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Nineteenth Century New Zealand Artists: A Guide & Handbook


page 9


When first this book was suggested my idea was to make it a small paperback which could be carried usefully in a pocket. Some years ago I had published in an antiques magazine a ‘directory’ of early New Zealand artists, and with my publishers' blessings I was to enlarge this directory and in so doing correct what was maybe somewhat of an Auckland bias. On the whole, except for notes on the generally recognised major New Zealand artists, I had used materials gathered when engaged in research for my Auckland City Art Gallery catalogues 1954–56 and 1959. However, these last few years, I have been casting my net in ever widening circles, and the result has banished any idea of this being a small pocket book.

I have used the term ‘nineteenth century’ artists in a very liberal sense. Since there has been relatively little work done on any but a few of the major artists, it seemed a pity to make my field too narrow, though at first I was more rigid than I was later.

My original idea was to be quite firm about making 1880 the latest birth date allowable. I felt that most artists born by then could be reasonably sure to have begun painting before the end of the century. It soon became apparent that a whole clutch of painters, who were after all brought up on nineteenth century traditions and who were later to make their mark, were born about 1885–1886. I stretched my cutting-off date to include them. Later still I abandoned even that boundary and let in a few of the interesting painters who were born by 1888, important people like Grace Butler, Owen Merton.

I had always meant to include anyone—even the rankest amateur —who, in the first decades of New Zealand's colonisation, made some pictorial record of the country or of the people. I might only be able to state that a drawing or watercolour was in some collection, but I felt that that was valuable. A great source of information as to those who then were working seriously is the catalogue for page 10 the New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin in 1865. Anyone in that time of extremely chancy shipping who took the trouble to send an entry from one part of New Zealand to another must surely have a claim to be regarded with some respect.

Soon I found I was treating the 1870s in somewhat the same manner, that is noting down almost everyone. Two art societies had started during this decade. The Society of Artists, Auckland (the forerunner of the present Auckland Society of Arts) held biennial shows 1871–1879, the Otago Art Society held annual shows from 1876. But there was not a large membership and many of the exhibitors after a few years sank into oblivion. One of these, John Symons, is still almost completely unknown and yet is a most competent and individual painter. Even J. C. Hoyte had a long eclipse. In 1956 when I was organising a show of his work I found that one Auckland family had not only relegated their Hoytes to the basement (that useful space under the house), but had later taken about ten paintings out of their frames (which they valued) and put the paintings in the fire.

From 1881 the Auckland Society of Arts and the Canterbury Society of Arts were holding yearly exhibitions: in 1883–1884 the New Zealand Fine Arts Association in Wellington had its short life (three exhibitions were held) but was succeeded in 1889 by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. It was when all these societies were flourishing that the real difficulties came in picking and choosing out of the dozens who were now exhibiting. For oh after the first tentative years how the artists proliferated.

In some cases I had either come across their work or I knew something about it from contemporary newspaper reviews, but for the majority of the amateur artists I had just to be fairly arbitrary in the way I went about things—in the criteria I applied. One thing I took notice of was the seriousness of intent they showed. If they exhibited fairly regularly for a good period they went into my list, or if they took the trouble to show their work in other centres. I also took into some consideration the prices they asked. Money naturally does not denote artistic value, but a bigger sum than the more usual one does seem to give a pointer to a certain competence. And when the occasional catalogue was illustrated by sketches of works that the local hierachy thought to be best, then it was always gratifying to find that by the system I used these artists had already been picked up.

Women painters were a special problem, even more so if they happened to be the eldest daughters of the house. Convention had it that if their names appeared in print there was no initial given, page 11 let alone a first name. If they married it was no better, making it all very difficult. A Miss Brown, say, would exhibit for a few years and then seemingly vanish. A Mrs J. Smith might appear the next year and exhibit for many years, but the initial J. stood for her husband's first name, not for hers. There would be almost no chance of finding out who exactly she was unless her father or her husband had a slightly unusual name or was a prominent man in his home town. Then by a bit of lucky detective work a descendant might be found and facts about the artist become available.

Another source of information was the New Zealand Directory of the time, for many artists were listed in the trade section. When any of them did not exhibit with the local art society I think it can be guessed that they were simply commercial artists, but we can't be sure, and I have included them all the same. In later years, from 1901, artists were no longer listed in the trade section but, as artists and art teachers, in the educational section.

It must always be remembered, especially when the directories were biennial, that by the time they were printed they could be out of date. Still, even as supplementary evidence, they are valuable.

When I give, at the end of an entry, the years the artist exhibited with an art society, that society is always his local one. I have ignored the fact that he or she sent work to other societies, unless something in the entry makes this interesting. I have also sometimes ignored even the local society exhibitions when writing on a major painter and assumed that the reader would know that the artist would be exhibiting in his home town. Though there was at least one exception—the Rev. Dr John Kinder only exhibited twice in his painting life in Auckland.

Another inconsistency crept in over the years. At first, when I was working only with Auckland catalogues, I took care to note meticulously whether artists who were listed as working members did exhibit each year. Once I was working with southern catalogues, I found this was not really a practicable thing, and I took the fact that artists were working members to mean that they did exhibit. After all, it turned out that my work with the Auckland catalogues had not necessarily given the accuracy that I had expected: sometimes newspaper reviews showed that paintings not in the catalogue had yet made an appearance; sometimes there was specific mention that the entries had been received too late for the printer.

Still, even though the book has become so very much more comprehensive than I had at first envisaged it, it does not pretend to be a definitive scholarly work. For instance, when I have dealt with those acclaimed over the years as major painters, I have taken on page 12 trust much of the generally accepted information, as I have also had to do with so many of the minor painters.

To go to original sources, to check each date, each apparent fact, would surely need a steadily working team of researchers. Of course, when there have been apparently contradictory facts, then I have had to check what I can and use my judgement. Often the words ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’ have been the only solution. However generous blank pages have been left at the back to be used when new facts appear, as they will I hope, now that scholarly books have begun to be written on single chosen New Zealand artists.

The above shows the limitations of my method. I trust this ‘Guide and Handbook’ will now lead readers on to find further biographical detail from the books listed in the Bibliography.