Rona Chapman, Art History and Public Policy student at Victoria University, recently spent time as an intern with our Knowledge and Information and Art teams. While here, she registered over 300 of our important artwork files, and wrote about several paintings and prints that are now on show in the exhibition Hiahia Whenua | Landscape and Desire. Along the way, she found a personal connection to some of the artworks, a series of lithographs by Edith Halcombe made nearly 150 years ago.
As an intern here, I was lucky to have the opportunity to research and write about some less well-known players in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand landscape painting. Finding out more about these characters and their artwork has been an awesome opportunity to understand some of our history in a way we don’t often think about.
One of the artists I’ve been researching is Edith Halcombe, an artist working in the late 19th century who pictured the rapidly shifting colonial landscape. Her work is very closely related to land and place. Edith’s husband Arthur was involved in the settlement of the Manchester block in the Manawatū, in particular, the town of Halcombe in 1876, to which he gave his name and which Edith depicted several times in a series of lithographs she made around 1878.
When I started writing this, I knew there was a story I wanted to tell, but I wasn’t sure what it was yet. I knew there were two small towns in the Manawatū, and a train line connecting them. I knew there was art and there was family, maybe even milk powder! What has surfaced is a little thread of history that reminded me of the value of art in fostering personal connections to family and to place.
A connection to time and place
Learning about Halcombe sparked a memory. I recalled a distant branch of a family tree sent to me, with minimal details except for a place of marriage – Bunnythorpe – a mere 20 kilometres from Halcombe. A little more digging found that after coming to Aotearoa New Zealand separately, Henry Sopp and Eliza Neal (my great-great-grandparents) met and married in Bunnythorpe in 1877.
When the Longburn to Marton section of the North Island Main Trunk line was completed in 1878 it would have connected the two towns. Halcombe and Bunnythorpe would have both been three stops on either side of Feilding, the heart of the Manchester block.
With little more information to go on, I fell into imagining what it might have been like at the time, and how my family and the Halcombes might have known each other. Maybe they crossed paths on a trip to Feilding, or sat opposite each other on the train.
Maybe my family are the little figures in one of Edith’s lithographs, the mothers and children or workers visible in Town of Halcombe. Maybe they walked the streets that she depicted, the same streets she herself walked.
My great-great-grandfather, Henry Sopp, was a market gardener. He reportedly had the best vegetable collection in the Autumn Show at Feilding in 1903. Maybe he supplied the Halcombes with produce.
The role of landscape art as historical record
While these connections are unlikely, this connection of time and place between an artist I was researching and the marriage of my great-great-grandparents became a starting point for thinking about landscape and heritage, and the role art plays in shaping how we look back at our histories. Sometimes even the smallest connection implicates you in a much larger story.
It also sparked a whole series of other familial connections, as I began to talk to family members and dig through newspaper articles from the time. An article from 1896 details an incident where a shed belonging to a Mr Sopp burnt down, but also included a description of his earlier altercation with a bull: “Many old residents will remember that about sixteen years ago Mr Sopp was attacked by a bull and seriously injured, but he killed the animal single handed”. Though it’s not clear if this was in fact my great-great-grandfather, I sort of hope it was.
Further research revealed that Henry’s son-in-law, my great-grandfather, worked for the railway. Train lines were a critical development in the late nineteenth century, connecting places, and enabling movement of people and produce about the colony. These are proudly showcased in Edith’s lithographs – the train lines striking a clear pathway through the civilised landscapes.
Learning more about Bunnythorpe, I found that around the turn of the 20th century it was known for its milk powder factory. A couple of generations down the line in the 1960s, my grandfather developed milk biscuits as a shelf-stable, nutritious and transportable food item, eventually working out of the Longburn dairy factory in the Manawatū.
During my internship, I was also lucky enough to meet a relative of Edith who was visiting from the United Kingdom and came to Te Papa to view her artworks. While I was able to share fragments of what I had learnt, he shared stories about his family and their personal connections to Halcombe’s work, sparked by the array of prints in front of us.
All these stories are largely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, in the bigger picture of Aotearoa New Zealand history. Regardless, they allowed me to forge a deeper understanding of Aotearoa New Zealand at the time, as well as the history of my own family.
The countless connections that arise between one person and some modest lithographs made nearly 150 years ago highlight the importance of seeing these works, and having the chance to think about and interrogate them more deeply.
For me, it served as a reminder that art can be both truthful and imagined, it can trigger the imagination as well as connect us to real history. As we look back on these images, we continue to add meaning and value to them with the stories we tell, and the knowledge we gather over time.
Art is history, and it is both personal and universal in its ability to spark these conversations and connections, however tangential they may be.
Rona Chapman, Victoria University of Wellington Intern, October 2022