Charles Heaphy was born in London, England, probably in 1820, the youngest of five children. His father, Thomas Heaphy, was a professional watercolourist and miniaturist of considerable social prominence. Charles's mother, Mary Stevenson, is said to have died shortly after his birth, and Thomas remarried. Little is known of Charles's upbringing and formal education. The family circumstances were prosperous; Thomas Heaphy enjoyed royal patronage and was deeply involved in the art politics of the time; and three of the other children became well-known artists. There is evidence to suggest, however, that Thomas Heaphy's relations with the children of his first wife were strained.
Charles left home shortly after his father's death in 1835, and for 18 months was employed as a draughtsman by the London and Birmingham Railway Company. In 1837 he entered the Royal Academy, and attended classes sporadically over the next two years. However, informal tuition within the family circle in topographical watercolours and small-scale portraiture would have been the strongest formative influence on Charles's style and technique.
Charles Heaphy is said to have come under the patronage of a prominent publisher, who may have sponsored his admission to the Royal Academy and brought him to the notice of the New Zealand Company. Heaphy entered the service of the company on 6 May 1839 as a draughtsman, and on 9 May boarded the Tory at Plymouth, arriving at Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound on 18 August. His ornithological painting, 'Kakariki, from Ship Cove and Teawaiti, August 1839', was his first major New Zealand work, and elsewhere in the Cook Strait area, Heaphy made portrait studies of Te Rauparaha, Te Wharepouri, Te Puni-kokopu and Te Hiko-o-te-rangi. At the end of the year he executed some of his best-known scenes, when the Tory sailed to the Kaipara and Hokianga districts.
Heaphy was subsequently to be based at Port Nicholson (Wellington), employed as an assistant surveyor. In April 1840 he accompanied a company expedition to the Chatham Islands, where he was wounded in the course of a skirmish between Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga. On his return Heaphy joined an exploring party which was to follow the west coast of the North Island as far as Ngamotu in Taranaki. These expeditions were to result in some more of his best-known works, the 'View in the valley of the Nairne', and 'Mt. Egmont, from the southward'.
In April 1841 Heaphy executed his first view of the Wellington settlement, 'Thorndon Flat and part of the city of Wellington', which was sent to London for lithographic reproduction, as part of the company's publicity campaign. He executed a second view, showing the Te Aro portion of the settlement, in September, and when the company's second colonising expedition arrived at Wellington, Heaphy was employed as its draughtsman. He produced a notable watercolour record of the expedition and the founding days of the Nelson settlement, and was then sent to London, with his pictures, to report personally to the directors on the progress of Nelson. He wrote a promotional pamphlet, Narrative of a residence in New Zealand, some of his views were published as lithographs, and he reported to the directors on the prospects of exploration into the South Island interior.
Heaphy's proposals for exploration were approved, and he returned to Nelson in December 1842 in the hope of employment as a company surveyor. The settlement was by this time experiencing acute economic difficulties, and Heaphy went to live with Frederick Moore as a squatter on some land near Motueka. The attempt to establish a farm absorbed all Heaphy's capital, and he approached William Fox, the company's agent at Nelson, for paid employment as an explorer of the back country.
In the hope of finding a 'great plain', Heaphy began a series of journeys into the hinterland in November 1843. In February 1846, with William Fox, Thomas Brunner and Kehu, he ventured via Rotoiti and Rotoroa down the Buller River as far as the commencement of the gorge. The possibility of access from the West Coast to the arable land which they had reported in the Tiraumea and Matukituki valleys stimulated Heaphy and Brunner to undertake their famous journey down the West Coast as far as the Arahura River. Two Maori, Kehu and Tau, guided them, and it is clear that had it not been for Maori hospitality en route, the party would have starved during their mid winter journey. The return journey along the coast to Nelson was a great hardship, and in his assessment of the prospects for company settlement on the West Coast, Heaphy abandoned the flippant optimism of his early days in New Zealand, writing off the coast as useless for organised settlement.
Heaphy had left the Motueka farm in January 1845, and until 1848 he lived in some poverty in Nelson, his only sources of income being a few commissions to execute portraits of acquaintances, some contract survey work and paid militia service. He was at this time unpopular with some of the settlers, who resented his over-enthusiastic propaganda for the company, and tended to blame his wildly optimistic initial estimates of the extent of arable land near the settlement for their plight. His life at Nelson was without prospects, and in 1847 he applied for a post with the colonial government at Auckland. In August 1848 he was appointed a draughtsman in the Survey Office there.
During his service with the Survey Office, Heaphy occupied his spare time by sketching and painting, and developed an interest in geology, especially vulcanology. On 30 October 1851 he married Catherine Letitia Churton, daughter of a leading local clergyman, at Auckland. There were to be no children of the marriage, although in time two children, a boy and a girl belonging to the Churton family, were taken in by the Heaphys as wards.
Heaphy served as gold commissioner at Coromandel from November 1852 to June 1853, while retaining his position in the Survey Office. Later in 1853 he served as secretary to Governor George Grey on a voyage with Bishop G. A. Selwyn to the New Hebrides and Norfolk Island. From February 1854 until March 1857 he was based at Matakana as district surveyor to the Auckland provincial government. He then served briefly under Donald McLean, surveying blocks at Coromandel, and in September 1858 was appointed provincial surveyor to the Auckland provincial government. During 1859 he assisted Ferdinand Hochstetter in his surveys of the economic geology of Auckland province. In the same year he enrolled in the Auckland Rifle Volunteers, being commissioned lieutenant in August 1863.
Heaphy was an enthusiastic propagandist in favour of the war in Taranaki, and shortly before the outbreak of the Waikato war was involved with survey work for the military road being driven south from Auckland, and with the charting of river channels. In July 1863 he was in camp at Papatoetoe, in command of about 100 locally raised and unenthusiastic troops, and was subsequently on Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron's staff as 'Military Surveyor and Guide to the Forces'. On 11 February 1864 Heaphy, under intense fire, went to the aid of a wounded soldier, at Waiari, near Te Awamutu; after some agitation on his part, this led to his becoming the first member of an irregular unit to be awarded the Victoria Cross, at a parade held in Auckland on 11 May 1867. This award was the high point of his career as a public official, but within two years he was privately expressing disappointment with his life in New Zealand, regretting that he had not tried one of the larger emigration fields before coming here. Photographs of him taken about this time show Heaphy as a short, rather small-built man, his face revealing signs of the pressure he was under at the time.
As chief surveyor to the central government from January 1864 to December 1865, Heaphy was fully occupied with surveys of confiscated Waikato lands. This task was to subject him to a period of gross overwork, to stretch his competence to the limit and to be the subject 10 years later of a damning public report by Major H. S. Palmer. There was a minor scandal at this time, arising from his practice of giving paid tuition to survey cadets, although a one-man commission of inquiry acquitted him of corrupt intent.
In June 1867 Heaphy was returned unopposed as MHR for Parnell; he served without distinction until October 1869. During 1868 and 1869 he invested heavily, but without any financial return, in a goldmining company, which he managed near Thames. He resigned from the General Assembly to take up the post of commissioner of native reserves, which McLean offered him as a reward for political support.
In the final phase of his career as a public official Heaphy was part of McLean's firmly controlled network of subordinates, bound to him by loyalty and patronage. He was an efficient administrator of the paternalistic system of 'native reserves' and collector of income due to their beneficiaries. A great deal of his time late in life was spent in arduous fieldwork, and he became almost crippled with rheumatism. He was appointed a judge of the Native Land Court in 1878, but retired in 1880 under the Hall administration's retrenchment policies. He remained a commissioner under the New Zealand Native Reserves Act 1856 and the Native Lands Frauds Prevention Act 1870, but his health collapsed in May 1881, and in June he and his wife sailed for Brisbane, where he died on 3 August. He was buried in the Toowong cemetery, and in 1961 the New Zealand government marked his grave with a soldier's plaque.
Heaphy's most enduring legacy is the body of topographical watercolours, portrait studies, charts and coastal profiles which he produced, mainly in the service of the New Zealand Company, during his early years in New Zealand. His depictions of company sites and settlements remain fresh and vivid, reflecting the eye of a young enthusiast firmly based in the English tradition of accurate draughtsmanship. His unforgettable, distinctly impressionistic 'Mt. Egmont, from the southward' has become in a sense a national icon. Heaphy's portraits are less arresting, their treatment in general tending towards the effete.
The demands of Heaphy's varied activities left him little time later in life to develop the artistic promise of his first years in New Zealand. His studies of Bream Head (executed about 1855) are his last known, major landscape works, although a brief visit to Fiordland in 1874 led him to work up some studies of scenery in Milford Sound. Surviving examples of his cartography are exquisitely drawn, but essentially the art of his later years comprises sketches, sometimes showing flashes of humour, but often rather sombre in their tone.
Charles Heaphy has a secure place in New Zealand art history; in his extended career as a public official his talents were spread rather too widely, and although socially prominent in his time he never enjoyed anything other than modest economic success. In his later years financial troubles, over-work and poor health became the over-riding influences on a spirit whose earlier days were marked by humour and great optimism.