The son of Christopher Richmond, a barrister, and his wife, Maria Wilson, James Crowe Richmond was born in London, England, on 22 September 1822. He was educated at the Hackney Grammar School; at Hove House, Brighton; and at the school attached to University College, London. He continued his education, in 1839, as an apprentice to the engineer Samuel Clegg, and later with Samuda Brothers, engine makers and iron ship builders. For three years from 1845 he served on the staff of I. K. Brunel, working on the Great Western railway in the south of England. In 1849 he spent a brief period at a London drawing academy. The decision to emigrate won out over other schemes. He had thought of becoming a farmer, an industrial potter, a professional painter. His brother William (C. W. Richmond) observed wryly that he would have made as much in art as in trade.
Richmond and his younger brother Henry left Gravesend on the Victory on 3 October 1850, bound for New Zealand and intending to settle in Taranaki. An aunt, Helen, married to John Hursthouse, was already there. Other Richmonds were expected to follow, as well as Atkinsons, with one of whom, John Staines, James had worked on the staff of Brunel. The brothers arrived in Auckland in February 1851; James found the houses 'rather cockney' in appearance and the settlers to have boorish 'Yankee' manners. They walked south to Taranaki, through the Waikato and Waipa valleys and down the coast from Kawhia Harbour. They bought a few acres near the Hursthouses; this was to become Merton, the first headquarters of 'the mob', their sister Maria's term for the various members of the Richmond, Atkinson, Hursthouse and Ronald families who were to settle together in New Zealand.
The Richmonds cleared a little land and added to an existing cottage, before James returned to England in April 1854, quite out of love with 'the outlandishness of New Zealand'. For a few months in 1855 he painted on the Isle of Arran, Scotland, on the suggestion of his artist friend Basil Holmes. In 1856 he worked for a Belgian railway company, still finding time for sketching and painting. He may have left New Zealand dissatisfied with his single state; he ended it by marrying Mary Smith, one of a family of girls warmly recommended by his mother, at Flamstead in Hertfordshire, England, on 21 August 1856. She was 12 years his junior, and much influenced by the theologian F. D. Maurice. The letters they exchanged during their engagement are full of affection, theological discussion, and self-analysis. James could have stayed on with the Belgian company, but he missed his kin and connections in New Zealand. He and Mary sailed on the Kenilworth, which arrived in New Plymouth, after some weeks in Auckland, on 8 July 1857.
They lived first at Merton, where James farmed in a desultory fashion and Mary, a vegetarian, worried over the ethics of killing animals for profit. Then, following others in the family group, they bought land at Hurworth, the group's communal settlement on the Carrington Road, near New Plymouth.
Soon James entered politics. He failed at his first attempt to get elected to the Taranaki Provincial Council, but in 1858 succeeded, the opposing candidate having withdrawn, in being elected for the Grey and Bell constituency. The following year he was appointed provincial secretary. Politics rescued him from bush farming; a salary on top of his small private income enabled him to build a house at Hurworth.
Both as a politician and as a settler he was devoted to what he later called 'opening up the country' and the need to overcome Maori obstruction to it. Like other Hurworthians, he subjected his brother William, native minister from 1858 to 1860, to a barrage of letters denouncing what they saw as his cautious approach to the acceptance of Te Teira's offer of land at Waitara.
He entered the House of Representatives in 1860 as the member for Omata, but he did not stay with his constituents for long. Mary went to Nelson with other Taranaki refugees on 31 March 1860. From then until 1862 James divided his time and duties between the provincial council in New Plymouth (with occasional visits to Mary) and the parliamentary sessions in Auckland. In 1862 he and Mary with her sister Annie, who had come to New Zealand in November 1860, settled in Nelson. Here he became editor of the Nelson Examiner and, after the fall of the Fox ministry, commissioner of Crown lands. He was reluctant to take this salaried position, fearing that to do so would encourage the view that all politicians were venal. But the Richmonds were in debt, and Mary urged him to accept. He added to his offices by election to the Nelson Provincial Council in 1864, for Amuri, and appointment as provincial secretary, holding that office from 1863 to 1865.
In these years he worked extremely hard. He edited the Examiner (finding it 'thoroughly distasteful'), discharged his duties as commissioner and secretary, explored the Nelson back country and defined the boundary between Nelson and Marlborough on separation. He formed a close friendship with the Nelson painter John Gully, and found time for at least one sketching trip down the West Coast.
He was summoned back into colonial politics in 1865 by Frederick Weld, becoming colonial secretary, with a seat in the Legislative Council, and resigning from the Omata seat. 'I do not feel great at administration', he wrote to his brother William on accepting office. But he did not have to put up with it for long; the Weld administration fell in October, after Richmond had held office for less than four months. This seemed his chance to leave politics and rejoin 'the mob' in Taranaki. He planned to help Arthur Atkinson with the Taranaki Herald, to keep a cow, and earn something by painting and surveying.
He wrote to Mary from Wellington about these plans at a time when she was, unknown to him, dying. She had never recovered from her fifth pregnancy, and nursing her children through scarlet fever had weakened her further. She died in Nelson on 29 October 1865. Mary's death left Richmond 'harassed & broken'. For some months he sequestered himself with his brother William in Dunedin and spent his time sketching and painting.
However, by 1866 he was back in the forefront of politics. He shifted to Wellington and was elected to the House of Representatives for Grey and Bell. He joined the Stafford administration as, in effect, minister of native affairs, although Stafford decided to do without the title. For nearly three years, from August 1866 to June 1869, Richmond was at the centre of the most vital activity of government, although he did not, like Donald McLean after him, dominate it. The major pieces of legislation of 1867 – on Maori land, education and parliamentary representation – owe more to Donald McLean, James Edward FitzGerald and William Rolleston than to him. Nevertheless, he worked hard as minister in charge of the Native Department. Although he did not diverge from his early commitment to the progress of colonisation, he was less harsh than many in pursuing that goal. Against the prevalent settler view, he insisted on the retention of some flexibility in the law as administered by resident magistrates. He was charged with feather-bedding in regard to the limits placed (by the Native Lands Act 1867) on the 10 trustees named in certificates of title issued by the Native Land Court. He realised that 'equal laws for both races' would be penal to the Maori; he argued that they had to be helped along the road to self-reliance. In 1868 he and Rolleston urged compensation for the seizure of the Wellington reserves, but unsuccessfully.
Richmond saw to the return of some confiscated land to former anti-government Maori in the Bay of Plenty and Taranaki in 1867. Two years later he opened negotiations with the King movement, proposing the return of some lands in exchange for the ending of the isolation of the King territory. But Waikato chiefs insisted on the full sovereignty of the King and the return of all lands. Richmond then held out vigorously for the retention of confiscated lands, in the interests of colonisation. Faced with the claims of the dispossessed Ngai Tahu of Canterbury, he did no more than increase the reserves from 10 to a mere 14 acres per head. Through the Native Lands Act 1867 he made it easier for Pakeha to get mortgages over Maori land. Further, under his administration, the role in the judicial system of Maori assessors acting alone, and of Maori juries, was ended, and the ideal of local self-government in Maori districts abandoned. Although he was sensitive to humane considerations, his attitude remained that of a Taranaki settler of the 1850s.
Most of the policy initiatives were carried out in 1867, when – at least to the government – peace seemed around the corner. But in 1868 war was renewed in Taranaki by Titokowaru and on the East Coast by Te Kooti. On the East Coast Richmond helped organise local defences and marched with G. S. Whitmore's forces. But the ministry's failure to end the fighting quickly led to its fall in June 1869.
This ended Richmond's brief career in high office, and his connection with Maori affairs. One feat for which he is, rather ambiguously, remembered, was what he called 'the confiscation and carrying off' of Te Hau-ki-Turanga, the meeting house carved by Raharuhi Rukupo, now in the National Museum, Wellington. It was bought for £450; at the time its roof was in ruins and in danger of destruction by fire. Richmond may well have been responsible for its retention in New Zealand; at the time Sir George Grey and the Melbourne museum were also after it.
The family group gathered in Nelson. Richmond and his children went there in 1869; his brother William and his family were living nearby. Maria and Arthur Atkinson were close at hand. Other Atkinson and Hursthouse connections followed. He was again in the midst of his kin. His closest companions were his three eldest children: Ann Elizabeth, Maurice Wilson and Dorothy Kate (Dolla). However, Richmond still found it hard to leave politics alone. He lost the Grey and Bell nomination in 1870, and stood unsuccessfully for Wellington City in 1871 and Nelson in 1872. Richmond was never a popular political figure and his continuing absence from Taranaki had not strengthened the bond with his electors. Unlike his brother-in-law Harry Atkinson, he opposed Julius Vogel's borrowing policy at a time when it was carrying all before it.
To see to the education of his children, Richmond left for England and Europe in April 1873. For eight years he supported himself by his old profession, engineering, and his continuing passion, painting. In 1875-76 he took a job with a French railway firm, building a line in Algeria. Living in Oran, he found plenty to paint. In London he made money by what he called 'potboiling' – producing paintings for 'the ex-NZ millionaires – T. Russell, Farmer, C. Nairn etc'. But he was oppressed by failing eyesight, by the London climate and by increasing expenses. He had five children to support and only his sense of duty to them kept him from returning to New Zealand. He planned, in 1879, to gather together his paintings and send them to a Melbourne dealer whom he had met on his way to England in 1873.
Richmond was back in Nelson in January 1881. At once politics exerted its pull. He made two more attempts to return to the House of Representatives, but he had gained a reputation for conservatism, and 'the mob' was now seen in some political circles as a clique which had accumulated offices as if they were a 'governing family'. He lost both elections. This conservatism was more a matter of attitude than of ideology, for Richmond adhered strictly to the radicalism of his Unitarian background. He stayed in politics, however, by accepting appointment to the Legislative Council in 1883, and remaining a member until 1892.
The rest of his life is unremarkable. He still travelled, to Fiji in 1883, and back to Europe in 1885 and in 1889–90. His daughter Dolla, herself by now beginning her career as a painter, lived with him in their Nelson home; they both painted in the studio he had added to the house. His daughter Ann Elizabeth had further cemented 'the mob' by marrying Edmund Tudor Atkinson. Richmond died when he was staying with them at Otaki, on 19 January 1898.
James Crowe Richmond's life shows something of the breadth of opportunity open in nineteenth century New Zealand to a 'gentleman colonist' of genuine but still modest abilities. He was intelligent and well educated, but lacked the intellectual edge of his brother William and the political acumen of his brother-in-law Harry Atkinson. He painted well and with financial success, producing romantic landscapes which reflect a keen awareness of natural beauty. He was versatile and from time to time hard working; he was beset with self-doubt and found all occupations, apart from painting, eventually distasteful; he was devoted to his family and to his kin.