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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 3, 2000

Isaac Coates: Artist

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Isaac Coates: Artist

The Bett Collection at Nelson Provincial Museum holds five portraits painted in the 1840s which were for many years part of a mystery regarding the identity of the artist. The watercolour portraits are of Te Rauparaha, his wife Pipi Kutia, Te Rangihaeata, his wife Te Rongo and Piki Warra, a chief from Motueka. They are part of a larger series depicting at least 19 Maori men and women who were all associated with the central region of New Zealand. Multiple copies were made of some of the subjects, and altogether the location of around 52 of the portraits is known. Over the years partial sets were obtained by institutions in the USA, New Zealand and Australia, the most complete being the 17 held by the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachussetts.

In 1989 the Alexander Turnbull Library purchased a set of 19 of the portraits from a dealer in Boston, at a cost of $106,000, and this was now the most complete set held. It contained one portrait from the series, that of Te Puni, which had never been seen before. Interest in the puzzle of who the artist had been was renewed, and the Turnbull's Curator of Drawings and Prints, Marian Minson, carried out extensive research which was published in the Turnbull Library Record of May 1990.

The usual suspects such as Heaphy and Fox had been eliminated by the main clue to the artist's identity, a monogram which appeared on some of the portraits in the form of a Q containing the initials JC or IC. The Q was dismissed as having been merely a flourish by the artist, and the monograms on two of the portraits held privately were considered to show a particularly clear JC, so the research was focused there.

A number of New Zealand Company immigrants had these initials, but none could be linked with the paintings. John Sylvanus Cotterell of Nelson was one, but his handwriting ruled him out. The paintings themselves provided some information about the artist. The high quality of the works, and the fact that captions were written in a beautiful script, with perfect spelling and grammar, indicated that whoever it was had been well educated.

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Engravings of the Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata portraits were advertised for sale in Hobart in October 1843, with the information that they had been taken from life by Mr Cootes, artist. James Cootes, a whaler, was traced but eliminated, due to the fact that he had been illiterate. Engravings of the two chiefs were also published in 1844 in the Illustrated London News, with an accompanying article which said that they had been done from copies forwarded from Nelson by Mr J. Greaves. Joseph Greaves was the New Zealand Company solicitor in Nelson, but his handwriting in a letterbook did not match with that on the captions.

There were also some clues in the historical time frame. It was obvious that some of the paintings had to have been done before the affray at Tuamarina in June 1843, because Te Rongo was killed on that occasion. Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata were in Nelson with a large contingent of Ngati Toa tribespeople from the 11th to the 14th of March 1843, to protest the surveying of the Wairau. The first portraits of the two chiefs and their wives may have been done during this time.

Three of the subjects were from Queen Charlotte Sound and they also had to have been done prior to June 1843, as Maori living in the Sounds departed en masse after the events at Tuamarina. Of the remaining subjects, five were from the pa at Wakapuaka, three from Motueka one from Massacre Bay and three from the Wellington area.

The possibility that the artist had been just a passing visitor to Nelson was thought unlikely, because of the way detailed local names such as Wakapuaka had been used. The available evidence seemed to indicate that a Nelson resident had done the paintings in the first half of 1843, and then later made further copies as demand arose.

Marian Minson had visited the Museum Library in the course of her research, and I was aware that the solution to the puzzle probably lay in the resources held there. In 1991 I came across an 1845 jury listing for Isaac Coates, artist, Nile Street. It was one of those moments when the world stands still. I knew in a flash that I had cracked the mystery, but more substantial proof was required, so I began searching out all the references to Isaac Coates that I could find, and he began to emerge from the shadows.

No passenger arrival listing was found, but he was in Nelson by 2.30 pm on the afternoon of 2nd February 1843. This information came courtesy of Ruth Allan, in her account of the search for a shorter route from Nelson to the south, where she mentions a trip made up the Maitai Valley by Isaac page 42Coates and William Bishop. The details were contained in the Nelson Examiner of 11th February 1843, under the heading Source of the Maitai.

"Sir: Thinking the following remarks on an excursion to the source of the Maitai River will be interesting to some of your readers, we beg to offer them for insertion in your paper, Yours respectfully, Isaac Coates, William Bishop.

Feb 2nd. At half past two pm we started from Nelson, and pursued the course of the river till seven, when we encamped for the night on a small islet; having made little progress, in consequence of the swollen state of the river which obliged us to force a difficult passage through the thick brushwood, made more disagreeable by a constant rain which fell after four o'clock".

They returned to Nelson on 5th February, having climbed a barren mountain between the two branches of the river. To me, the most interesting part of their account was a reference to a fine shrub bearing a profusion of blossom of a magnificent vermilion colour, which I felt sure was the observation of an artist.

The Examiner helped again in October 1843, when it published an advertisement for a Russian leather pocketbook. "Lost or stolen on or about 30th September, containing a deposit receipt of the Union Bank of Australia for fifty pounds. The above being of no use to any but the loser, a reward of two pounds will be paid to any person returning the same, and any person detaining it after this notice will be prosecuted. Isaac Coates."

A year later The Examiner published the notice of his marriage. "On 29th November 1844 by Rev. John Aldred, Isaac Coates, son of George Coates Esquire of Smelt House, Norton, Durham to Margaret Catherine Cockburn, daughter of John Cockburn Esquire of Brookfield near Ballintra, Donegal, Ireland."

The jury listing for him had been published on 8th February 1845. In April 1845 Mr Coates was among those nominated to a Committee of Safety at a public meeting called after alarm among the populace at news of the sacking of Kororareka. Workers volunteered their time on 10th April, repairing the bastions of Fort Arthur and deepening the surrounding ditches.

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The last of the references found at the Museum was a passenger listing of the arrival of Mr and Mrs Coates in Port Adelaide on 21st September 1845 on the Palmyra from Nelson. The ship had left Nelson on 21st August. The information gathered thus far established that Coates had been in Nelson during the time that the portraits had been painted. The final proof came in a visit to the Methodist Church archives in Christchurch, where the marriage certificate was held. His signature matched the monogram and the captions on the paintings, and Isaac Coates was officially accepted as the mystery artist.

At the time of their marriage Isaac was 35 years of age and Margaret was 18. Margaret Cockburn matched her husband in one respect, in that there is no passenger listing for her arrival in Nelson. She may have been related to Sarah and William Cockburn who arrived on the Phoebe in March 1843 with their married sister Elizabeth Jones. The Cockburns were from Brookfield, Ballintra, which was also the address given for Margaret.

Information began to come from further afield. John and Hillary Mitchell found an illuminating reference while doing their own research at the Hocken Library in Dunedin. It came in the papers of Frederick Tuckett, who had been the New Zealand Company's chief surveyor in Nelson. Tuckett was in Adelaide in 1845 and wrote a letter to his brother in England on the 13th December which said, among other things:

"I have been able to assist Isaac Coates who had arrived here with his young and very helpless wife from Nelson and is obtaining a precarious subsistence by executing likenesses. I can hardly style him a portrait painter, although he has skill. He has much improved in appearance and habits since his marriage, notwithstanding that his wife was remarkedly destitute of all the qualifications of an efficient housewife. I cannot doubt but that he has improved in character and that this is the foundation of the amelioration in all respects."

An intriguing cameo. Tuckett also commented that Coates had lost goods sent by his friends in England in the wreck of the Tyne, which had sunk off Wellington on 4th July 1845. This loss may have been the catalyst for the couple's departure from Nelson the following month. The Mortlock Library in Adelaide found a directory listing for Isaac Coates in Halifax Street there in 1847.

The Durham Record Office was an important source of information. It holds the Wallis Collection of papers relating to prominent Quaker families page 44in the north east of England, including that of Coates. The papers contain a history of the Coates family which was compiled by Joseph Goreen of Tunbridge Wells, a family descendant and archivist, and completed in 1906.

Isaac Coates was the sixth of eight children of George Coates and Hannah Whitwell, and was bom on 26th January 1808. George Coates was an Elder in the Society of Friends and was regarded as a most worthy man. The couple had married in March 1800 and their children were all bom at Norton, which is now a suburb of Stockton on Tees. Isaac Coates went into business in Darlington as a bookseller, stationer, printer and bookbinder. His stock included a select collection of polite literature, stationery articles of the best quality and artists' materials. An advertisement for the firm offered printing and bookbinding executed with elegance, correctness and despatch.

He later became principal partner in the firm of Coates and Farmer, printers and booksellers of Darlington. Goreen describes Isaac Coates as a very handsome, clever and active man. In 1832 he played an energetic part in the successful election campaign of Joseph Pease, the first Quaker to sit in the House of Commons. The history tells of an incident on 10 August 1842 when the workshops of Coates and Farmer were struck by lightning at about 8.45 pm during a terrific thunderstorm, with the resulting fire being extinguished by engines. Unfortunately there is no mention of when Coates left England, merely a statement that he later emigrated to New Zealand. It must have been about then however, to allow time for him to have reached Nelson by February 1843.

A daughter, Sarah, was bom to Isaac and Margaret Coates in Adelaide in January 1846 but, sadly, mother and daughter both died there in January 1848. Isaac Coates was in Melbourne, with his kinsman William Robson of Darlington, when the explorers Burke and Wills set out on their epic journey in August 1860. He had returned to England by 1872, when he married Ann Heath of Bitterne, Hampshire. Isaac Coates died at Bitterne in 1878 at the age of 70.

He was no longer a Quaker at the time of his death, but his earlier connection with the Society of Friends does throw light on some aspects of the story. It explains Frederick Tuckett's reference to Coates in the letter to his brother, as he was from a Quaker family, and it may have been a factor in Coates' decision to come to Nelson, as there were a number of Quakers among the early settlers.

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In addition, it may have a bearing on how the portraits came to be done in the first place. The Society of Friends in England had concerns about the treatment of indigenous peoples by European colonists and established an Aborigines Protection Committee. The Committee contacted John Sylvanus Cotterell, a Quaker living in Nelson, for information about the civil and religious state of Maori living in this area. Cotterell visited Maori communities to gather the requested data, and may have been accompanied by Coates who then took the opportunity to execute the portraits. One version of the portrait of Te Rangihaeata includes a caption by Coates which states that those killed at the Wairau had been his intimate friends, and Cotterell was among them.