Thursday 14 May 2015

Charles Heaphy 1820–1881

During the making of A Pioneering Spirit I was asked to provide an opportunity for a post-graduate student from the University of Auckland’s Art History Department. From my first meeting with Jacqueline Henderson I appreciated her curiosity for this early period in New Zealand’s art history. 

Surveyor, explorer, writer, company propagandist, topographical artist and draughtsman Charles Heaphy became Henderson’s focus, based on the works I selected for A Pioneering Spirit. Heaphy arrived in 1839 for employment with the New Zealand Company. He was an agent in the Company’s plan to systematically colonise New Zealand by surveying the land that his employers would sell to new settlers. Heaphy’s drawings, lithographs, watercolour paintings, charts and coastal profiles were used to promote the New Zealand Company and Heaphy would also file reports on his first-hand experience of life in the ‘colony’. After a 12-year service with the company Heaphy settled for life as a senior civil servant.

Heaphy’s story is as pioneering as the lives of individuals and families who came to improve their lot and contribute to the building of a ‘new nation’. Heaphy’s art illustrates aspects of both history and art history which continue to be unpacked by a new generation inspired by ‘the rise of New Zealand’.

– Ngahiraka Mason, Indigenous Curator, Māori Art

Charles Heaphy 1820–1881

‘. . . let man trouble himself little about the decadence of England but think about the rise of New Zealand . . .’
        – Anthony Trollope, The New Zealander

The period between 1840 and 1907 marks the arrival of British colonists to Aotearoa New Zealand. This colonial era was characterised by swift change which resulted from cross-cultural transformation and shifting boundaries.

Examining three artworks by Charles Heaphy which are included in the exhibition A Pioneering Spirit at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki reveals the idea of coming from ‘elsewhere’, the forming of relationships between Māori and Pākehā, and the establishment of a sense of belonging. The pictorial narrative Heaphy offers adds a unique perspective on a specific time in our ‘national’ history, right at the point when the relationship between Māori and the British was transforming New Zealand culture into a distinct antipodean identity.

Charles Heaphy was an English-born New Zealander. As a young 19 year old Heaphy departed Plymouth, England bound for New Zealand aboard the Tory on 9 May 1839. The Tory’s journey took four long months and the vessel set anchor in Queen Charlotte Sound on 18 August. Heaphy accepted the role as official draughtsman for The New Zealand Company, which required him to portray New Zealand in the best light possible to entice potential clients back in Britain. As such, he produced a large body of artwork which captured the hopes and desires of first wave colonials to New Zealand.

Although mainly recognised for his watercolours, Heaphy’s extensive oeuvre included working with pen and wash, lithographs and many sketches. The quaint illustrations of New Zealand life provided The New Zealand Company’s prospective clients with a sense of the familiar while encouraging the possibility of creating a new life unshackled by the traditional British system. Still apparent today is Heaphy’s ability to impart a sense of charm. In particular his landscape paintings retain an idyllic quality whereby the promise of a ‘better place’ remains as appealing today as it did over a century and a half ago.

Recognised, as one of Heaphy’s most famous images, A Sawyer’s Clearing in a Forest of Kauri, 1845 unapologetically represents New Zealand as a land full of economic prospects. As if from a scene out of Grimm’s fairy tales its progressive narrative is tempered only by the naïve sensibility which Heaphy’s style conjures.

Charles Heaphy, A Sawyer’s Clearing in a Forest of Kauri, 1845 
Dwarfed by the magnificent Kauri forest the gentlemen, dressed in civilised work attire, denounce any niggling doubts of a savage environment. Together, almost as if swaying to a tune they harmoniously labour undaunted by the huge task ahead. However, the enchanting illusion lay in stark contrast to the reality of working the dense New Zealand bush in the mid-19th century.

Heaphy’s artwork was typically shaped by the various employment positions he held. The first 12 years he worked for The New Zealand Company as a surveyor, explorer, writer, company propagandist, topographical artist and draughtsman; and then in 1848 he moved to Auckland where he took a role as a civil servant in the Survey Office. Early pioneers had to be resourceful, adventurist and determined to survive.

When he was 30 Heaphy began courting Kate Churton, the 21-year-old daughter of Reverend Churton. The couple married on 30 October 1851. Old St Paul’s, 1853 is a watercolour painting in memory of Heaphy’s father-in-law Reverend Churton. Immediately, the eye is drawn to the obelisk. The monument not only celebrates the first vicar of St Paul’s but also reflects the good relationship between father and son-in-law. In addition, the church setting highlights the importance placed on religious values in society and the Christian education of Māori. Clothed in traditional dress the group of Māori focus on a kneeling man reading from a book, most likely the bible, while two Pākehā men casually look on from the side. A didactic sense of salvation lingers while at the same time an unsettling conflict borders the scene with a garrison of soldiers walking in formation towards the entry point of the church highlighting impending British control. The political tension although evident is nonetheless characterised in a peaceful setting.

Charles Heaphy, Old Saint Paul’s, Auckland, 1853 
The arts can be a means of visually measuring cultural significance – be that visible or in Heaphy’s artwork, largely invisible. The dearth of Māori figures invigorates the perception of the ‘empty’ land. Equally, the Māori presented are affable, welcoming and compliant. As such, the narrative offered by form, facture, composition and perspective leaves behind a pictorial residue indicative of the Imperial British worldview.

Heaphy became the first ‘New Zealander’ to be awarded the Victorian Cross for coming to the aid of a fellow soldier in a skirmish with local Māori at Waiari, near Te Awamutu. It is the highest military award for gallantry in the face of the enemy available to British and Commonwealth soldiers. On many levels our first ‘hero’ is problematic both politically and socially; however, historically his work marked a distinctive point in the production of New Zealand’s cultural and political identity.

The desire to be seen and not forgotten – to be visible and not invisible to the world – meant early pioneers such as Heaphy looked back to Britain as a cultural anchor of identity while establishing themselves within a new society. It was a generation of transition in a liminal space where two cultures collided and altered one another. Over time Heaphy introduced a Māori narrative. The Driving Creek, Looking South, 1862 not only depicts the Gold rush in the Coromandel but also tensions over land.

Charles Heaphy, The Driving Creek, Coromandel, Looking South, 1862 
As the colonials scurry about the countryside in their eagerness to find gold, seated in the middle of the scene is a group of Māori. Here, Heaphy’s subtle style captures the political frictions between Māori and Pākehā. The central figure is an important Māori woman – the daughter of the local chief who had recently died. With rifle in hand, she silently yet poignantly delivers a Māori narrative by staking a claim to her land. The inclusion of her pictorial voice reflects Heaphy’s own observations, and might be seen as a moment in which the New Zealand Company propagandist, unwittingly or not, represents a real site of tension at the time – changing ideas about land ownership.

The voyage out to New Zealand transformed the British identity in terms of location, language and culture. Many first-wave colonists, including Heaphy, struggled to reconcile the notion of ‘home’ even though they ended up spending more than half their lives in New Zealand. Through his artwork, Charles Heaphy plays a significant role in identifying the journey of the colonial New Zealander and remains an integral actor in the construction of New Zealand’s cultural identity.

To commemorate his name, the Heaphy track, located in the Kahurangi National Park on the upper west side of the South Island, remains one of New Zealand’s great walks, and his artwork currently hangs in Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki as a celebrated figure in New Zealand’s history. 

– Jacqueline Henderson, Intern