Robley: Te Ropere, 1840—1930
4. In London; Making Maori Art
4. In London; Making Maori Art
Although Robley's association with moko — and thus with Mokamokai — represented the primary focus of his study of Maori art, he was constantly involved in the parallel, if less extensive, consideration of a number of other Maori artforms. As much as moko had immediately interested him in 1864, his long term investigation of its structure and designs was increasingly informed by, and informative of, the exact relationship of moko to those other arts. In its design base, its articulation of pattern and its symbolic relationship to human life Robley saw moko as a ‘key’ art; as one through which the singular art of the Maori might be most fruitfully studied by the alien artist/observer.
On retiring from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1887, Robley was awarded the honorary rank of Major-General.1 His military career had been notable, both for his rapid promotion and for his wide-ranging foreign service. Relinquishing command of his Regiment he was, for the first time since 1858, without the British Army. He was forty-seven and unmarried; his only living relatives were his two sisters, one of whom lived in Italy.2
“One must have a hobby or else [one is] done for”
Hei tiki in the British Museum Collection
Auckland Institute and Museum MS 256
Robley sent hundreds of sketches of Maori items to his friends and correspondents in New Zealand, frequently illustrating artefacts available at up-coming sales.
When, in 1894, Robley initiated the research which led to the publication of “Moko; or Maori Tattooing” two years later, he had also begun to compile material for a companion volume intended to discuss the greenstone arts of the Maori.4 This latter project was, however, soon overshadowed by his developing interest in moko; promoted by his burgeoning collection of Mokamokai. He continued to research the topic but the plain to publish a book was shelved. The extensive range of Maori items he had studied during his tour of home and foreign Museums — as part of his preparation for writing “Moko” — had strengthened the primacy of his interest in moko and Mokamokai. In so doing, however, this intensive observation of a wide range of Maori artefacts apprised Robley of the conceptual similarities apparent in the manufacture of different artforms.
had been removed to Europe during the previous century meant that the collector was able to see, and purchase, items never encountered during his time in New Zealand. As well, his limited familiarity with the work of Bay of Plenty artists was replaced with an awareness of the chronological and tribal diversity within Maori Art. The utter wealth of these exhibits, their essence already embedded within his artistic sensibility effectively described the domain of his endeavour for the following four decades.
“64=66 one could look and long for Maori work — but it could be found in England easier”
Robley's comparison of the Buddha and hei tiki forms; from a manuscript copy of “A History of the Maori Tiki”.
Alexander Turnbull Library MS 1387/15
“The book I began at the same time [as “Moko”] with illustrations of the weapons and ornaments in greenstone is just out a few days & has been wanted by collectors, Museums and libraries. This, my book gives the voyages of the history, traditions where found, the manner of working stone, the mythology and the forms of weapons and curious ornaments ground out of pounamu — I am issuing private, a few books … I know you will praise all have done so to date, “Pounamu” by Robley”.”
Robley, 6 Dec 19158
Although Robley had referred to “Moko” in increasingly deprecatory terms since its publication — “so incomplete and cribbed from all sources”9 — his enthusiasm for “Pounamu” was apparently boundless. It is, however, less interesting than the book on tattooing — because its subject is better addressed by a number of other commentators — and considerably less extensive, being no more than a bound pamplet.
Robley's interest in pounamu, evident in his New Zealand portraits, was principally centered around the hei tiki. As well as amplifying the essential variation he so admired in Maori art — implicit of a continual evolution, which is to say creation — Robley saw in the immaculately formed figures a clue to the origin of the Maori. Attempts to retrace the Race's migration to New Zealand by comparing their linguistic and artistic terms and forms to those of other cultures were popular within contemporary scientific thought. Among Robley's New Zealand correspondents, S. Percy Smith was a well-known proponent of such analysis.10 In a way Robley later acknowledged to be remarkably similar to his own ‘migration’ to New Zealand, he suggested that the hei tiki was a developed form of the Buddha figures he had encountered in India and Burma; drawing partiuclar [sic] attention to the alike manner in which the figures were seated, in which their hands were placed.11, 12 This idea was the subject of an article — “A History of the Maori Tiki” — which Robley sent to a number of New Zealand Newspapers in 1926: the Kaitaia “Northlander” published it, in two parts, on the 25th November and the 2nd December of that year.
“Was the tiki at first a symbol of ancient creed; or a representation of a being worshipped in some page breakpage 86 long forgotten religion of [the Maori]? — ie was Buddha the origin? — Te Ropere.”
Hocken Library Ms 488
This hei tiki design, sent to Dr Hocken for use as a letter-head motif, is similar to that supplied by Robley to a London jeweller.
A History of the Maori Tiki by Te Ropere13
“one may imagine as I did a resemblance, coming as I did from Burmah & Buddhas to NZd & Tikis.”
“I often wondered if you attibuted Tiki form (in greenstone) to some Indian deity — it is a mixture to me, Buddha & Vishnu birds; from their hands in positions …”
Unlike many of his contemporary commentators Robley seldom accorded such questions any great importance; his researches were never dictated by a desire to prove or embellish such conjecture. In pursuing his graphically emulative study of the design of hei tiki — as was characteristic of his general artistic enquiry — Robley was led to a desire to recreate, rather than represent, their form. Hei tiki had become a fashionable ‘good luck’ charm in London following a number of well publicised incidents such as St Amant's win in the 1904 Derby.
“Just before St Amant's Derby there came to Mr. de Rothschild a letter from an anonymous correspondent imploring him to wear during the race a gift which was enclosed … a New Zealand Greenstone charm representing the Maori God “Hei Tiki” … St Amant won ….”
Aitchison Bros. (Jwellers) pamphlet16
Subsequent to the horse's victory Robley noticed a considerable interest in hei tiki among Londoners.17 Local jewellers, also recognizing this popularity began to produce large numbers of poor realised fakes, claiming for them magical properties. Upset at the incorrect designs being used, Robley designed a reproduction hei tiki which was produced by a jeweller friend.
“I went to … [a] dealer who had patience and now sweet little tikis can be got for 5 [shillings] there, perfect shape.”
“I saw a Maori lady some time ago in Town, walking with 2 cavaliers, and as she had tiki, mako, manaia, in a bunch, long ear drop I asked to see; I found all [were] jeweller made — Yet it was Maggie Papakura.”
A less well recorded example of Robley's imitation of Maori art is the series of reproduction Pataka facades he designed and painted during the First World War. In 1916 he erected a ‘whare’ to stand in the foyer of the Hotel Cecil, London, during the visit of the New Zealand Premier, the Rt Hon. William Massey.20 Later in the same year he designed a pair of maihi to adorn a converted YMCA hut in France, being used as a military hospital for New Zealand troops.21 On these panels, the ‘carvings’ were rendered in a tromp d'oeil manner, the figures being painted so as to suggest three-dimensional relief. A year later, in 1917, Robley was again commissioned to design a ‘whare’, this time for the Royal Albert Hall Exhibition.22 For this project he altered his conception of the earlier whare, the figures being painted in “red and black on a white ground”.23 These more schematic designs were applied to canvases shaped to make up the constitutent element of the whare facade. A number of designs were submitted before the Exhibition Committee agreed to proceed with the project.
“… The Painting will take busy time, 12 days or so … It is possible committee won't pay price but may accept? the stall putting up — or allow part … But the Maori designs on canvas will surely be sold at the final jumble sale, & possibly it will be bought for its Maori designs by someone who knows & secures. The small plans enclosed only give idea of the stall front in rough.”
Although no examples of such painting exist today it can be fairly assumed from these sketches and descriptions that the Royal Albert Hall ‘Whare’ presented a schematic interpretation — rather than a naturalistic representation — of traditional carved motifs. The use of red and black paint on a white ground suggests that Robley adapted the image of those carved forms to the properties of two-dimensional image-making.
Robley's sketch for a ‘whare’ to be constructed at the Royal Albert Hall, 1907. This design was rejected by the planning committee, in favour of a simpler ‘whare’ facade, also designed by Robley.
Alexander Turnbull Library Art Room; A33/24
In observing — and drawing — items of Maori manufacture Robley was well aware that their making was an essential proponent of their made image. The shape of a piece of wood defined, together with the artist's thus triggered skills, the form of the figure or device carved from it. The need to actually make hei tiki developed from Robley's habit of observing the work of Maori artists from a practically empathetic point-of-view.
“I unearthed a very greenest tiki … today — no toes marked only heels, the artist had gained all he could of the stone prettily for the front and outline — but, waterworn at back.”
Following an awareness that essential qualites of Maori art — particularly moko — were precluded by his graphic imitation, Robley undertook a number of projects which more closely approximated carving, and thus tattooing. He had, during his time on the East Coast of New Zealand acquired an ‘understanding’ of the haka, an action/dance which greatly impressed him.26 Upon his return to England in 1866 Robley attended a Ball at the Ryde Officers' Club. Dressed in Maori vestments he favoured his audience with a performance of the haka.27
Moko had been an essential element of the haka Robley experienced in New Zealand; its darkening, dramatizing lines throwing the warrior's facial expressions — especially those evoked by the movement of the eyes and the mouth — into a sharp, awe-inspiring relief. To properly evoke this, Robley applied the desgins [sic] of moko to his face — with paint — before beginning his performance. The decoration of his own visage — and subsequently those of others — developed from, or into, a desire to understand the exact relationship between moko and the human physiognomy.
In 1871, again dressed and decorated as a Maori warrior, Robley attended a Ball at Aldershot with his sister, Augusta.page 90
“I was good at even decorating my face correctly with Mataora patterns.”
“Perhaps the best dress in the room, on account of its accuracy and fidelity of detail, was that of a New Zealand chief — it was perfect, down to the most minute tattooing. The arrivals of this grim and formidable warrior caused quite a sensation; but his mission was peaceful … and he joined in the dance with a lady [Augusta Robley] in a very charming Polish costume.”
Newsclipping c. 187129
In 1914 Robley was called upon to similarly decorate the fifty men who escorted Miss MacKenzie — daughter of NZ High Commissioner Thomas MacKenzie — to her debutante Ball. (Ironically the 1914 event was a ‘Peace Ball’ to celebrate 100 years of peace between Britain and America.)30
“I did paint Miss H. MacKenzie['s] cavaliers as Maoris (as Dominion of NZ) for the Peace Ball 1914 — Donne lent equipment; dressers did tights and gloves & browned faces — Then I came in [to] style”
While such processes enabled Robley to gain some idea as to the manner in which patterns related to, and were defined by, the individual physiognomy of their bearer, they ignored the quality of whakairo — the carving of the face.
“I found some lines follow creases of skin, other (take finger [and feel your face] & see) what bone allows”
As early as 1905 Robley had undertaken another, more permanent, project in an attempt to ‘practise’ moko. Commissioning an Italian sculptor — then working at Chapman & Hall's Publishing House — Robley acquired a number of plaster copies of a ‘life cast’ of a Maori in the British Museum Collection.33 The cast had been ‘collected’ by Sir George Grey in the 1850's from Taupue te Whanoa of Ngatiwhakaue, Te Arawa.34
“They let me have cast & now I have life cast to make look real as I did see — colour & moko in its real place and measurements.”
“If anyone saw me graving moko on Maori casts that was on a Head would see all correct — depth & & and sculptor would open eyes if ever to be copied into bronze … People are astonished at the page 91 cicatrices I copy into network of art (when finished).
“I took one with me, just showed it to a Bank friend, and everyone crowded to see it — I felt my own bones of face to see I did not put anything wrong, taken the eyes, nose & & & are on edge of bones — yet seem too near eyes — the cast had plenty of [crests] & marks to go by correctly.”
Robley made a large number of these casts — two are now in the Collection of the National Museum of New Zealand37 — and on many delineated designs other than those of Taupae te Whanoa.38 He went to a great deal of trouble to accurately evoke the object image — as opposed to the graphic, representational image — of the art he assumed had passed from memory. Still upset at the New Zealand Government's refusal to consider the purchase of his collection of Mokamokai — in his eyes the only truly informative image of moko — Robley attempted to send a number of his casts to New Zealand.
“The coloured cast is for your [birthday] — but one cast extra will be useful for replicas to take from — & it ought to catch the Museum's eye.”
Robley's enthusiasm for moko was, however, seldom equalled in this country. This was, perhaps, simply because he was peculiarly familiar with, and invigorated by, the designs of moko which were barely evident in the new New Zealand; within either Maori or Pakeha circles. Beyond sending his carved and painted casts to this country, there was little Robley could do to penetrate the apparent indifference with which moko was regarded.40
“It is art. This real face copy ends my era of Maori Art and it being correct some day it might be copied in bronze …”
“graving casts takes long time but more correct than drawing, no one will beat me at this.”
“I know the motifs that are tika and should not be forgotten … if I send motifs of rafter patterns they will not be stiff and stilted.”
Contemporary exponents of kowhaiwhai had, in a manner similar to the jewellers' reproduction of hei tiki, created perverted versions of the patterns. Robley was particularly upset than an ‘authority’ such as Augustus Hamilton should use designs as “careless of pattern” as the “bottom border” in Maori Art [Hamilton: 1896].43 He was, however, unusual among collectors and ‘scholars’ of the art of the Maori in that he accorded to it a positive, artistically-based enquiry. Rather than work from the belief that the Maori artist's work could be understood from an appreciation of its outward appearance, Robley interested himself in the figurative essence which gave rise to the art's distinctive aesthetic. He was concerned that, in their ignorance of an underlying aesthetic sense, contemporary copyists trivialised the remarkable nature of bona fide patterns and forms.
In making many copies of kowhaiwhai patterns Robley became aware of the manner in which they were formulated from single motifs, arranged in differing relationships to one another. This columnal expansion, its cyclic nature amplified by the alternate red and black colouring of the panels' ‘ground’ suggested further propagation to Robley. In defining a single motif as the unit from which pattern was generated it became possible to endlessly replicate that unit, and thus that pattern without going beyond known design elements. Taking a single band of kowhaiwhai he began to expand it laterally — as opposed to its original longitudinal displacement —, producing a design field open to infinite nuance. Although this modified the ‘single thread’ implicit in the rafters and their ‘symbol’ quality within Maori architecture, Robley's exercises opened up the secondary ‘threads’ — essentially implied in their original state — to further growth.page break
It was because he divined this unitary root in his understanding of Maori art that Robley seldom invented designs. He could, in differently arranging and detailing — by the displacement of koru, the balance of colour-motifs, describe an expansive range of patterns. His perception that real Maori design could be generated from an understanding of correct motifs, and the way in which they might be articulated gave rise to a fertile range of work in the last few years of his life. Invigorated by the extraordinary beauty, and diversity of the devices of moko — especially those rendered in the ‘spaces’ between structural designs — Robley had divined his own system of creating in Maori art.
“The Maori decorated by shape — paddle, post or box — so the nose got [ngu, pongiangia, whakatara patterns], the chin [kauae patterns].”
Working from the unitary breakdown suggested in this sketch45 — the ‘building block’ nature of the upper drawing — Robley began to formulate designs within shapes alien to traditional Maori cultural production. With remarkable skill — which is to say, page 94 familiarity — he articulated Maori patterns within the letters of the alphabet, oval borders, circular platters and a myriad of other items; and these he presented to his New Zealand friends as gifts. His artistic sensibilities were, by the time of his death, saturated with the infinite beauty and elegance of Maori design and with his ability to invent within that elegance.
It is clear that despite his discovery of an extraordinarily adaptive and vigorous creative element within Maori art, Robley was unable to understand contemporary developments by Maori artists as being anything other than decadent. Despite the new possibilities introduced by the ‘civilization’ he had actively helped to introduce, Robley appears to have shared the view that the Maori Culture needed to be restrained within its past if it was to survive. To an important degree he concurred with the imperialist attitudes of Pakeha ‘experts’ such as Augustus Hamilton, regarding the re-making of past examples of art as the only viable means of preserving and perpetuating ‘authentic’ Maori art.
“It is too late to set up a school of Maori carving — myths are not in knowledge but replicas of old work could be faithfully copied.”
His remove from the Maori, their tohunga and kaumatua, meant that Robley had no real way of knowing the contemporary state of mythological and artistic knowledge in New Zealand. His correspondence with New Zealanders on these subjects was with Pakeha commentators who had, between them, assumed the task of ‘saving’ a knowledge of Maori art from cultural extinction. In so doing these ‘patrons’ and connoisseurs cemented in place a controlled — that is to say, largely static — imitative style of art which ‘reduced’ the work of the Maori artist to being, in European terms, a ‘piece of art’. The effects of these attempts to promote an on-going ‘traditional’ style of classical Maori art have continued to pervert the freely organic evolution of cultural forms until the present day.page 95
Robley's separation from the Maori led him to develop an appreciation of their art coined in terms of a European concept of the ‘art object’ and its aesthetic life. He was capable only of hypothesizing as to the more subjective, mythological concerns that those artforms contained, gave voice to. In his work as an artist he generally accepted — and remained within — these formal constraints.
It is in studying Robley's paintings and drawings — rather than his writings — that his appreciation of Maori art is best understood. In seeking to preserve, to perpetuate, to record the patterns and designs of the Maori he became aware of a life within them which was (and is) essentially provocative of an infinite range of further forms and motifs. His situation without a Maori cultural situation meant he was unable to carry this to any significant fruition, because he was incapable of penetrating the full sense of the system of art he discovered. While aware of the formal workings of the system of that art, he did not (and could not) understand the philosophy, the meaning, the symbol life thereof. Nonetheless Robley's many representations of items of Maori manufacture record a remarkably full investigation of their formal qualities and properties.
Works of art continue to be possessed of a life when their maker has died. Their on-going life is defined by the manner in which they are subsequently perceived, by the way in which they are culturally informative. New generations being [sic] new meanings to ‘pieces’ of art; interpret new meanings of them. Robley's unique, generally objective, representation of the work of other artists has a peculiar life in the continuing cultural development of this country. His work essentially opens out, rather than attempts to define, an understanding of Maori art: the present-day student may thus learn from it or dismiss it from his/her own point-of-view.page 96
1 Robley, then a Colonel, retired from the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders Regiment on 20th June, 1887; eight days before his forty-seventh birthday.
2 One of Robley's sisters was married to a Mr Miller of Leghorn, Italy. Robley spent many holidays at their villa.
3 Robley-Craig-Brown: 1914 ATL MS16/5
5 Fildes: 1921 VUW Fildes/1507
6 Robley-Hocken:c. 1906 Hocken Library MI 488
7 Robley-Best:c.1929 ATL MS16/2
8 Robley — Craig-Brown: 1915 ATL MS16/5
9 Robley-Best:1926 ATL MS16/2
10 Smith discusses this subject in Hawaiki [Smith:1921]
11 Robley-Adams:1927 MS 16/9
12 ATL MS 16/9
13 ATL MS 1387/15
14 Robley-Adams:19227 ATL MS 16/9
15 Robley-Best:n/d ATL MS 16/2
16 Aitchison Bros. (Jewellers) brochure ATL MS 1387/4
17 Robley-Mair:n/d ATL qMS/1898–1922
18 AIM MS 256 R66
19 Robley-Best:1924 ATL MS16/2
20 Robley-Turnbull:1916 ATL MS 57/77
21 Robley-Thomson:1918 NMNZ Ethn.MS
22 Robley-Mrs McLean:n/d ATL MS 16/6
23 ATL Art Collection A33/24
24 Robley-Mrs McLean:n/d ATL MS 16/6
25 Robley-Donne:n/d AIM MS 256 R66
26 Robley-Adams:n/d ATL MS 16/9
27 newsclipping (no source):c. 1867 VUW Fildes 10/1
28 VUW Fildes 10/1
29 see note 27
30 Robley-Fildes:n/d VUW Fildes 10/1
32 Robley-Donne:n/d ATL MS1387/20
33 Although initiated in 1905, Robley ‘manufactured’ the majority of these engraved casts during the mid 1920's.
34 Robley-Mair:n/d ATL qMS/1898–1922
36 Robley-Fildes:1923 VUW Fildes 10
37 ME3764; ex:Mair Collection and acc.69/31; ex:K.A. Webster Collection.
39 Robley-Fildes:1923 VUW Fildes 10
40 “I will try to send you a separate cast for Goldie to paint for Govt; if you liked however, you keep — up to 11 lbs can go by post” Robley-Fildes:1923 VUW Fildes 10
43 Robley-Donne:n/d AIM MS256 R66
41 Robley-Fildes: 1923 VUW Fildes 10
45 A80/27a acc.no. 78–554
46 Robley-Fildes:1922 VUW Fildes 10