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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 1 (April 1, 1940)

The Early Artists of New Zealand — Angas … The Man Who Was Just In Time — II

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The Early Artists of New Zealand
Angas … The Man Who Was Just In Time

When Sir George Grey came out as Governor to the new colony of South Australia, he was accompanied by a young man whose “name and money had been prominently employed” in its foundation. George French Angas, in his early ‘twenties, was keenly interested in sketching the strange country in which he found himself, and its stranger aboriginals. He had studied anatomy and the art of lithography, was connected with the Wakefield ventures, and had even suggested (1838) that a charter should be granted to a British company to forestall the French in New Zealand.

In 1844 Angas came to New Zealand. His first sight of the coast could have given him no finer impression of its beauty, for the perfect cone of Taranaki (Mt. Egmont) gleamed white against a pearly dawn-cool sky, “frittered into delicate tracery by the fresh east wind,” as he says, “and drawn up like a curtain revealing the snowy mountain in bold relief. …”

The impressive sketch which he made on the spot was later to form one of the best plates in his large folio volume,” The New Zealanders Illustrated,” material for which was to be collected during his stay. In the foreground of the Taranaki picture a Maori war canoe with a reed sail rides the deep indigo swell of the sea, over which two black gulls are skimming. The whole effect is one of pearly enchantment, hazed with the dim blue atmosphere of morning, and like all the rest was lithographed so as to reproduce faithfully both its deeper and more evanescent tones.

Angas had but one object; he wanted to paint the Maoris, their tattooed faces, their fine old chiefs, their women, their whares, pahs, weapons, implements and the representations of their gods.
(Print, courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library). Rangihaeata's celebrated house on Mana Island. A sketch by George French Angas.

(Print, courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library).
Rangihaeata's celebrated house on Mana Island. A sketch by George French Angas.

Meryon had considered them a dying race; but whether or not Angas realised the tremendous historical value of his work, he began a systematic search for relics that were fast falling to decay, and for the men whose names are now famous in the early history of New Zealand.

“Up to the present time,” he writes in a preface dated London, 1st July, 1846, “the New Zealander … has never been carefully and faithfully portrayed; and his habits, costumes and works of art, though so rapidly disappearing before the progress of Christianity and Civilization, are yet unrecorded by the pencil of the artist.

“To accomplish this task, I visited both Islands of New Zealand, and spent a considerable period in travelling round their coast, and penetrating through the interior—by seeking out nearly every tribe of natives, and living amongst them for sometime, in the remote and almost unknown parts of the country, I have succeeded in obtaining portraits of the most important chiefs with their families, and have made drawings, on the spot, of all objects of interest connected with their history…”

Starting from Wellington, Angas began his expeditions under the guidance of one native companion. He visited the blood-thirsty Rauparaha, now an old man, and drew the pah of his savage confederate, Rangihaeata, of Wairau fame. It was named Taupo Pah and had just been built near the harbour of Porirua. In the distance the snowy mountains of the South Island gleamed above a stretch of pale lazuline sea, and Angas sat down among the flax plants to paint them, with the pale green Island of Mana in the middle distance, the palisades of the pah to his right and three canoes. A native wrapped in a mat gazes in the direction of Mana where stood the carved house Kai Tangata (Eat Man).

This isolated home of the celebrated chief formed the subject of another sketch—“Rangihaeata's House on the Island of Mana.” Angas says it was” built many years ago by the formidable warrior of the Nga-ti-toa tribe, who page 21 massacred the Europeans at Wairau Valley (only a year before). It stands on the Island of Mana in Cook Straits, and is one of the finest specimens of elaborately ornamented dwellings yet extant.” Indeed, most of the carving had been done by Rangihaeata's own hand, “the image supporting the ridgepole” representing himself. The artist's historic record of this house was achieved in warm ochres, terra cottas and greys.

Still another impression of Taupo Pah shows a curious open cage erected on poles to contain tapu (sacred) articles placed there by the tohunga (priest), who alone could approach them.

Among many portraits secured at this time, Angas painted the nieces of Rauparaha in garments of white-dressed flax, and long black curling hair; and a “Scene in a New Zealand Forest near Porirua,” showing tree-ferns with greyish trees in the background, fallen logs, and a foreground of ferns starred with scarlet fungi.

Other fine native pahs and whares were drawn, and several portraits of women, for whom Angas seemed to entertain a particular affection. Of these, “Toenga,” daughter of Waraurangi of the Nga-ti-Maru tribe, Great Barrier is worthy of special note. Nearly all the members of her tribe had been exterminated “a few years since” by the Ngapuis; and she is shown wearing a flax garment trimmed with tufts of red wool, and a European sailor hat of yellow straw garlanded with great sprays of clematis. Other studies of native women include the wife of one of Rangihaeata's warriors and her daughter, both having elegantly curled hair plumed with tufts of albatross feathers at the ear.

Arriving in Auckland by sea, Angas drew a chief at Orakei Bay, and crossing to the West Coast executed a portrait of “Te Mutu, with his sons, Patuone and Te Kuri.” The chief appears in a rich garment of dog's hair, holding his large greenstone mere; his younger son wears a flax mat dyed black with hinau and impervious to rain. At Hokianga, a very celebrated personage sat for him—Tamati Waka Nene, agent of the Treaty of Waitangi. “Nene, or Tamiti Waka” as he calls him, shows a kindly faced man, the friend of Europeans, in a garment of whitish flax and holding his ornamented taiaha (staff).

Journeying into the Waikato country, the heart of Maoriland, Angas reached Kaitote, the pah of Te Whero Whero, later to assume kingship of his race. His sketch shows Taupiri mountain, smoke-blue in the distance, the palisaded
(Print, courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library). Angas's drawing of Taupo Fall.

(Print, courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library).
Angas's drawing of Taupo Fall.

fence of the pah enclosing several large native huts; a gathering of chiefs is taking place in the foreground.

Angas now heard of a very celebrated monument—the carved memorial to Te Whero Whero's daughter. It was hidden away at the deserted pah of Raroera, a tapu or sacred spot to which he stole away to obtain a drawing. It was, he tells us, twelve or fourteen feet high, and in “a tolerable state of preservation.” Its carving was an elaborate example of native skill, a perfect specimen of which was rare enough even in those days; and he copied its intricate lines faithfully, even to the eyes of paua shell. Te Whero Whero was so “exasperated on his daughter's death” that he cursed all the neighbouring chiefs, but gave Hongi's suit of armour—presented to the latter by George IV—as utu or payment to the chief of Mokau. “Rusty and unused at the secluded village of Paripari” Angas was to view this historic gift.

“Te Whero Whero or Potatau, the principal chief of all Waikato,” was drawn in a crouching position wrapped in a mat and leaning against a log. During the sitting, rain began to fall, whereupon the chief ordered a shelter to be erected over the artist, while he himself continued to sit on during the showers.

Potatau's attitude was most courteous and friendly throughout; and learning of Angas's intention to penetrate still farther into the interior, he wrote a letter of introduction for him to carry to Te Heuheu, the famous chief of Taupo. It reads as follows:

Whata Whata,

4th October, 1844.

“Friend Heuheu,—Health to you! Let your hospitality be very great to this stranger who is going to see you. Your name has carried him away. He is a writer of images; he belongs to me—to Potatau. Be kind to this European. Take heed you do not despise my book (letter?). He is a strange foreigner from England.

By me your friend Potatau.”

Angas obtained a very beautiful sketch of the “Volcanic Region of Pumice Hills, looking towards Tongariro and the Ruapehu.” “The scene was one of vastness and solitary grandeur,” he tells us; and even the lithograph gives some faint impression of that cloudless day (4th November, 1844) when the stranger in a strange land sat down among the tawny, gold-brown grass of the foreground and painted the pearly slopes of the mountains against a smoke-grey sky.

Arriving at Taupo, Angas made a remarkable portrait of the aged Te Heuheu, with his silver hair like “the snowy head of the sacred Tongariro.” Dressed in a fine flax garment and holding his great mere*, Te Heuheu is seen with his younger brother behind him, the waters of the lake

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forming a background. Te Heuheu was overwhelmed by a landslide in May, 1846—little over two years after this date.

Now the great chief had laid a tapu on many things, including his old pah on a neck of land jutting into the lake, and on Mount Tongariro, which he considered especially sacred and spoke of as his backbone. No one was allowed to ascend and many were afraid to look at it; and Angas was forbidden to make any representation of it. This he only succeeded in doing by giving his Maori guide the slip, while he stole away unseen to secure a sketch from Lake Roto-aira. The perfect truncated cone of Tongariro rose streaked with snow against a stormy sky; the palisades of “Motupoi” (Motu-o-Puhi) Pah were outlined in front of the mountain across the lake, whose deep blue waves, done in a very spirited fashion, bore a canoe to shore in the foreground. Another view of Tongariro shows the pah on a green hill contrasting with the vivid indigo of the lake waters.

Waitahanui, the old pah of Te Heuheu, on a spit or peninsula, Lake Taupo, formed another subject which Angas sketched at his own risk. Deserted and made tapu, it contained many fine old carved buildings. “I was fortunate to make drawings of most of these which I obtained by stealth,” he says, “Te Heuheu having forbidden me to represent any object that was tapu… Here I wandered alone over the scenes of
(Print. courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library). “Te Heuheu's old Pah of Waitahanui, at Tapuo Lake, as sketeched by Angas.

(Print. courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library).
“Te Heuheu's old Pah of Waitahanui, at Tapuo Lake, as sketeched by Angas.

many savage deeds—ovens where human flesh had been cooked in heaps still remained, with the stones scattered round and blackened by fire … and the plover and the tern screamed mournfully through this desolate waste of ruins.”

In his sketch, the pale gold palisades of the pah with their carved posts reddened with ochre, were set off by the thunder-purple background of Tongariro and the deep azure of the lake.

Many other valuable records were obtained by Angas both at this time and during his journey to Auckland, which he reached “by devious ways.” They included detailed drawings of Maori patakas or store-houses, their weapons and implements. Others showed the manners and customs of the race in the days before pakeha (European) influence had caused them to fall into disuse. Numbers of portraits of chiefs in their garments of dog's hair or flax were also secured, including a study of Te Ohu, an old tohunga or heathen priest, with white hair and beard.

Angas at last sailed for Kororareka (Bay of Islands), and from thence to New South Wales and England, where he arranged for the publication by subscription of his “New Zealanders Illustrated.” It contained sixty plates, the reproduction of whose colours was particularly true. This folio volume is, according to J. C. Andersen, “one of the good things in New Zealand books,” “a book seldom met; a desirable thing,” with a value of little under fifty pounds.

Thus the work of G. F. Angas became of rare historical value because he was just in time to capture much in native life and lore that was about to disappear. He was also a true artist whose technique enabled him to make “the first true representation of the Maoris.”

How the public taste changes with the years! China tea was all the go at one time. Now it is Indian. In days gone by brandy was the popular spirit. Now it is whisky. Formerly American tobacco was exclusively smoked. Now the demand is for the brands of the National Tobacco Co., Ltd. (pioneers of the tobacco industry in New Zealand), at all events in this country. Ordinary tobaccos (too rich in nicotine) are apt to affect heart and nerves if smoked habitually. National Tobacco Co.'s goods are practically free from nicotine, and quite safe to smoke. Why? Because they are toasted. This process also accounts for their wonderful flavour and bouquet. And—mark this!—they are the only toasted tobaccos. Ask for “Riverhead Gold” and “Desert Gold” (sweet aromatics), “Navy Cut” (a specially choice blend of medium strength), “Cavendish” (the renowned sporting mixture, a great favourite, also medium), or “Cut Plug No. 10” (a fine, full-flavoured baccy). These brands (in universal demand) are on sale at all tobacconists.*

* Te Heuheu's mere, the famous Pahikaure, was said to have the power of invisibility to all but its owner, and had been five times burled with ancestors.—Tregear.