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Taking root in New Zealand

Rebecca Rice on <EM>Framing the View</EM>


<P data-associrn="396604"><BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> It was with a strange sense of desolation mingled with a strong sense of the novelty of my situation ... that I awoke the next morning feeling like one whirled away by enchantment, and suddenly dropped from the clouds into a remote and unknown land, widely and completely isolated from all he had ever seen or known before; or like a thistle-seed borne on the wind to some strange nook of uncongenial soil, where it must lie long enough before it can take root and germinate, extracting nourishment from what appears so alien to its nature, if indeed, it ever can. </BLOCKQUOTE></P> <P>Anne Brontë, <EM>Agnes Grey</EM>, 1847</P> <P>In Brontë’s novella, the heroine, who has travelled 70 miles to take up a position as governess at Horton Lodge, likens her experience of distance and isolation to one who has woken to find himself in ‘Port Nelson in New Zealand, with a world of waters between himself and all that knew him’. But imagine the difference between Agnes’s experience and landing here, in New Zealand, in the mid 19th century. Imagine setting foot, grown weak and shaky through months at sea, on sandy beach or rickety pier, carrying with you the carefully selected items you had thought would enable you to transform ‘here’ into a little bit of ‘there’. Imagine finding yourself in a small settler town with makeshift buildings lining mud and dirt streets, an artificial line separating the ‘civilised’ from the untamed landscape. Picture the bush that, instead of presenting sylvan glades, offers a dense obstacle to easy settlement. </P> <P><EM>Framing the View</EM> offers scenes that revel in the majesty, beauty, and strangeness of the New Zealand landscape, but it also includes works that look back to offer a reflection of how people attempted to make this place home. Such works have generally occupied the realm of amateur production, and were produced primarily for private record and consumption. They are seldom dealt with in New Zealand’s art history, but they provide a provocative contrast to conventional landscape painting which, by the 1890s, was overrun with touristic views of the natural wonders of this country.</P> <P><STRONG>The dead tree</STRONG> In his survey text <EM>Frames on the Land</EM>, Francis Pound provides a sketch of what it means, and what it has meant, to paint landscape here. ‘Imagine’, he asks us, ‘the mental frames … golden, cumbrous, elaborate - that artists here have carried to the land.’<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> Pound’s argument is that artists who came to New Zealand in the 19th century saw the landscape through the stylistic and intellectual lenses they brought with them. A similar occupational hazard faces the 21st-century art historian: one constantly sees the land through the eyes of those who have come before and who have sought to commit their responses to it - its beauty, its challenges - onto canvas, paper, or some other medium.</P> <P>Travelling through the Hawke’s Bay at the height of summer, I was struck by a vista of tree stumps, silvered with age, scattered throughout a green and verdant pasture. They stood like mute sentinels to the pasts they had witnessed. Later, I saw the effect of bush fires on Wellington’s south coast, where stretches of the hilly landscape lay smouldering, charred bushes and trunks reaching vainly towards the sky. How many times have these eerie figures - the remnants of charred and felled trees - found their way into 19th-century landscapes? </P> <P data-associrn="38299">Art historian Michael Dunn has suggested that, as a subject matter, the dead tree reached its height in the 1930s and 40s. But the works that these contemporary ghosts brought to my mind were those colonial landscapes that bravely picture the making of a home in a bush setting.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> A glance at James Crowe Richmond’s <EM>Settler's home, Merton, near New Plymouth</EM> (1851) or the oil painting attributed to the Messenger sisters, <EM>Landscape with settlers</EM> (about 1857), shows how central the motif of the dead tree was to paintings of the 19th century.</P> <P>Both pictures depict colonial homes in settlements on the outskirts of New Plymouth in the 1850s. In both, a house sits in the centre of a partial clearing in the bush. Fallen logs and tree stumps litter the foreground, and in the rear, skeletal trees give way to a dense line of trees. Yet each speaks to a different experience of this place. </P> <P><STRONG>Picturing progress</STRONG></P> <P>Richmond arrived in New Zealand in 1851. An aspiring artist, his commitment to the life of the colony was ambivalent at first, but he eventually became a key figure in colonial politics; as a result, he could only carry out his artistic practice in his spare time. His watercolour sketch pictures the first home he and his brother Henry occupied on arriving in New Zealand. The house was christened Merton, after ‘Grannie Richmond’s house at Wimbledon’.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> In a letter to friends, Richmond described it as a ‘good and extensive pigstye with an extravagant roof’.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Over the summer of 1852-53, Jane Maria Richmond and other family members immigrated to New Zealand, joining Henry and James in Taranaki. In 1855, Jane Maria married Arthur Atkinson; they lived in the small house to the right of the main one pictured in Richmond’s watercolour. Jane Maria thrived in New Zealand, deriving a genuine satisfaction from the independence of colonial existence. In 1854, she wrote to her confidante, Margaret Taylor:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>I love Taranaki more every day. I suppose I was born to live here, certainly it fits me well, tho’ I feel doubtful as to any woman without my peculiar crotchets being happy here. Your Dresden life is the more interesting in a thousand ways but it has no root, it is like a beautiful nosegay of rare flowers, whilst my life is an ugly little stick of a rosebush with plenty of prickles but ... in good soil it will give me a few sweet smelling blossoms for years.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>Mary, Louisa, and Jessie Messenger also arrived in Taranaki in 1853. In contrast to the enthusiastic Jane Maria, the Messenger sisters apparently struggled with their pioneering experience. Little is known of them but that they were cultivated in matters of art and music. They settled with their family at Omata, south-west of New Plymouth, and reportedly found life in the new world harsh, their ‘spirits sagging under the rude hardships imposed upon them’.<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP></P> <P>The fact that both situations gave rise to pictures is nonetheless worth reflecting upon, for the practicalities of settler life rendered cultivated activities such as writing and painting a luxury of sorts. In 1865, the report on the fine arts display at New Zealand’s first international exhibition, in Dunedin, concluded that </P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>Pioneer Colonists have rough, and generally stern, work before them. They may admire the beauties of nature with which they are surrounded; may, perhaps almost unconsciously, cultivate their taste for the picturesque and the grand as they explore the country they have come to, but their hands, even if skilled, are seldom at leisure to paint its beauties.<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>These pictures were not, however, produced for public exhibition; they were made as a record of experience, or perhaps - in the case of the Messenger sisters - therapy of sorts. They present landscapes caught in a zone of transition. They depict the effort of taking root.</P> <P data-associrn="1362480"> <P><STRONG>Artists with axes</STRONG></P> <P>Records of pioneering life in letters and diaries, as well as published accounts in newspapers, often carefully detail the physical exertion required to transform the indigenous landscape into a colonial one. Repeated descriptions of the clearing of the land, the progressive felling of trees, and later, the burning off of the bush, lend weight to the belief, voiced by the Australian Robin Boyd, that</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>The bush, to our great-grandfathers, was the enemy: it brooded sombrely outside their brave and often pathetic little attempts at civilisation; it crowded in on them in times of drought and flood. It, not they, was alien.<SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> Many views of the transitional landscape feature an axe. Note the figure in mid-strike in Richmond’s sketch, or the one in the foreground of WTL Travers’ carefully staged photograph Travers’s Station (1860s). David Eggleton has labelled Travers the ‘pioneer photographer as conceptualist’, and indeed, his work eludes easy interpretation. Here, the ladder leans at a jaunty and unrealistic angle against the tree, playing off the diagonal of the shovel, mallet, and axe. The Australian art historian Tim Bonyhady describes how ‘artists with axes’ cleared paths through unforgiving bush to access views of scenic beauty. But they also used them for ‘view-making in the most literal sense, for felling trees in order to expand the horizon’.<SUP><FONT size=2>9</FONT></SUP> Travers’ view of his station at Lake Guyon, north of Hanmer Springs, was likely only possible because the setting had been cleared by man’s hand. The axe, firmly lodged in the slain tree in the immediate foreground, seems to act as an exclamation mark, signalling the conquest of the land.</P> <P data-associrn="1366555"> <P><STRONG>The vaulted aisles of nature’s cathedral</STRONG></P> Bonyhady also demonstrates that such ‘destruction’ often existed alongside genuine feelings of respect for the indigenous environment. As a politician, Richmond was an advocate of ‘opening up the country’, but his haunting pencil sketch <EM>Detribalised natives, Taranaki</EM> (1869) seems to register a consciousness of the impact that colonisation was having on M&#257;ori . How literally he intended the work’s title is debatable. The painter Charles Blomfield was less subtle. His writing increasingly dealt with his dismay at the wanton destruction of the native bush:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>It seems nothing short of a crime to destroy so much beauty, but the bushman’s axe and settler’s fire are playing havoc with the finest parts of it. The settler regards the bush as so much waste land. He is ever thinking of how much grass or turnips he could grow there; his cattle are free to roam and trample the mossy carpet and break down the ferns.<SUP><FONT size=2>10</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P data-associrn="36508"> Blomfield made studies of the New Zealand bush throughout his career, culminating in the work he considered his magnum opus, <EM>Vaulted aisles of nature’s cathedral</EM> (1921). In this painting - a hymn to the king of the bush, the kauri - Blomfield’s metaphorical intent is clear. The branches of the kauri form gothic arches that tower over a forest floor dotted with tree ferns and mosses. This is a place to worship God’s hand in nature. </P> <P><STRONG>A land of milk and honey</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="38858"> It was, however, Blomfield’s paintings of the Pink and White Terraces that made him famous in New Zealand and abroad. His career received an unexpected boost when Mt Tarawera erupted on 10 June 1886, destroying the terraces and causing the deaths of approximately 105 people. Overnight, pictures of the terraces increased in value, for they captured on glass plate or canvas a natural wonder no longer able to be visited or viewed in person. </P> <P>The eruption coincided with New Zealand’s presence at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, where Blomfield had 14 views of the terraces on show. The exhibition was the country’s most ambitious representation of itself on the world stage in the 19th century. Over 300 paintings were exhibited, but the commissioners felt that too many of them - including, presumably, Blomfield’s - dealt only with the dramatic aspects of the landscape, and too few with the ease of making a home in this place:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>It is not the artistic point of view that we have to consider. The great object is to show what the useful parts of New Zealand are like, such as the sheep runs and the agricultural plains. They are probably not the most picturesque places, like mountains and glaciers, but even if we only have photographs it would be well to show people that there is land to settle on.<SUP><FONT size=2>11</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P data-associrn="1362483"> James Crowe Richmond and the Messenger sisters would not have satisfied the commissioners with their depictions of the rawness of pioneering life. But John Symons’ <EM>A settler’s homestead - sunset</EM> (1886), also on show in London, would perhaps have provided evidence of New Zealand’s potential as a land of milk and honey. The serenity of the view - a house on the bend of a river, cattle grazing on plentiful grass - seems to embody the hopes and dreams of the pioneering spirit. Here, 30 years after Richmond’s watercolour, the physical act of clearing land or building a house is rendered invisible. All that remains is the peacefulness of domestic existence. The colonial has taken root and flourished in a foreign land.</P> <P><BR><FONT size=2><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></FONT></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>Francis Pound, <EM>Frames on the Land: Early landscape painting in New Zealand</EM>, William Collins, Auckland, 1983, p. 11.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Michael Dunn, ‘Frozen Flame and Slain Tree: The dead tree theme in New Zealand art of the thirties and forties’, <EM>Art New Zealand</EM>, no. 13, 1979, p. 40.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>The phrase appears on a pencil sketch by Richmond of the same subject, inscribed ‘French’s House as it appeared when H. and I took possession, May 1851’. Ref: B-064-020, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. </FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>JC Richmond, letter to friends, 19 May 1851, in Guy H Scholefield (ed), <EM>The Richmond-Atkinson Papers</EM>, vol. 1, Government Printer, Wellington, 1960, p. 96.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Jane Maria Henry, letter to Margaret Taylor, 24 June 1854. Ibid., p. 147.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Arthur H Messenger, ‘Coming of the Messenger Family to New Zealand; the life and story of William Bazire Messenger’, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, MS-0562, p. 13.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>‘Report on the Fine Arts Display’, <EM>New Zealand Exhibition, 1865: Reports and Awards of the Jurors and Appendix</EM>, Mills, Dick and Co., Dunedin, 1866, p. 497.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Robin Boyd, <EM>The Australian Ugliness</EM>, Penguin, London, 1962.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Tim Bonyhady, ‘Artists with axes’, <EM>Environment and History</EM>, vol. 1, no. 2, June 1995, p. 223.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Cited in Muriel Williams, <EM>Charles Blomfield: His life and times</EM>, Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland, 1979, pp. 168-69.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>‘Minutes of meeting of New Zealand Commissioners held at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition’, 19 July 1886, Haast Family Papers, MS-Papers-0037, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.<BR></LI></OL></FONT><P><STRONG>Rebecca Rice</STRONG> is a fractional lecturer in Art History at Victoria University of Wellington, where she also manages the art collection. She was awarded her PhD in 2010 for her thesis titled 'The state collections of colonial New Zealand art: intertwined histories of collecting and display'. Rebecca regularly writes on New Zealand's colonial art and exhibitions for local and international publications.</P>
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Messenger Sisters, Landscape with settlers, circa 1857, oil on board,
Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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James C Richmond, Settler's home, Merton, near New Plymouth, 1851, watercolour and gouache,
Gift of EA Atkinson, 1935, on behalf of the artist's daughter, DK Richmond.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

W. T. L. Travers, &lt;EM&gt;Travers’s Station&lt;/EM&gt;, 1860s, photograph, Auckland Art Gallery: 1988/17/50
Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

W. T. L. Travers, Travers’s Station, 1860s, photograph, Auckland Art Gallery: 1988/17/50 Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

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James C Richmond, Detribalised natives, Taranaki, 1869, pencil,
Gift of EA Atkinson, 1935, on behalf of the artist's daughter, DK Richmond.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Charles Blomfield, Pink Terraces, 1886, oil on canvas,
Acquisition history unknown, 1943.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

John Symons, A Settler’s Homestead – sunset, c. 1886, oil on canvas (Auckland Art Gallery, bequest of Mr Fred Miller, 1914) 1914/1.
Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

John Symons, A Settler’s Homestead – sunset, c. 1886, oil on canvas (Auckland Art Gallery, bequest of Mr Fred Miller, 1914) 1914/1. Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

Charles Blomfield, Vaulted Aisles of Nature’s Cathedral, 1921, oil on canvas, 1675 x 1220 mm, Auckland War Memorial Museum CN229

Charles Blomfield, Vaulted Aisles of Nature’s Cathedral, 1921, oil on canvas, 1675 x 1220 mm, Auckland War Memorial Museum CN229 ,
Courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum