Capital Characters : Wellington Portraits from Then to Now

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150 years ago, on 26 July 1865, Wellington became the capital of New Zealand. What better way to lead off the commemorations than an exhibition celebrating the people of Wellington, from 1840 to the present, through the arts of portraiture?

That is what I have set out to do in Capital Characters: Wellington Portraits from Then to Now, my new exhibition at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery. It presents a very wide range of Wellingtonians. portrayed through many different kinds of portraiture. and it works as a history exhibition too. I like to think that my background, not as an art curator, but as a history curator-cum-archivist with a deep interest in art, brings something different to this exhibition. Wellingtonians have not been exhibited quite like this before.

Some of what you see will be what can usually be expected in a portrait exhibition – a selection of city leaders, ‘movers and shakers’, and other public figures. They are the ones who have always provided most employment for professional portrait artists, and Wellington has very many to choose from. Since the late nineteenth-century, for example, there has been a commissioned portrait of every Wellington mayor. Up at the University there is a full array of Vice-Chancellors. Politicians line the corridors of parliament. There is a collection of scientists at the Royal Society, and many other notables in other corporate and professional offices around the city. To do justice to them all would require several exhibitions.

Some portraits can be very public declarations of worthiness. One such example is William Beetham’s very large, and well-known, 1857-1858 portrait of Isaac Featherston, Superintendent of the Wellington Province, with the Te Ati Awa chiefs Te Puni and Wi Tako Ngatata.  Physically he was a small man but is not shown so here. The two Te Ati Awa chiefs stand deferentially in the shadows while a  swaggering Featherston takes full command.

Featherston (3)

William Beetham. Dr Isaac Featherston, Hon Wi Tako Ngatata and Honiana Te Puni, 1857-1858. Oil on canvas, 2635 x 1725 mm, 1921-0001-1, Te Papa Tongarewa

 Other examples of public admiration, and expectation of it, include the large oil painting presented to John Plimmer in 1900, labelled “the father of Wellington”. The two mayoral portraits selected also celebrate achievements – staid Sir Francis Kitts, painted by Julia Lynch, and the more lively Fran Wilde by Dick Frizzell. Public life, of course, also sometimes means more irreverent attention. Cartooning as portraiture is not much explored here, except some of Murray Webb’s best Wellingtonian caricatures. Here is the Sir Ian Athfield in his Khandallah sandpit and mayor Celia Wade-Brown on her beloved bicycle.


Celia and Ian

Murray Webb. Ian Athfield, 2004. Digitally-created image. Courtesy of the artist

Murray Webb. Celia Wade-Brown, 2010. Digitally-created image. Courtesy of the artist

  Some portraits are intended more for private contemplation. The exhibition includes three fine paintings - Peter McLeavy by Ian Scott, Bob Jones by Garth Tapper, and Roderick and Gillian Deane (and their dogs) by Shen Jiawei - all never exhibited before. Young Douglas MacDiarmid’s portrait of pioneering modernist gallery owner Helen Hitchings is another example. 


Artist: Douglas MacDiarmid. Helen Hitchings, 1950. Oil on board, G-390, Alexander Turnbull Library

 It was worked up from a sketch done as part of figure-drawing practice with fellow Wellington artists John Drawbridge and Juliet Peter. That is a tapa-influenced design by MacDiarmid in the background. Hitchings exhibited it at her Bond Street Gallery in 1950 but kept it, and eventually donated it to the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Very different again is a little 1858 ambrotype, from a time when photography was still a novelty, of William Barnard Rhodes, the richest man in mid-nineteenth-century Wellington, posing proudly with his Pakeha wife, Sarah, and Maori daughter, Maryann. Maryann eventually inherited the fortune and spent her adult life as a gentlewoman in England. Another early example of photography as portraiture is this photo of Jessica Crawford of Thorndon, with her servants, probably taken by her husband, Wellington identity James Coutts Crawford.  

Rhodes and Crawford

Photographer unknown. William Barnard Rhodes, Sarah Rhodes and Maryann Rhodes, 1858. Inkjet copy print of coloured ambrotype, PAColl-5601, Alexander Turnbull Library; Photographer unknown (possibly James Coutts Crawford). Mrs Crawford and servants, ca 1860. Inkjet copy print, PA1-f-019-3, Alexander Turnbull

 The exhibition explores figures from the past in another way, too. Interspersed throughout are modern portraits of historical figures nestling among the work of earlier artists. The differing approaches of such history painters I find particularly intriguing. One such work is Hamish Foote’s Renaissance-inspired portrait of Sir James Hector, ‘Mr Science’ of the later nineteenth century. The landscape background, Foote points out, “is appropriated from a watercolour depiction of the Coromandel by John Barr Clarke Hoyte …. a reference to the extensive mining of the peninsula as well as Hectors role as Government Geologist (and approver of mining rights).”


Hamish Foote. Sir James Hector (2008). Egg tempera on gessoed panel, 334 x 252 mm. Private collection

 There are other modern takes on historical figures by Bob Kerr, Seraphine Pick, and Gavin Hurley. Sally Griffin provides a lively view of three 1890s Wellington radicals.  Many will enjoy, too, a first look at Sarah Laing’s remarkable pages from her forthcoming Katherine Mansfield graphic novel.

So much for portraits of the well-known. What about the rest of us, the more ‘ordinary’, in all our variety? That search led in different directions. Archives New Zealand, for example, holds photographs of prisoners destined for the Terrace Gaol. Here are three of them. They clearly wanted to be somewhere else. 


Photographs of prisoners, 1892-1893. Copy inkjet prints, ACIS 17671 (27/1, Archives New Zealand. From left to right are Frederick Mitchell (sentenced to three years for forgery, 1893), David Moran (three years for theft, 1893), John Nelson (three months for larceny, 1892)

 More uplifting is Leonard Mitchell "Human Endeavour" mural, centrepiece of the state-of-the art Lower Hutt War Memorial Library when it opened in 1956. It is 8½ metres long and made up of over fifty portraits of Hutt Valley residents. Each was first carefully worked up in pencil studies over two or more sittings at Mitchell’s Lambton Quay gallery then transferred onto the mural canvas. A selection of theose pencil portraits are included in the exhibition. Included are sketches of two school children, both of whom are still thriving, and were at the exhibition opening. Naera Pomare, twelve at the time, was selected by the family to represent their famous lineage. He well remembers the sittings, and the excitement of seeing the finished work. Patricia Horsham is the young dancer in the foreground of the mural.

Patricia and Naera

Leonard Mitchell. Preliminary drawings for the Lower Hutt War Memorial Library mural, Alexander Turnbull Library: Naera Pomare, 1955. Pencil, 350 x 280 mm, B-125-041; Patricia Horsham, 1955, Pencil, 392 x 285 mm, B-125-018

 The documentary photography of Ans Westra, John Pascoe and Les Cleveland provides other ways of seeing Wellingtonians. Often the individuals are not named – the photographer’s interest is in a wider social context.  The quartet of images from Westra, though, do feature a very distinctive figure - transgender performer, celebrity, business women and brothel keeper Carmen Rupe, very much at home in the Purple Onion night club on Vivian Street.

Andrew Ross is another not usually seen as a portraitist. He is best known for his often unpeopled photographs of disappearing parts of inner-city Wellington (although his range is much wider than that). For this exhibition he and I selected four images that are more obviously portraits than most. They were all people he had come to know well. He then provided an engaging commentary about how each photograph came about, which you can read on his gallery’s website.  Shown here is Maureen Swenson, who spent her whole life in the close-knit community of Holloway Road, Aro Valley. She was a local matriarch and Ross felt “very grateful that I was able to take this portrait and make a number of studies in and around her truly amazing family home.”

Maureen Swenson

Photographer: Andrew Ross. Maureen Swenson and family, 41 Holloway Road, 21/8/2007. Artist's print, 636  x800 mm. Photospace Gallery


 In showing the variety this blog has jumped around rather. The exhibition itself provides a simple structure for viewing all this contrast and juxtaposition - a chronological one (by life dates of the subjects). That allows it to also work as a history exhibition, about Wellington since 1840, told through portraits. Start on the left and work your way around. I think you will find it a lively mix. One thing is certain - with people like these Wellington has never been boring.






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