William Strutt’s View of Mt Egmont, Taranaki, New Zealand, taken from New Plymouth, with Maoris driving off settlers’ cattle, 1861 has been described by some as the ‘holy grail’ of colonial New Zealand painting. Paintings of this calibre are few and far between in New Zealand’s art history, as budding artists were more often preoccupied with the basics of survival rather than creating high culture. Strutt offers an exception. He had studied in Paris from 1838-45 at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and later exhibited with the Royal Academy in London. He was one of a handful of artists to come to New Zealand in the early years of the colony with such solid grounding in art and who went on to produce oil paintings based on his experiences.
Strutt left England for the Antipodes in 1850, but was initially destined for Australia. After several years based in Melbourne, he decided to try his hand at the pioneering lifestyle in New Zealand and bought a small plot of land at Mangorei, where he lived from 1855 to 1856.
It’s is fair to say that Strutt had a rather romantic preoccupation with the idea of a pioneering existence. In his ‘memoir’ of his time in Australia and New Zealand he wrote:
…but why give up the glories of art, the study of Raphael, Michael Angelo, and the great Masters, why cease from treading the Galleries of the Louvre and the yearly Salons, to bury yourselves in the dark recesses of the virgin forests of New Zealand, however grand and sublime? I can only reply that I…was drawn by an extraordinary fascination, a poetical feeling, if you like, to invade Nature’s sealed domain, tread where only the Moa or Apteryx have roamed, penetrate, possibly for the first time, compass in one hand and bill-hook in the other, with reverential silent footfall on land hitherto untrodden by the foot of man…[i]
Phew, heady stuff. Needless to say, the actual experience of ‘taming’ the land, took its toll on Strutt and after a year he left his ‘pocket map section of land’ for New Plymouth, returning to Melbourne in 1856. While he was here, Strutt sketched compulsively, most likely driven by a search for potential pictures. In keeping with his academic training, he studied the peoples he encountered, their clothing and accessories, the landscape and its flora and fauna. His resulting pictures are composite productions, pieced together from the drawings he collected. The magic of this process is that I have been able to trace the artistic evolution of View of Mt Egmont, Taranaki, largely through studying the drawings, sketches and paintings located in the collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library.[ii]
This pencil sketch of Mt Taranaki, made from Omata Rd in 1855 provides the obvious starting point for the 1861 painting:
However the landscape for the 1861 painting is transformed. Look at how the landscape has been tilted, lowering Mt Taranaki on the horizon to provide a more substantial stage for the drama that unfolds in the fore and mid-ground:
The terrain has also become more exotic, planted with native species, a striking nikau provides a framing coulisse on the left, while tree ferns fill out the foliage in the foreground.
But what of the evolution of the subject matter of this painting? What of the drama that’s being played out? Strutt had experimented with inserting figures into the landscape in this oil sketch, but it lacks emotional or psychological punch:.
What he needed was a really good story, and that was to come…
On the outbreak of the first Taranaki war in March 1860, four years after Strutt had left New Zealand, newspapers in Australia began reporting the Taranaki conflicts. The wealth of material he had to draw upon, combined with his academic training, and the potential the contemporary moment offered in terms of drama no doubt appealed to Strutt, who was well versed in the French tradition where dramatic scenes played out in exotic locations offered a pictorial spectacle. So Strutt, inserts into the landscape his studies of Māori (the figure middle right provides the rain cape for the Maori crouched in the centre of the finished painting, while the blue shirt and beige pants of the Maori walking the pig, appear on a figure in the foreground):
He adds the cows and horses being driven off the settlers’ land – animal sketches being a strength of Strutt’s:
He even adds a burning house (perhaps this picture, which may picture Strutt himself putting out a chimney fire, provided inspiration for the burning settlers’ house on the right hand side of the finished painting):
The end result is a colonial masterpiece:
The power of Strutt’s painting lies in the fact that it is not a documentary painting. It is a constructed view, ‘painted by numbers’ if you like, that aims first and foremost to be a fabulous picture. But Strutt has also offered an unusual viewpoint. Rather than imagining the scene from a settler perspective, Strutt places the viewer with the Māori in the foreground. So regardless of Strutt’s intentions, which were first and foremost artistic, he has offered a remarkable vision of Māori resistance to pakeha colonisation – something that resonates powerfully in the present moment, 150 years on from the events referenced.
Strutt’s painting is on exhibition in Ngā Toi │Arts Te Papa until this Sunday, 17January. It will then head to Te Papa’s conservation lab, where our painting conservators and framers will have the opportunity to fully assess the work, and undertake any treatment required to ensure its longevity for future generations.
[i] George Mackanness (Ed) The Australian Journal of William Strutt, A. R. A. 1850-1852, Sydney: Mackaness, 1958, part 2, p. 7.
[ii] I am very grateful to my colleagues at the Alexander Turnbull Library for facilitating my study of Strutt’s preparatory material, much of which was acquired by Alexander Turnbull in the early twentieth century. There are also extensive holdings of Strutt’s work in the National Library of Australia and the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, relating to his time in Australia and New Zealand.