One impulse for landscape painting in colonial New Zealand was recording the topography of a new land for others who could not see it. Explorers and surveyors painted as a form of map-making. Isaac Gilsemans, on Abel Tasman’s voyage in the 1640s, and Sydney Parkinson, on Cook’s first voyage in 1769–70, both prepared coastal profiles.
Not fine art
In the 1860s John Buchanan, as draughtsman for James Hector’s Otago geological survey, drew diagrammatic images of mountains which have been highly regarded by later art historians. However, these images were displayed in the educational, not fine arts, section of the 1865 New Zealand Exhibition.
But even apparently topographical paintings had larger purposes and were contained within artistic conventions. They were never unmediated responses to the landscape.
One purpose of paintings during this time was to attract settlers to New Zealand. To promote immigration to New Zealand Company settlements, Edward Jerningham Wakefield’s book Adventure in New Zealand was illustrated with engravings that presented the settlements in an attractive light, with flattish land – like England’s – and prosperous activity. There is a major contrast between the early photographs of muddy town streets and the cultured landscapes seen in paintings. Charles Heaphy, a draughtsman for the New Zealand Company, also pictured New Zealand in a positive light – in his famous watercolour entitled ‘Mt Egmont from the Southward’, Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) was a perfectly symmetrical cone.
Later in the century paintings of snowy mountains and romantic mists were used in international exhibitions to attract tourists to ‘beautiful New Zealand’.
The language of painting
Landscape painters of New Zealand worked within an established language or set of conventions. The governing idea was that nature was God’s handiwork. The role of the painter was to reveal that handiwork.
The artist’s gospel
‘A history of landscape art and its study in New Zealand’, a speech given by Otago painter William Mathew Hodgkins in 1880, was the most famous articulation of the artist’s role in colonial New Zealand. Hodgkins said, ‘the mission of the landscape painter is to make us acquainted with the beautiful places on God’s earth, and so render us more grateful to Him who has placed us here by affording us the means of contemplating the presentment of his work’.1
To portray this ideal world painters drew on the ideas of 17th-century French painter Claude Lorraine, using:
- a high viewpoint revealing a distant horizon
- dark brown foreground and side (often featuring trees)
- overlapping planes
- a golden glow and a distant blue horizon.
This ‘Claudian grammar’ was used even by amateur watercolourists who were primarily interested in topographic representation. Some examples include William Fox in the works he painted while exploring inland Nelson; Auckland school teacher John Kinder, who documented exact features in the landscapes but whose paintings have a Claudian golden glow; and fellow Aucklander Alfred Sharpe, who, though profoundly deaf, spoke loudly through his paint in a Claudian language of dark foregrounds and blue distances.
The ‘Claudian grammar’ was intended to evoke emotions, especially a sense of awe in front of the vast emptiness of God’s creation – the emotion of the sublime. The soaring height of mountain peaks and swirling clouds in fierce weather gave atmosphere and a feeling of God’s power.
The first artist to evoke this was William Hodges, on Cook’s second voyage, who was instructed not just to record scientifically but also give the look and feel of a place. His painting ‘Waterfall in Dusky Bay’ suggests vast cascades and noise, and his ‘A view of Cape Stephens with waterspouts’ shows crashing waves, broken cliffs and a drama of light and shade.
Settler painter William Mathew Hodgkins believed the swirling atmospheric paintings of Englishman J. M. W. Turner, with their contrasts of light and dark, were the model for colonial artists.
From the 1880s, as painting became more professional and painters increasingly painted large oils for public display in exhibitions and galleries, the sublime style became more dominant. Painters who worked in this idiom included John Gully from Nelson, whose scenes of the snowy Southern Alps echoed the mountains and glens of Scotland, and Charles Blomfield, an Aucklander, whose grand canvases of the Pink and White Terraces at Lake Tarawera were intended to emphasise the awe-inspiring works of nature and so glorify God.
Another style of painting was the picturesque. This emphasised irregularity, asymmetry and a sense of age and decay. Gnarled trees were a trademark. Frequently in New Zealand Māori figures added a picturesque element to paintings in place of Europe’s rural peasants. Aucklander J. B. C. Hoyte’s deep-blue landscapes often have a Māori spectator in the foreground. In the landscape paintings of Dunedin painter George O’Brien, rough tree roots or jagged rocks provide a foreground to the expected views of sea and sky.
New Zealand landscape painters had New Zealand subjects, but they looked at the landscape through the eyes of European convention.