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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 2 (May 1, 1940.)

The Early Artists — Of New Zealand — III. — The Sketching Days of Charles Heaphy and the Tragic Story of Gilfillan

page 45

The Early Artists
Of New Zealand

The Sketching Days of Charles Heaphy and the Tragic Story of Gilfillan

Major Charles Heaphy, V.C.

Major Charles Heaphy, V.C.

I Have seen a sketch book containing the drawings of Charles Heaphy, the first artist to spend the greater part of his life in New Zealand, to fight her battles, to identify himself with her interests. These sketches, Victorian in style, were executed in very fine pencil strokes, but, after the fashion of that day, part of the drawing was sometimes washed in in water-colour. I remember one of a bellbird whose mossy greens were quite unfaded, perched in a leafy branch indicated only in pencil, and another of a company of little scarlet soldiers marching round some historic spot.

Heaphy's father had founded the Old Water Colour Society and was a well known water-colour artist. He had provided his son with the advantages of studying at the Royal Academy, where, at the age of seventeen, he gained a bronze and a silver medal, and had entered a competition for the gold one, when, in 1839, he suddenly withdrew to act as draughtsman to the New Zealand Company.

Arriving at Port Nicholson in the Tory, five months before the advent of the first Wellington settlers, Charles Heaphy assisted in the negotiations for buying land from the Maoris, and in the exploration of the surrounding country. Such expeditions took him as far north as the Bay of Islands where he did several sketches, and to Taranaki where he was fascinated by Mount Egmont. His drawing of the latter showed natives in the foreground burning off a patch of ground for potatoes.

Returning to Wellington in 1841, Heaphy sketched the town which he now dignified by the name of “city.” This drawing shows a good deal of shipping in the harbour, including two of the New Zealand Company's barques; and it was engraved in London almost immediately, and sold for three shillings plain and five shillings coloured. These engravings are now very rare, and, according to J. C. Andersen, “cost as many pounds now as they did shillings then.” They were used to illustrate at least three early books on New Zealand; in addition to which Heaphy also illustrated Wakefield's “Adventures in New Zealand.”

He went on exploring expeditions to many parts of the wild South Island, but apparently did little sketching during these strenuous times.
(Print, courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library.) Part of the town of Wellington as sketched by Charles Heaphy, in 1841.

(Print, courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library.) Part of the town of Wellington as sketched by Charles Heaphy, in 1841.

One of his southern scenes forms a coloured illustration to Hochstetter's “New Zealand,” and shows Mount Cook and Mount Tasman with the snow-covered Southern Alps across a sweep of blue sea at the mouth of the Arahura River, West Coast. Hochstetter also secured a water-colour of Heaphy's showing a chief of Coromandel. This drawing served as frontispiece to his book, and several smaller drawings were included after being engraved on wood, at Munich.

Heaphy married a daughter of the Rev. J. F. Churton, and, for a time, acted as district surveyor at Mahurangi, near Auckland. In 1859 he joined the volunteers, and, as Captain in the Auckland Mounted Rifles, was soon to distinguish himself on active service. The Waikato War was engaging the attention of the military in 1863, and Heaphy was at first attached to the flying column. On February 11th of the following year he was at Waiari when a party of men of the 40th Regiment were suddenly fired on while bathing in a creek. In command of a detachment, Heaphy at once went to their assistance, and discovered a page 46 page 47 man bleeding to death under fire from the natives concealed in thick fern. Without hesitation he stopped and attended to the wounded man, the Maoris continuing to take aim during his humanitarian work, until, aided by some others, Heaphy succeeded in carrying the man to a place of safety.

For this courageous action he gained the New Zealand medal, was raised to the rank of Major, and was subsequently awarded the V.C. in 1867.

After the war Heaphy acted as chief surveyor at Auckland. He became a member of the House of Representatives, Commissioner of Native Reserves and Judge of the Native Land Court.

His artistic work was very delicately and faithfully executed, and is noteworthy for its historical value as recording the appearance of the various settlements in their infancy. He also wrote a book describing his early residence in New Zealand.

After a strenuously active life he felt his health beginning to fail, so, in 1881, he retired on pension to Brisbane, in whose sub-tropical climate he hoped to lengthen his days, but he died there on August 3rd of the same year.

Can a man be considered as making any contribution to a country's art if his fame rests upon one picture alone? Not only this, but John Alexander Gilfillan's original painting is now lost, and can only be judged from reproductions and lithographs.

He had an eventful life. Born at Jersey in 1793, he ran away to sea and took part in several naval engagements. On his retirement at Edinburgh he studied art and surgery, and taught a little painting in the Andersonian University, Glasgow.

What induced him to sail for New Zealand I do not know, but he arrived in Wellington in 1841 and took up farming in the then wild Wanganui district. Here his wife and three children were massacred by the Maoris who also burned their home. Overwhelmed by the tragedy, Gilfillan left the country for ever, and, with his remaining children, took ship for Australia, in 1847, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

Here he began to paint again at his studio in Sydney; and, though the natives of New Zealand had all but ruined his life, he executed a large picture showing their manner of living in a fortified community. This was the celebrated “Interior of a Village or pa in New Zealand.”

Gilfillan must have done a good deal of sketching during his Wanganui days, for a drawing of the ill-fated farmstead appeared as frontispiece to an early publication, W. Tyrone Power's “Sketches in New Zealand” (1849). And now he was using portrait studies for the foreground figures of his picture,
(Print, courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library.) A view of Koho Koho, Hokianga River in 1839. A sketch by Charles Heaphy.

(Print, courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library.)
A view of Koho Koho, Hokianga River in 1839. A sketch by Charles Heaphy.

the pa itself having been situated near Wanganui. It showed a mountainous background with tall trees on either side. Enclosed by palisades, many bearing carved heads, the pa had two gabled houses surmounted by the figures of gods, and a pataka, or food-store, standing on its post (as a protection against rats). Groups of natives were scattered about engaged in conversation, their dogs occupying the foreground.

Of secondary artistic value, this painting was bought in England for a large sum, and was afterwards lithographed and sold in aid of missions. A very poor reproduction of it figured in the Rev. James Buller's “Forty Years in New Zealand.” It also appeared in the “Illustrated London News,” but up to the present, the original cannot be traced.

Gilfillan also painted “A Maori Korero,” which he sold in Melbourne, and a portrait in water-colour of Te Rauparaha, the blood-thirsty chief of Kapiti. He died abroad about 1870.