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Letters and Art in New Zealand

5 — The Nineties

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The Nineties

In the next clearly defined phase of New Zealand's history, roughly bounded by the nineties, certain marked tendencies may be discerned, arising from a situation that is simply stated. It was now half a century since the beginning of organised colonisation, and pioneering (with some qualifications), gold rushes, Maori wars were receding into the past. In the South Island and older settled parts of the North the population, swelled by the Vogel immigrant and the gold-miner turned settler, was subsiding into comparative stability. By the beginning of the period small farmers and urban workers had displaced the squatters with their satellites as the dominant class, and had elected a government to give legislative expression to their needs and aspirations. Wealth, won from gold and refrigeration, had brought with it increased leisure, and both wealth and leisure were soon to be distributed more evenly by the new code of laws.*

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The easier conditions of life gave rise to what André Siegfried, the acutest observer of the period, was to term, 'snobbism': in his own words, 'Wealth came … there was general ease; society (in the narrow sense) began to flourish and to show less indifference to hierarchies and honours.' But, on the other hand, there were stirrings of art and literature, chiefly among a small group of colonial-born men and women, romantically aware of their unique position as the first generation of a new state. 'We stand in the parting of the ways,' announced one of the 'Young New Zealanders' in 1899. 'The young scion of New Zealand national life has begun to awake to a knowledge of itself.' The clarion call was, in fact, a little belated. For by 1899 the force of the movement was largely spent, and the most distinguished member of the new generation, William Pember Reeves, had left for England, thus choosing his 'way' which was, generally speaking, to be the way for the next thirty years both in art and in letters.

Reeves's career touched almost every side of the New Zealand of his day. The son of a well-to-do Canterbury public man, he was a pupil at Christ's College, and then, following the custom among the more privileged at the time, was sent to Oxford to complete his education. Ill-health soon brought him back to New Zealand, where he took up law, journalism, and politics on the Liberal side. At the age of thirty he entered Parliament, becoming a member of page 106the first Liberal-Labour Cabinet. As Siegfried was quick to recognise, Reeves was the intellect behind the new legislation. It was he who formulated the code of industrial laws and devised the machinery of arbitration. And in his record as Minister of Education there are signs of a realisation that this work was only a prelude, a necessary adjustment of social and economic conditions before the higher aims of an enlightened democracy were pursued. For Reeves was more than politician and social reformer; he was a man of culture—'a brilliant and easy writer, a talented man of letters, and an occasional poet.' In State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand (1902) he gave the new nation a record of its achievements as a social laboratory; in The Long White Cloud (1898) he wrote its history with an easy charm that made it accessible to every citizen; in New Zealand (1898) he supplied it with a national song, proclaiming in resonant measures pride in its natural setting:

'God girt her about with the surges,
And winds of the masterless deep,'

pride in its democratic and equalitarian principles:

'Though little and latest their nation,
Yet this they have won without sword,
That woman with man shall have station,
The toiler be lord'

pride in its humanitarianism:

'Where pity worn age shall environ
Where the young start abreast in their race.'

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In his 'occasional poetry' (a just description of his minor but historically interesting verses) he also dramatised an issue which constantly recurs in the literature of the nineties. The New Zealander of 'A Colonist in His Garden' has opened a letter from an English friend who describes the mellow beauties of England, with its opportunities for a richer, ampler life, and urges him to leave those

'Isles nigh as empty as their deep,
Where men but talk of gold and sheep
A land without a past; a race
Set in the rut of commonplace.'

Reeves's ideal colonial self refutes these criticisms:

'"No art?" Who serve an art more great
Than we, rough architects of State
With the old earth at strife?'

and elects to remain in New Zealand. This was the literary decision. In actual fact, Reeves left New Zealand in 1896, 'at once', according to Siegfried, 'found himself very much at his ease in the most cultured circles in London', and established himself there for the rest of his life.

Reeves was the intellectual leader of the new generation; its spiritual representative, the mouthpiece of its troubled adolescent soul, was Jessie Mackay, a native of Canterbury like Reeves. The unassuming preface to The Spirit of the Rangatira, published in 1889 when she was twenty-five years of age, contains the page 108first clear signs of national self-awareness. 'I am convinced,' she wrote, 'that the heart of young New Zealand, in these days, beats with the free, untrammelled pulsation of enterprise … and, side by side with this aspiration after culture goes the dawning of a national spirit.…' In this collection of ballads and in The Sitter on the Rail (1891) it is not always easy to disentangle the national spirit from the expression of Jessie Mackay's own decided views or from the Gaelic romanticism which she drew from her Scottish parentage and a wide range of reading. At any rate, hers is the voice of impetuous youth, burning with indignation at injustice and oppression, full of pity for the weak, scornful of both compromise and clogging common sense—a voice that is raised again, rather more stridently, in the feminist novels of the period. Ranging through history and her own Scottish heritage, she sang the praises of men and women who had lived and died for a cause—Hannibal, Charlotte Corday, Gordon, Henare Taratoa of Gate Pa, obscure figures of Scottish or Scandinavian legend. Her faith is proclaimed succinctly in 'For Conscience Sake', where the speaker, who has chosen duty rather than love, asserts:

'It was better all as it was;
That severed our ways should be on earth,
All for a noble cause.'

With this lofty idealism is combined the humanitarian sentiment of the time, expressed in pity for oppressed page 109nations or minorities or in gloomy reflections on the inequalities of society and the sufferings of the poor. Most of the poems are about remote themes and people dead and gone. When her vision is focused nearer home and the 'cause' is presented in terms of prohibition and women's rights, the effect is decidedly incongruous, and the verse becomes rough and jangling. She cared for these causes intensely and even passionately, but as poetic material they proved to be intractable. For at heart Jessie Mackay was an inveterate romantic, and, like most of her generation, her allegiance was uneasily divided between the world of her parents and her immediate environment. Mr Alan Mulgan has written: 'It is significant that her most thrilling experience when she visited the Old World was to stand in the ruins at Tintagel.' Though later in 'The Noosing of the Sun-God' she was to write one of the few successful verse renderings of Maori myth, at this period her Scottish peasants carry greater conviction than her Maoris, and she is more at home in Scandinavian mythology than in Polynesian. Courageous, sincere, high-minded, yet as a poet striving to give voice to a national spirit that was hardly yet in being, Jessie Mackay belongs in a native New Zealand literature to that 'little gray company before the pioneers' which was to form the subject of her best-known poem.


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The change which occurred in New Zealand letters with Pember Reeves and Jessie Mackay is even more pronounced in the novels of the nineties. These too mark the advent of colonial-born writers and with them departures from the hitherto dominant plot of emigration and pioneering. The remittance man and other stock figures of pioneer fiction, though they never wholly disappear, occur less monotonously, and themes emerge which indicate a people beginning, tentatively and often clumsily enough, to concern itself with the finer issues of living. Most of the novels, it is worth noting, were written by women; for women remained the chief diffusers of 'light', while the pioneer convention of a hard-headed masculinity continued to prevail.

Edith Searle Grossman, the most ambitious of the novelists, was one of those early graduates of the University of New Zealand, whose zeal and sense of apostleship, often combined with considerable erudition, had an appreciable influence on this decade. Her three earliest books were uncompromisingly didactic in tone, avowed weapons in the militant feminist campaign. 'The following narrative,' runs a note in the third, 'is based on a study from the past, before the Woman Movement had raised the condition of women; and it is produced now in view of a strong reactionary tendency towards re-subjection.' The crudely immature Angela: A Messenger (1890) illustrates, chiefly by implication, the narrow background page 111of domestic life and Protestant nonconformity from which, as Siegfried noted, the allied feminist and prohibition movements derived their peculiar strength. In Revolt (1893) and its sequel, A Knight of the Holy Ghost (1907), belong to a later and more aggressive stage of the campaign, whose perfervid atmosphere may be suggested by a typical passage: 'Ah, those early days of a great movement! who can bring back in later years the same intensity of life, the hope and faith, the enthusiasm we feel in thinking we see the redemption of the world coming visibly and by our hands? … To work, to suffer, and to rejoice for some great object—to Hermione this meant happiness.' It is easy to recognise how such a movement took the form of a crusade, and indeed Hermione, the persecuted heroine of these two novels, surrounded by her neophytes and finally driven to a violent death, has all the attributes of a martyr, even of a Messiah.

The feminist movement did not arise without reason, and in the colonial setting of these novels it is possible to trace some of its local origins. Hermione's husband is a wealthy Australian farmer, popular and ostentatiously generous, but coarsened by an indulgent upbringing and the primitive life on his station—a life which the author describes with horrified fascination. Indeed, except for one tranquil episode in a European setting (devoted in the best feminist manner to prolonged debates on philosophy, religion, and art) page 112the books contain a succession of horrors. But they are not those of 'synthetic' melodrama, where a plot is deliberately manipulated to tantalise an audience. They belong rather to a kind of 'raw' melodrama which is based on genuine experience but not assimilated into the reasoned scheme of tragedy. It is evident that the author was a woman of refinement and education. Certainly no desire for notoriety or success based on a spurious 'frankness' impelled her to disregard the taboos of an outwardly puritanical society by writing of brutality, drunkenness, and the rest. It was as if the emotional disorders of the pioneer years, occasionally hinted at by a writer like Chamier, had in this generation and in this writer welled up to demand expression. Naturally too she was concerned with social reform, women's rights, the vote; for these were the obvious remedies which presented themselves to a politically minded age.

The literature of prohibition seldom reaches the moral heights of Mrs Grossman's feminist novels. In one of Jessie Mackay's later poems, 'Vigil', the movement takes on the dignity of a struggle between forces of good and evil:

'O my land, do you hear
The pure Presences pray
For your life, for your soul?
Is it "Yea"; is it "Nay"?'

And Kathleen Inglewood's novel Patmos (1905) occasionally reflects the same religious exaltation as page 113well as the rare virtue of humour. But more typical is a spirit of illiberal self-righteousness showing all the narrowness with none of the compensating depth of the traditions represented by The Pilgrim's Progress and The Scarlet Letter. The novels are tracts in fictional guise, stuffed with trite moral tags, often taking the form of those gross texts once exported in bulk from America, and their prose is the merest tissue of cliches. If they show any development, it is a steady decline from the vigorous opening years of the cause to the time when it had become a matter of political lobbying and nation-wide propaganda.

Ko Meri (1890) by Jessie Weston occupies an intermediate position between the fiction of causes and Anne Glenny Wilson's two novels of New Zealand 'polite' society. Its setting is a comfortable suburb of Auckland, where women occupy themselves in running households, paying calls, painting water-colours, and gossiping, much as they would have done in any English provincial town at about the same time. Yet they are provincials very remote from their centre, London, whither, as the author writes, their thoughts 'ever gravitate' as 'the Mecca of the race'. For them the visit of an English cousin, with his news of relatives 'at home', is an event to cause flutterings and heart-burnings and to be celebrated by an endless round of picnics and parties, while the return trip to England is not to be undertaken without lengthy counsels and elaborate preparation. But there are page 114signs of a local independence. Two figures of mild fun are a headmaster and his wife 'of course from England, facts which neither he nor his wife were likely to forget, nor allow anyone else to do so', and, contrasting with them, two New Zealand girls 'both hypersensitive about disparaging remarks with regard to the Colonies.'

However, the setting of the novel is purely incidental. This suburban group forgathers not only for social pleasures but, in the manner of the nineties, for the discussion of politics, of social reform, and above all, of religion. Robert Elsmere looms oppressively in the background, and Mr Everard, a broad Churchman, is a figure cut very close to Mrs Humphrey Ward's pattern. Prevented by doctrinal scruples from taking a parish, he is continually scourged by the thought of social evils and inequalities. He cannot enjoy the fresh beauty of New Zealand, for it serves only to remind him of 'the thousands in Great Britain pining for fresh air and sunshine, cooped up in dense cities and miserable always.' Then, among others, there is the half-caste Mary Balmain, sceptical about the conversion of her mother's people: 'the form of religion appeals to their fancy; the spirit they are utterly unable to comprehend.' Intertwined with the theme of religion is one more local in its origin, the problem of the dying Maori and the conviction that the half-caste would inevitably return to his tribe. Mary Balmain, the heroine, is the daughter of an page 115Englishman and a Maori woman, who had left the child in its infancy to live with her own people. Mary's guardians have given her a cultured and liberal upbringing which, with her wealth, has qualified her to take a place in Auckland society. She mixes on equal terms with girls of her own age and even wins the hand of a visiting English soldier. But she feels herself to be one of a doomed race and constantly reiterates this belief: 'the blood of the Maori and the pakeha will not mix. Where the one plants his foot, the other fades into nothingness.' It needs only a personal disaster, the death of her fiance, for her to lose her civilised veneer and return to her mother's tribe. To the entreaties of a friend she replies: ' "The night that has fallen upon my race has fallen upon me, and it is well that I should share the darkness with my own people." '

This conception of the Maoris as a people whose culture and possibly whose life were doomed to extinction was one which prevailed in the nineties. It may have influenced the founders of the Polynesian Society in 1892, and it is certainly implicit in Augustus Hamilton's monumental The Art Workmanship of the Maori Race in New Zealand, the publication of which began in 1896. As a literary theme it attracted many writers besides Jessie Weston. Jessie Mackay touched on it in 'The Spirit of the Rangatira', as she did on almost every problem of her time. With the half-caste theme it was used by Harry B. Vogel in A Maori Maid page 116(1898), a first novel far superior to its title and showing a promise that was never fulfilled. It appeared in Maoriland Stories (1895) and Tales of a Dying Race (1901), those sardonic sketches of the Maoris by A. A. Grace, son of the Taupo missionary. Again it coloured the whole life work of the painter C. F. Goldie, whose many studies of aged Maoris did much to perpetuate this conception in later years when the Maoris were no longer merely 'noble relics of a noble race' (to adapt the title of one of his portraits in the Auckland Gallery), but were gaining self-confidence and a new hold on life.

From these troubled waters it is a distance to the polite haven of Anne Glenny Wilson's two novels—Alice Lauder (1893) and Two Summers (1900)—which are concerned with the colonial gentry, Siegfried's 'snobbistes'. This small group of professional people and landowners, heirs of the squatocracy, is admirably described in the author's own words: 'Alicia's circle and atmosphere had seemed to him hitherto too much and too consciously a copy of the English original; they were much the same as would be met in any small English centre, but tinned, as it were, and of rather provincial flavour at that.' The description might also be applied to the novels themselves, which are colonial attempts at the comedy of manners. They contain a great deal of cultivated talk about music, politics, society, but the poise is uncertain and highly self-conscious. The pages are spattered with decayed page 117French words and phrases—noms de guerre, intime, manage de convenance, affaire de cœur—the insignia of a naive and uneasily assimilated culture. The characters do not exist in the social vacuum traditional in this kind of novel, but constantly break through into the underworld of domestic cares and financial difficulties, or rise to the plane where people love in vain, where parents or children die and are mourned. Or occasionally the writer forgets her English manner and, like any untutored colonial, writes rapturously of the scenery of her country—which she is yet never so indelicate as openly to name. It is a curiously hybrid thing, this colonial monde of the nineties, and its local elements are thrown into relief when its members encounter the English original, as they frequently do in these novels. The comments on the English and their institutions are often adversely critical and pungently expressed. Of the English social poise the author writes: 'It was the perfect understanding of an English county family of their own desirable situation in life, which gave them their effortless calm of demeanour, undisturbed by fruitless attempts at wit or entertainment', and of the refinement of their palate: 'As to the ordinary English mind the penalty of one day's cold soup is almost more than can be borne.' These comments are signs of differences and mild antagonisms felt even by the class of New Zealanders who deliberately modelled their lives on the English pattern. For the literature of the nineties, page 118like its legislation, is marked by a healthy spirit of independence, owing something to the Australian national movement, but more often, as in these novels, of independent origin. The years of abject deference to Europe were still to come.


The emergence from pioneering conditions is nowhere more evident than in the public recognition of art during the late eighties and early nineties. In the southern provinces, peacefully enjoying the prosperity brought by gold and refrigeration, formal teaching in public art schools had begun long before, as early as 1870 in Otago and eleven years later in Canterbury. The seventies and eighties had also seen art societies formed in the main centres. But towards the nineties there is perceptible a more concerted attempt to provide the amenities which had, to a great extent, been neglected in the previous fifty years. The Auckland Art Gallery, built to house Sir George Grey's collection, was opened in 1888. Two years later the city had its local school of art. In Wellington the School of Design enrolled its first pupil in 1886, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts was formed in 1889, and a gallery built in 1892. The art societies and schools of art in Canterbury and Otago were older foundations, but their first galleries belong to the same period—Canterbury's to 1889 and Otago's to 1890.

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At the close of its first half-century, New Zealand was at least equipped with the institutions of art. The problem now was to fill the galleries and to train New Zealand-born students. The older artists, even had they been capable of meeting these needs, were dead or nearing the end of their careers, and clearly the pride of a new state would not be satisfied solely by the importation of art from abroad. A new stimulus was wanted. By a remarkable coincidence this came in the year 1890 with the arrival from Europe of two professional artists, Petrus Van der Velden and James McLachlan Nairn.

Van der Velden, the more forceful personality of the two, came to New Zealand in his maturity, at the age of fifty-four, after a varied and moderately successful career as lithographer and artist in his native Holland. He settled in Christchurch, and for the first time New Zealand had experience not only of the Bohemian artist but of the man for whom art was life itself. The strenuous discipline of craftsmanship which he preached to his pupils he himself practised. In preparation for painting the 'Waterfall in the Otira Gorge' (1891), now in the Dunedin Gallery, he spent six months at the gorge and made scores of studies in pencil, charcoal, water-colours, and oils. He never again equalled this impressive (even overpowering) canvas, with its superb effects of light and shade and gushing water. Much of his New Zealand work seems to have suffered through the deterioration of its page 120pigments, some of his pictures are melodramatic potboilers, and others, such as the National Gallery 'Rock Study at Sumner', can be dismissed by all but professional artists as mere technical exercises. In fact, with the exception of the Dunedin 'Otira Gorge' and a smaller study of the same subject in the National Gallery, his New Zealand work does not approach in quality the pleasing examples of his early painting in the Robert McDougall Art Gallery and elsewhere in Christchurch. When he came to New Zealand he was perhaps too old and too set in his ways to make great direct contributions to its art; but this very fact of age and experience, combined with his passionate and infectious enthusiasm, qualified him to act as the mentor of young artists. More than any other single person he made Christchurch the art centre of New Zealand, and he established a tradition of landscape painting and portraiture which has been continued by such Canterbury artists as Sydney L. Thompson, A. Elizabeth and Cecil F. Kelly, and Archibald F. Nicoll.

It was chiefly through Nairn that impressionism came to New Zealand. A member of the Glasgow School, he emigrated at the age of thirty-one and settled down in Wellington as instructor in art at the School of Design. His was a more placid temperament than Van der Velden's, reflecting itself in the even competence of his work. If he never rose to the heights of the 'Otira Gorge', on the other hand he

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James Nairn: Hutt River (1892)

James Nairn: Hutt River (1892)

Petrus Van Der Velden: Otira Gorge (c. 1891)

Petrus Van Der Velden: Otira Gorge (c. 1891)

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did not perpetrate anything as bad as the lowering, bilious landscapes of Van der Velden's weaker moods. Nairn was more concerned with reproducing effects of atmosphere and sunlight than with landscapes as such, and the influence of the impressionists and their associates (notably Corot) is normally more evident in his paintings than that of the New Zealand scenes which formed their nominal subjects. Even the figures he introduced into his favourite rural idylls were more nearly related to a European peasantry than to colonial farm-labourers. In these respects he changed little during the fourteen years between his arrival in New Zealand and his death. The National Gallery's 'A Summer Idyll' (1903), for instance, was conceived in exactly the same spirit as the McDougall Gallery's 'Hoeing the Crop' which belongs to his first years in the colony. His only work (at least in public galleries) with something like a native complexion is 'Changing Pastures' (1899) in the National Gallery, though here the dry clarity of the atmosphere and the gaunt, tattered trees seem to suggest the Australian landscape rather than our own.

Thus it is less as interpreters of New Zealand than as teachers that both Van der Velden and Nairn are important in the history of New Zealand art. With their arrival ended the phase of amateurs expressing themselves chiefly in water-colour and pencil sketch. From the nineties onwards New Zealand art becomes more varied, more sophisticated, more in touch with page 122movements abroad. This was, of course, due to social conditions rather than to the efforts of two individuals; the same development would have occurred without Van der Velden and Nairn. What they did was to hasten that development and to direct the untrained enthusiasm of young students into channels more profitable than it might otherwise have taken.


The painters of the first New Zealand-born generation were perhaps more fortunate than the writers. A training in the elements of art is more easily imparted and acquired than instruction in the writing of prose and verse; and in any case no counterparts of Van der Velden and Nairn appeared on the New Zealand literary scene. Young writers were forced to work out their own salvation—in what manner and against what handicaps may be judged by a glance at The New Zealand Illustrated Magazine. This was founded in 1899 by a group of university graduates and public men in response to an 'often expressed desire amongst patriotic literary men and general readers to have a Magazine with a distinctive New Zealand colouring, one which will have for its aims the encouragement of the best Literary and Artistic Talent which we have in our midst.…'

There is a melancholy interest in the early numbers of the Illustrated, with its eager theorisings about a national culture. New Zealand had come to the page 123'parting of the ways', so ran a manifesto in the first number. The self-consciousness of the nation had already asserted itself in 'the political sphere', but as yet its 'literary instinct' had been content to express itself through the forms of the old world. Still, the conditions for a literary renascence seemed 'peculiarly favourable'. New Zealand's pre-eminent natural beauty was there 'to train unconsciously eye and mind to a perception of the beautiful'. Her insular position favoured the development of a national type and 'that artistic creativeness which is the outcome of a strongly-impressed character.' She had a past 'not without its dangers and its honourable triumphs'. She had been continuously in contact with a remote stage of human development. Two things were required before a New Zealand literature would burst into flower: a public educated to the possibilities of a New Zealand literature and a medium in which the creators of that literature could exercise their powers. These needs were to be met by the New Zealand Illustrated.

It will be seen that the Illustrated took a serious view of its obligations, and despite the garishness of its cover and the general tastelessness of its format, the first volume makes a commendable showing. The chief defects are an academic heaviness in the articles and a flaccid sentimentality in the illustrations and verse. But the magazine soon lowered the exalted tone of its opening issues and degenerated into a page 124popular review crammed with short stories, articles, and snippets, selected—if they were selected—on principles of indulgent catholicity. If this were the wine of a new literature, one can only remark, it was being poured into oddly assorted bottles, many of them of doubtful quality. The only contributions of permanent value were articles on anthropology and history; and it is significant that of the many young writers represented in the Illustrated few except the anthropologists, the economists, and the historians (among them James Hight, Elsdon Best, Guy H. Scholefield, James Cowan, and Johannes C. Andersen) were later to find a permanent niche in New Zealand letters. New Zealand had a good deal to offer such writers, but little for aspiring poets and novelists.

What has been said of the Illustrated applies, in greater or less degree, to all the literature of the nineties and the adjacent years—to the work of Arthur H. Adams, once the hope and later the disappointment of New Zealand letters, to the confident rhymes of young university students, to the verses of those who wrote in the shadow of Jessie Mackay. In all the work of the 'Young New Zealanders', with the exception of Reeves's prose writings, there are signs of prematurity, as of people urgently striving to say something but without adequate means of self-expression. The writers were enthusiastic, often deeply in earnest, but they lacked poise and self-discipline. Moreover, they did not know enough. They theorised in terms of a page 125local, indigenous culture when expanding communications were abolishing, or at least modifying, that conception. They were too apt to assume that the beauty of their surroundings would, spontaneously and without effort on their part, be reflected in their prose and verse. Their minds were immature, their work provincial in its form and outlook. The fact was they lived in a society still inchoate. Unlike their fathers, they had not enjoyed the advantages of an upbringing in the old world, with its more stable traditions. The advantages of New Zealand were as yet of a different kind and not immediately helpful to young writers. So the literary movement petered out in frustration and indifference, and not until the nineteen-thirties was the clamour of nationalism again heard. For the next three decades literary New Zealand, like political and economic New Zealand, aspired only to be the most devoted offspring of the mother country, the least indistinguishable from her in form and outlook. Throughout this period the legislation of the nineties grew in esteem, while the parallel literary movement was forgotten, or remembered only in the figures of Pember Reeves and Jessie Mackay.

* The year 1891 is memorable for a number of reasons: it saw the Liberals take office, the New Zealand Rugby Union founded, and (more fortuitously) the publication of Burke's Colonial Gentry.