Title: Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Author: F. Bruce Sampson

Publication details: Reed Methuen, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: F. Bruce Sampson

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Early New Zealand Botanical Art

VII — Martha King ~ First Resident Botanical Artist

page 83

Martha King ~ First Resident Botanical Artist

Little is known of the early life of Martha King, who arrived in Wellington on board the New Zealand Company's immigrant ship, London, in December 1840, aged thirty-seven. She was accompanied by her older sister, Maria, and her brother, Samuel Popham King, and his wife, Mary Jane. The Kings were Irish Socinians, a sect that held to the views of two sixteenth-century Italian rationalist theologians named Socinus, who denied the existence of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. The King family had purchased land in Wanganui, which had been acquired by Colonel William Wakefield, and in February 1842 they boarded the Elizabeth to travel from Wellington to Wanganui.

For a time the family lived in tents while Samuel built two whare-style houses. Within a year of their arrival, the two sisters opened the first primary school in Wanganui in one of these houses. Maria and Martha's school was popular, and the sisters tempered a determined teaching approach with kindness. They were obviously well educated and instilled in their pupils a taste for reading.

Martha King's abilities as a botanical artist must have been apparent soon after her arrival in New Zealand, for in September 1842 the Wellington Horticultural and Botanical Society commissioned her, for "a sum not exceeding £10", to prepare "two sets of drawings of the most interesting indigenous botanical specimens". One set was for the directors of the New Zealand Company and the other for the London Horticultural Society. Martha was clearly a swift and highly skilled artist, and by January 1843 the two sets of forty drawings were completed. The New Zealand Company's set reached London in September 1843 and "excited universal admiration".

Five of the paintings were reproduced as lithographs in Edward Jerningham Wakefield's Illustrations to Adventure in New Zealand, published by Smith, Elder & Co., London, in 1845. The lithographs were prepared by the firm of Day & Haghe, "lithographers to the Queen". The Illustrations shortly preceded Wakefield's Adventure in New Zealand (John Murray, London, 1845), which has been described as still the most readable and spontaneous narrative of English settlement in New Zealand. Some copies page 84 of the Illustrations were sold uncoloured, and other more expensive copies had hand-coloured lithographs. Some of the latter had only Martha King's botanical plates in colour. A facsimile of the fully coloured work, in an edition of 500 copies, was published by Reed, Wellington, in 1968. The botanical paintings consisted of the titoki (Alectryon excelsus) in fruit, tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa) in bud and fruit, and tutu (Coriaria arborea), rata (Metrosideros robusta) and flax (Phormium tenax), all in flower. The illustrations are beautifully executed; the colours are surprisingly accurate and the flax, in particular, is extremely lifelike.

In December 1847 the Kings left Wanganui for New Plymouth. Samuel was appointed registrar of births, deaths and marriages and later postmaster in New Plymouth, and Maria, Martha and their sister-in-law Mary established a school. The King family became prominent members of New Plymouth society and were noted for their sociability. The parties and dances they organised were very popular, and Mary King was an accomplished pianist at these functions. Samuel King was active in public matters, being a foundation member of the committee of the Taranaki Institute and a trustee of the New Plymouth Savings Bank.

Martha King was a talented gardener and on her death in 1897 their garden was given to the New Plymouth Recreation Grounds Board.

In 1981 the set of forty watercolours (and one leaf print) that had been sent to the New Zealand Company in 1843 returned to New Zealand. It was purchased by the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, from the Library of the Royal Commonwealth Society in London. The paintings had become the possession of one of the directors of the New Zealand Company, George Frederick Young, who passed them on to his son, Sir Frederick Young. He donated them to the Royal Colonial Institute, now the Royal Commonwealth Society. Martha King had not signed the paintings and it was not until photographs of the works were sent to the Turnbull Library that the identity of the artist was established. Identification was possible because the paintings included the originals of four of the five plants depicted in Wakefield's Illustrations. The forty paintings and sixteen pencil sketches of scenes of Wellington, Wanganui and New Plymouth, dated from 1841 to 1859, also in the Turnbull Library, are the only known surviving examples of Martha King's work.

As the plates demonstrate, Martha King was a superb botanical artist. It is not known whether she received formal art training, but her paintings are clearly not the work of a neophyte. They are well balanced, accurate in detail and colour, and clean and uncluttered. The high standards they set have not been eclipsed by any subsequent resident botanical artist.

Ten other botanical paintings by Martha King have been recently reproduced and these accompany Moira Long's article "Martha King, Botanical Artist" in The Summer Book 2. A New Zealand Miscellany (1983). I am greatly indebted to Moira Long for permitting me to make use of material in her article for this chapter.