Over the summer, Sharon Taylor-Offord completed an internship at Te Papa cataloguing the drawings in a number of sketchbooks of the Dutch-New Zealand artist, Petrus van der Velden. This was undertaken as part of a new internship course for Bachelor of Arts students run by the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences (FHSS), Te Wāhanga Aronui at Victoria University of Wellington. The course aims to create partnerships with community and business organisations and to offer second- and third-year BA students the opportunity to contribute to a project in a workplace context. Sharon’s reflections on getting to know Van der Velden follow.
‘Marmalad’ and curtains
For the past weeks I have been making the acquaintance of Dutch immigrant artist Petrus van der Velden as I catalogue a number of his sketchbooks. Inside the front cover of one made in Wellington in 1907 van der Velden inscribed ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ and ‘perspective’. Maintenance of personal perspective in the face of his financial woes may be eluding him. The back cover bears, as was his habit, reminders: ‘marmalad’, and notations of a window size for curtains. Van der Velden had returned to New Zealand (the country which he had rebuffed in 1898 as ‘the land of liars’) to settle in Wellington in 1904 with his second wife, Australia. Perhaps at this juncture, then, he intends a fresh start. Art is still his paramount concern as he nears the end of his life. The physicality required to create his sublimely original and energetic canvases would also be proving more difficult with his advancing years.
This sketchbook contains many quickly captured observations of craft upon Wellington harbour. Above is one such sketch depicting ships berthed at the wharves from page 21 of this book. Marine studies were a mainstay of Van der Velden’s art which continued on after the 53 years spent in Holland. There waterways carried goods and people, both the living and the deceased, as in Marken funeral barge currently on show in Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa. The paintings for which the artist is best known here in New Zealand are those which represent his response to an environment very different to that of his homeland. The sketchbooks left to us by Van der Velden bear witness to the realities of trips undertaken for source material, and to his fervour – indeed, preference – for the stormy conditions which allowed him to later transfer the sense of awe and drama onto canvas.
Seeking the New Zealand sublime
The artist must have regarded his Otira Gorge works with great fondness. Below is a detailed drawing of the gorge made upon his first visit to the region in 1891. In Self portrait with Otira background (private collection), made justweeks before he died in 1913, Van der Velden’s 1912 Mountain stream Otira Gorge (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki) can be seen beyond his head, where it creates the effect of an aura of light. As he died in Auckland whilst on a journey to scout new pastures, the current location of this work is a small irony. A vortex-like sky effect can also be seen above the heeling steamboat in Storm at Wellington Heads. Small, insignificant men battle against the elements to collect seaweed, and the horses seem safely anchored only by the weight of the laden carts as the sea foams about their ankles.
Art and life
Petrus van der Velden died 100 years ago in 1913. But the traces of his hand which remain on canvases continue to invoke a sense of being there among the terror and splendour. The quiet works on paper are just as valuable because they offer a more rounded view of an artist for whom art was life, but a life torn between his vocation and his responsibilities. In 1907 he left whichever humble home he currently rented, carrying this small book. The courtroom scene in watercolour and pencil records the events of May 31 when he was prosecuted for the recovery of £73 for accommodation at the Bellevue Hotel, Lower Hutt. The harbour sketches record the ephemeral traces of God’s breath upon the small craft at their mercy. Van der Velden noted that he must bring home the breakfast marmalade and provide curtains to keep the weather at bay. Regardless of his location, these books bear the imprint of the life of a man, the traces of domestic detail from the past act to bring him more strongly into existence in the present.