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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 12 (March 1, 1940)

The Early Artists of New Zealand — The Beginnings of Art in New Zealand

page 60

The Early Artists of New Zealand
The Beginnings of Art in New Zealand

A Great French Etcher Visits Akaroa

The story of New Zealand art begins in 1843 at the French settlement of Akaroa.

It is true that drawings had been made on the coast by the draughtsmen of Cook's Voyages, especially by Sydney Parkinson, who sketched many points of interest touched at by the great navigator in 1769–70.

Other drawings were made on Cook's further voyages, and during the visits of the French, such as D'Urville on the Astrolabe (1827); but these were the days before colonization had begun, and but for the genius of Meryon, New Zealand art could not be said to commence with the fleeting visits of such voyagers.

In the summer of 1843, Captain Berard, in the corvette Le Rhin, sailed into the beautiful land-locked harbour of Akaroa to watch the interests of his countrymen in the infant settlement. Three years before, they had left France in the Comte de Paris to found a colony, but their claims were forestalled by Captain Hobson, who sent a vessel from the Bay of Islands to proclaim British sovereignty. The original sixty immigrants were allowed to remain as settlers; and in this secluded bay on Banks Peninsula had begun to build up what remains to-day as a charming old-world spot, whose cherry orchards flourish in the shelter of surrounding hills.

(Print, courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library.) Meryon's etching of Charbonnier's Point, Akaroa. “Peche a La Seine,” 1845

(Print, courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library.)
Meryon's etching of Charbonnier's Point, Akaroa. “Peche a La Seine,” 1845

From the deck of the ship we can imagine a young officer of twenty-two, with a delicate sensitive face, gazing at the calm waters of the harbour and the small settlement on its brink. At this time, Charles Meryon had not taken up art as a profession; he belonged to the French navy and had been stationed in the Levant. His father, Dr. Charles Lewis Meryon, of London, was an Oxford man and had travelled through the east with Lady Hestor Stanhope. He had not found life congenial with his French wife, a professional operatic dancer, and lived mostly at Marseilles. But young Charles had remained with his mother in Paris, frequently visiting the doctor until he entered the navy.

The Le Rhin stayed at Akaroa until 1846. During one year no fewer than nineteen French vessels entered the harbour: its life must have been considerably gayer than it is to-day, though the officers found it boring and tedious in the extreme. Meryon was always drawing; the scenery fascinated him as well as the natives, whalers and fishing craft, birds, trees and plants—even to a curious fungus which he found!

He wrote long letters home and an Ms. describing Akaroa. The latter is still in existence. He made studies of the little settlement from the water showing its whares and clustered homesteads; patakas or native storehouses, seine fishing in the harbour, a colonist's thatched cottage nestling under a treefern and a portrait of “Tikao, Naturel d'Akaroa.”

In a letter to his father, Meryon speaks of the quiet life, so “unendurable” to some of his shipmates that they asked permission to resign their commissions. “The only distractions we have are excursions, fishing, etc., and the weather is not always as good as it might be; but he looks forward to a projected visit to Port Nicholson (Wel page 61 lington) and Auckland, where the new Governor (Grey) lives, who will be able to decide the question, always pressing, of the ownership of the Peninsula.”

(Print, courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library.) Native patakas and huts at Akaroa as etched by Meryon in 1845.

(Print, courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library.)
Native patakas and huts at Akaroa as etched by Meryon in 1845.

“As for me,” he continues, “I do not wish to lose my time here, and, as I want to employ it as usefully as possible, I have taken a room on shore, where I mean to do many things. I propose to study history, occupy myself a little with politics, and continue drawing and painting. I have already made some sketches from which I hope to have some good results in the future. In any case, I shall have plenty of interesting subjects—the natives present a vast field with their strange type of countenance and costume.” (March, 1844).

Meryon accompanied a surveying party round Banks Peninsula, at this time heavily forested with magnificent trees. All the bays he found “lovely enough,” but “Akaroa Harbour is the most charming from every point of view. Each having its own peculiarity, I was commissioned to sketch the most remarkable features, but I did not do much as I could not find a convenient place to work from.”

The anomalous position occupied by Captain Berard in his virtual government of the settlement, and the boredom from which his company suffered, must have contributed to the joy with which the ship's anchor was weighed for home on April 16, 1846. Meryon had seen Auckland, Wellington, the Bay of Islands and the French possessions in the South Seas, but all his sketches were of Akaroa, and fourteen years later he was to etch at least four of them.

On his return to France he decided that art must be his life work. In it he had only received elementary training, but now he unfortunately found himself colour blind. Meryon, however, was not to be deterred; he took up etching, and laid the foundations of a career which earned for him the titles of “the father of modern etching,” and “the greatest etcher since Rembrandt.” One of his fine New Zealand studies depicted “The Assassination of Marion du Fresne,” which had occurred at the Bay of Islands in 1772; exhibited as a drawing in 1848 the picture was never painted.

Struggle, disappointment and unhappiness—too often the reward of genius —now began to cloud Meryon's horizon; and as the years went on, he found his noble etchings increasingly hard to sell. He executed in 1850–54 a fine series called “Eaux Fortes sur Paris,” which consisted of twenty-two etchings revealing the life of the city, its poverty and splendour. This “epic of Paris” includes studies of Notre Dame, and of ancient buildings about to be pulled down, with street and river scenes backed by low and brooding skies. A vision rather than a record, this great series is partly symbolical; figures sometimes crowd the sky as well as the streets, but his treatment of architecture attained a perfection of detail free from the more careless methods he applied to humanity. The prints of these etchings are now sold for 61,000 francs, but for the originals he could find but few buyers, and they rarely fetched more than tenpence each.

An authority who has studied Meryon in detail tells us that he drew buildings from the foundation and men from the feet up, saying that they must be firmly planted. He intended to issue an “Album of Souvenirs du Voyage du Rhin,” but the Government would not finance the scheme, which was abandoned after he had executed eleven plates. The cover design was to have shown the curiously deformed fungus which he had found with delight in the bush at Akaroa.

Meryon toiled through a period of ceaseless disappointment and hardship which finally clouded his reason. One of his few rich patrons rescued him for a time by carrying him off to his Belgian chateau; but he returned to Paris quite insane, and after a year's confinement was restored to health and released. However, in 1867 he was again forced to return to the asylum where he died the following year at the age of forty-seven.

(Continued on page 62)

page 62

Assistant General Manager, New Zealand Railways, Mr. J. Sawers.

Mr. J. Sawers, who has been appointed Assistant General Manager of the New Zealand Railways, joined the Railways Department at Dunedin as a cadet in 1906 and served in various capacities in the Otago District until his transfer to Head Office, Wellington, in 1924. In 1928 he became Information Officer and retained that position until his appointment as Goods Agent at Christchurch in 1936. In 1935 he was abroad for some months gaining information for the Department in regard to various aspects of work on other Railways. Mr. Sawers was promoted to Assistant Traffic Manager at Auckland in 1937, and was appointed District Traffic Manager, Auckland, the following year. Mr. Sawers as a graduate of the Institute of Transport, London. He served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force during the Great War and at its conclusion spent some time attached to the English Railway Companies.

(Spencer Digby, photo.)Mr. J. Sawers.

(Spencer Digby, photo.)
Mr. J. Sawers.

The etchings of Charles Meryon are now very rare and of great value. His best work is in the British Museum, but the Turnbull Library, Wellington, has prints of his Akaroa studies. These include—

Seine-fishing at Banks Peninsula, 1845; hills and sea, in the foreground men are hauling in a net.

Native Storehouses at Akaroa, 1845, against a background of bush and hills.

State of the Little French Colony at Akaroa, 1845. Smoke is ascending from the houses on the beach and from the bush behind into a cloudy sky.

“La Chaumière du Colon vieux Soldat à Akaroa, Nouvelle-Zélande, 1845. (This shows the cottage under a tree-fern.)—(See “The French at Akaroa,” by T. Lindsay Buick.)

“The incommunicable charm of Meryon's prints and their lasting fascination (says the “Encyclopaedia Britannica”) are due to the fact that behind all technical qualities, and as their very source and spring, there lies the potent imagination of the artist, poetical and vivid.”