Colonial Constructs: European images of Maori, 1840-1914

Colonial Constructs: European images of Maori, 1840-1914

by Leonard Bell

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How did the European settler perceive Māori? What images of Māori society and culture did European artists create for their distant audiences? What preconceptions and aesthetic models lay behind early European depictions of Māori? These are some of the questions explored by art historian Leonard Bell in this major study of the relationship between the visual representation of Māori and the ideology of colonialism. He explores the complex and unbalanced cultural interchange between Europeans and Māori in nineteenth-century New Zealand, in addition to showing how the great range and variety of pictures often revealed more about the artists – and their society and its attitudes – than they did about Māori themselves. This lively and readable book is well illustrated with examples of the artists' work and will be an important contribution to the understanding of colonial New Zealand and the role played by the artist in expressing and creating cultural patterns.

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ISBN-13: 9781775580492
Publisher: Auckland University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 308
File size: 14 MB
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About the Author

Leonard Bell is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Auckland and the author of many books including Marti Friedlander (AUP, 2009). His research and writing has been published in New Zealand, Australia, Britain, the USA, Germany and the Czech Republic. He has held fellowships at the National Gallery of American Art, Washington DC, and at the Yale Center for British Art; he was the Daphne Mayo Visiting Professor, University of Queensland in 2005.

Read an Excerpt

Colonial Constructs

European Images of Maori 1840â"1914

By Leonard Bell

Auckland University Press

Copyright © 1992 Leonard Bell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77558-049-2


The 1840s and Early 1850s: G. F. Angas, S. C. Brees, R. A. Oliver, J. J. Merrett, C. Clarke, W. Beetham, and J. W. Carmichael

The South Australian Register claimed in 1845 that George French Angas (1822-86) was 'the first professional artist who has ever visited New Zealand and wandered amongst the savages' with the 'object' of illustrating the place and people; 'fields of labour which no artist has ever trod before'. That was not so. For instance, another independent travelling artist, Augustus Earle, was a notable predecessor, though apart from the reproductions after his work in his A Narrative of a Nine Months' Residence in New Zealand (1832) and Sketches Illustrative of the Native Inhabitants of New Zealand (1838) Earle's watercolours and oils of Maori were not publicly known. Angas, though, with the possible exception of Joseph Merrett, had 'seen more of the country than any other artist'. He was in New Zealand for only three months in 1844, yet he travelled extensively, mainly in the North Island, visiting remote interior places, such as Taupo, which were little known to Europeans. From these experiences Angas produced the largest body of representations of Maori to be exhibited or published throughout the nineteenth century. Even if recognised as art, his small scale watercolours and lithographs, supposedly 'delineating the characteristic features of the countries and people' he visited, would not have been seen as fine art. Ethnographical illustration and the illustrated travel book, the genres in which he worked, did not have the status of oil paintings.

Given the quantity of Angas's representations of Maori and aspects of Maori culture it is not within the scope of this book to examine his works one by one. Rather, while referring to individual pieces, I will consider his works in terms of the packages in which they were presented to the public — their uses, their primary themes and characteristics, how they were seen at the time.

Angas claimed to have come to New Zealand on a romantic impulse. He elsewhere described himself as a 'disinterested observer, who went to the Antipodes actuated by an ardent admiration of the grandeur and loveliness of nature in her wildest aspect'. Be that as it may, letters from his father to George Grey, then Governor of South Australia, and an article in the Southern Cross and New Zealand Guardian in 1844 indicate that Angas was primarily in New Zealand to gather material for publication. The Atheneum was to describe Angas as an artist 'who sought the Antipodes for subjects in which to exercise his professional skills', and who 'returned home' after 'he had done enough for the gratification of English curiosity'.

Angas made drawings on the spot, though generally he worked up his watercolours later, both in New Zealand and after he had departed. It has also been shown that he made copies from drawings of Maori customs by Merrett. Angas did not publicly exhibit his works in New Zealand, though they had been seen by some colonists. For instance, the Southern Cross noted that:

... we have no doubt Mr Angus' [sic] pencil will tend to convey to our friends at home a more accurate idea of the scenery, the native population, and their domestic and social habits, than anything which has heretofore appeared ... the native costume is admirably done ... he has also taken sketches of everything remarkable about their settlements, their domestic dwellings, their fortifications, their monuments, canoes, weapons of war, and domestic utensils — in short his pencil has recorded everything that is worth knowing about the New Zealanders.

And Mr Forsaith, Protector of Aborigines at Kawhia, wrote to Angas:

The New Zealander in my opinion has never been correctly portrayed before, and the very striking likenesses you have obtained of Te Whero Whero, Te Paki, Te Karaka, Muriwhenua, Te Awaitaia and other principal chiefs will enable the English public to form a better idea of their character and costume than from any of the unsuccessful attempts which have hitherto been made to depict them.

Angas made this claim for himself too — a means of promoting his work.

Angas exhibited his Maori (and South Australian) sketches in Australia in 1845 — in Adelaide in June, under the patronage of Governor Grey, in the Legislative Council Chambers, and then for a month in Sydney. The shows were popular and were reviewed positively. Angas recorded 'about 1266' viewers in Sydney. The Southern Australian described the sketches of Maori as 'striking and picturesque ... we could not conceive of a more accurate and complete picture of a nation than is afforded by the production of Mr Angas' pencil'. The Sydney Morning Chronicle announced: '... a more splendid exhibition, or more deserving of public patronage, we have not seen in Sydney'.

In London, at a time when one person exhibitions with admission charges were relatively uncommon, Angas's Australian and New Zealand sketches were presented first to the Queen, then exhibited briefly at the British and Foreign Institution, and most notably for three months from 6 April 1846 at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (accompanied by an extensive catalogue). There, 'this novel exhibition ... proved one of the great Easter attractions, a success which augured well for the improved intelligence of sightseers'. One hundred and thirty-nine of the two hundred and seventy paintings exhibited were of New Zealand subjects, of which eighty-two were portraits of Maori individuals and groups, the remainder being representations of customs and activities, architecture, artefacts, pa scenes, and some landscapes. With the possible exception of William Burford's Panorama of the Bay of Islands, shown in 1838, which was based on Earle's sketches, nothing remotely comparable had been exhibited in Europe before. The New Zealand Journal reviewer opined: 'So skilfully has the enterprise of Mr Angas been directed ... that he left little to be reaped by any successor.' Angas himself wrote of his 'success in this country, and the flattering reception my works have met with'.

The publication of two books in 1847 completed Angas's marketing of his watercolours of Maori and his New Zealand experiences. In Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand, dedicated to Grey, now Governor of New Zealand, he recounted his travels, what he had seen, where he had been, and made observations about the place of Maori in relation to colonisation and European civilisation. The other book, The New Zealanders Illustrated, comprises sixty plates of coloured lithographs, in some instances with more than one image to a plate, each plate accompanied by a short descriptive letterpress. It appeared in ten parts, each costing a guinea. The lithographs, forty-six portraits and figure studies, the remainder being depictions of artefacts, architecture, pa scenes, and customs with smallish figures, and the occasional landscape, were a selection from the watercolours. Four people participated in the lithographic reproduction — his former teacher Waterhouse Hawkins, Louisa Hawkins, J. W. Giles, and Angas himself. Angas's close involvement in, perhaps supervision of, the production, suggests that the manner in which Maori were represented in the lithographs would have fitted his prescription. Comparisons between the watercolours and the lithographs after them show that the latter generally followed the former closely, even if the process of lithographic reproduction introduced a greater refinement in line and smoothness of surface.

In Britain, Angas's watercolour exhibition was reviewed primarily in terms of its operation as the repository of 'a mass of ethnological and geographical information of the very highest interest'. According to the Art Union: 'In this collection we read a history of the inhabitants — nothing appertaining to them has been forgotten ... thus ... affording a key to their habits, customs and institutions.' Angas's stated intention was 'to represent the natives and the scenery of New Zealand ... with unexaggerated truth and fidelity'. The watercolours (and the lithographs too) are characterised by meticulous attention to detail in the rendering of carving, architecture, dress, and other artefacts. The Rev. J. Morgan, a missionary at Otawhao, wrote that Angas's drawings of 'native carvings and architecture ... are very careful and exact'. Angas's works are generally regarded by anthropologists as accurate and reliable records of Maori material culture. For example, Sidney Moko Mead has written that 'with the documentation provided by Angas ... it is thus possible to build up a fairly clearcut picture of architectural style, painted pattern and carving style of the Tainui tribes of the 1840s ... what is known about architecture and decorative art in the 1840s is, with few exceptions, based on where Angas went and what he recorded'. That is, the work does have a definite documentary value; Angas being one of those artists in this period of European colonial expansion whose work was geared to the recording of the facts of topography, flora, fauna, artefacts, and architecture in non-European places.

However Angas's imagings were far from being only records of the actual. The degree of 'truth' and 'fidelity' of Angas's representations of people is a complex matter, raising the thorny problem of what constitutes a likeness. It has been noted that in the mid nineteenth century, likeness or truth to the natural could be attributed to the most schematic and simplified renderings of facial appearance. It was also conventional to claim that representations of things foreign in travel books, however obviously fanciful they were, were 'faithful' or 'lifelike'. Certainly to modern eyes Angas's delineations of facial features in his watercolour portraits might look crude (Fig. 1). Yet they were described by Europeans in New Zealand as 'very good' and 'striking' likenesses, even though with few exceptions they would not be convincing as physiognomic studies isolating unmistakably Maori features.

The absence of physiognomic realism is particularly marked in his portrayals of women and children. This can be related to the schemata for figure portrayal he adopted — schemata for which close attention to individual facial features was not an essential requirement. Angas presented the majority of women and children in a standardised and uniform manner, 'artistically and tastefully grouped', with little or no sense of ethnic or personal differentiation: 'One lass reminded us partly of a figure in Sir Joshua Reynolds' Infant Academy, and partly of a whole length by Wheatley. Some others have a cast of the lower Spanish characters.'

The portraits of men more frequently include some individuation in the rendering of facial features, with a number of the figures presented in a seemingly earthy, 'warts and all' manner. For example, Angas's Te Uepehi (S.A.M.) has a huge, ugly, and unsightly wen on his forehead, his Hurihanga (Fig. 2), bloodshot eyes and a stubbled chin, and his Te Rauparaha (S.A.M.), a distinctive aquiline nose and overhanging upper lip. Yet, despite the occasional flattened noses and thickened lips, the Maoriness of Angas's adult males was still signified primarily by dress, darkish skin colour, title, and catalogue description. Details of dress in particular were stressed by Angas, whether it was the grubby, nondescript old blanket of the old 'savage' Rangituatea (S.A.M.), or the splendid cloaks of chiefs such as Te Awaitaia and Te Moanaroa (Private Collection), to the extent that the figures can seem primarily props on which picturesque and ethnological information is hung.

In fact Angas's figures could image more — ideas about social type, cultural status, and the character of Maori. For instance, contrast his portrayals of Maori bearing the marks of savagery with those showing the attributes of civilisation. For Angas 'dishevelled hair and grizzly beard', for example, could denote the savage, while moko, which he considered 'barbarous', as in the watercolour of the 'villainous' Hurihanga, denoted the alleged violence of savage life. In contrast, European dress, carefully groomed hair, and the absence of moko, as in the portrait of Josiah Taonui (Fig. 3), signified the adoption of European customs: 'He was much too attracted to the customs of the Pakeha ever to disfigure himself with a moko.' The depicted moko on once savage Maori, now Christianised or friendly, are generally tidier and less obtrusive.

The watercolour exhibition in London also operated as entertainment, picturesque and sensational, as did most of the ethnological exhibitions that were so frequent and popular in that city in the mid nineteenth century. The sheer novelty of Angas's Maori, besides the colourful and bizarre aspects of their appearance and behaviour as depicted and described in the catalogue, would have rendered them exotic — a point that had been made in Sydney, where the Examiner recommended 'all lovers of the beautiful and strange to visit this singular exhibition'.

The catalogue, besides identifying the subjects, artefacts, and activities, contains anecdotes and background information about the history and habits of Maori — material that would have predisposed the viewer to see depicted Maori in certain ways. Though a few of the entries noted the increasing Christianisation of Maori and instances of Maori friendship towards Europeans, the material primarily emphasised adventure, extreme violence, mystery, the astonishing, the bizarre, the quaint, and the sentimental — that is, the stuff of popular entertainment and melodrama. Even Tamati Waka Nene, an ally of the British in the war with Hone Heke in 1845-46, is characterised in the catalogue by a sensational and extraordinary act of violence: 'Some years ago a chief of East Cape killed a relation of Nene's; he went to the Pah of the chief, attended only by one slave, called him by name, and accusing him of murder, deliberately levelled his gun and shot him dead. Nene walked away; no-one touched him; all were paralysed.'

As an ensemble, the paintings and catalogue constituted a show in word and image, both instructive, in its accumulation of ethnological facts, and entertaining. For instance, accompanying a painting of a pretty girl, Ko Amai (location unknown), the catalogue imparted a charming and peculiar titbit of information: 'New Zealand women ... bring up little pigs as pets, which become so tame, that they nestle in their garments.' In contrast, Ngatata (location unknown), a Port Nicholson chief, is characterised as a man with six toes on his left foot, who 'in his earlier days took an astonishing delight in roasting children alive and then devouring their flesh'. Accounts of 'cannibal feasts held ... for days' and of a chief 'with eight wives' whose person was so sacred that 'no slave may touch him under pain of death' would have contributed a melodramatic tone to the presentation, a tone that could be related to contemporary theatrical entertainment in London. For instance, the play Moko Wairua, a New Zealand Captive, mixed a lurid sensationalism with a delineation of the 'Customs, Habits, Manners ... of the Natives', both 'interesting' and 'instructive' to the 'Public in general', but particularly to those 'about to emigrate ... and locate in these Settlements'.

The choice of venue for the exhibition highlighted its operation as entertainment. The Egyptian Hall was not a museum or art gallery, even if occasional exhibitions of paintings were held there. Though it had been built in 1812 as a museum of natural history to house William Bullock's collection, most of which came from the South Seas, Africa, and the Americas, by the 1840s it was being put to different uses. It had become the major mass entertainment venue in Piccadilly, featuring bizarre and exotic displays and performances, such as 'living skeletons', Siamese twins, midgets, clowns, magicians, besides troupes of 'savages' from various parts of the globe. The Hall's natural history museum origins still lingered on in the ethnological exhibitions of the 1840s, though these were criticised for their carnival-like presentation. The most famous ethnological exhibition was George Catlin's American Indian show of 1841. Indeed, Catlin provided a prime model for Angas's marketing of Maori in London. Besides exhibiting paintings, he published two books on Indians in the early 1840s — Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians (1841) and his Indian Portfolio of twenty-five hand-coloured engravings (1844). Catlin too was both a serious artist and naturalist, and his paintings were recognised for their ethnological value. Yet he was also a travelling showman seeking mass audiences and financial success, who was all too ready to exploit the popular taste for the exotic and bizarre. His exhibition featured a group of living Indians, who in the Egyptian Hall milieu would have had a curiosity value akin to midgets. Angas's show in turn was augmented by a Maori youth, James Pomara, described as the 'living attraction' who 'excited considerable interest among savants'.


Excerpted from Colonial Constructs by Leonard Bell. Copyright © 1992 Leonard Bell. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1 The 1840s and Early 1850s: G. F. Angas, S. C. Brees, R. A. Oliver, J. J. Merrett, C. Clarke, W. Beetham, and J. W. Carmichael,
2 Gilfillan and Strutt,
3 Representations of Maori by Artists Active in New Zealand in the 1860s,
4 Late Nineteenth-/Early Twentieth-Century Historical Paintings,
5 Lindauer's Paintings of Maori Customs and Legend,
6 Wilhelm Dittmer,
Select Bibliography,

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