp. Sarah and her younger children stayed in Nelson: the three eldest boys went with Danforth to clear and drain 50 acres and build a log house at Motueka. In early letters Sarah reported her progress in house cleaning and cookery and enclosed her first drawings of Nelson. Later she wrote of moving into the new house (which lacked a staircase, chimney and kitchen stove), of eating home-grown potatoes and eggs and selling milk and butter.
The directors of the New Zealand Company had hoped that prospective settlers would be 'capitalists', with a concern for political and civil rights, Christian religion and education. The Greenwoods had little capital but brought integrity, energy, an active social conscience and a civilising culture to their new country. Sarah Greenwood made her parlour available for church services and played the piano for worship and social gatherings. An Anglican church and a schoolhouse were built at Motueka on land given by the Greenwoods and Sarah Greenwood made a pencil drawing of the church in 1850 and the school in 1851. She managed to rear and educate a large family while maintaining a serious interest in art. In 1852 she painted her finest landscape, 'Dr Greenwood's house in Motueka', and worked on watercolour portraits of the whole family to send to her mother, noting on the back their degrees of fidelity. In 1854 she nursed all but one of her children through diphtheria.
Danforth Greenwood was a justice of the peace and magistrate and gave medical assistance to the Maori at Motueka, but increasingly his presence was required in Nelson. He became the first inspector of schools from 1857 to 1863, was on the board of Nelson College from 1855 to 1863 and was headmaster from 1863 to 1865. Sarah Greenwood spent her time between Motueka and Nelson. While Danforth held office as sergeant of arms in the House of Representatives from 1866 to 1877, Sarah and her older daughters, Mary and Ellen Greenwood, ran a boarding school for girls, Woodlands House, in Bridge Street, Nelson. The school opened in February 1866. Sarah taught French, Italian, music, painting and drawing. Her younger daughters were in the senior class. Woodlands House closed in 1871: by this time Mary and Ellen had established girls' schools in Wellington. Sarah returned to Motueka, where she died on 13 December 1889.
Sarah Greenwood continued to paint and draw all her life. However, her concern was not with pretty pictures. In a letter to her mother in 1850 she discussed the possibility of having lithographs made from her drawings but deplored the way that craftsmen in England often introduced fictitious foregrounds when copying sketches and thus destroyed 'their value as real copies of nature'. At all times she worked to render truthfully hill forms, standing bush, untidy clearings. She knew the labour involved in building and understood the construction of the houses which she lovingly detailed. Her unwavering insistence on 'exact fidelity' confirms her as a serious artist, and sets her apart from most contemporary artists in New Zealand.