Archives Collection

The Wanganui Town Bridge Cog

This is one of the larger items in the Museum’s collection – a large cog which was attached to the first Wanganui Town Bridge. Measuring 110 cm across the base and 180 cm high, it is part of the turning mechanism that allowed a section of the bridge to swing open and let ships through.

1. Wanganui Town Bridge cog

The cast iron cog – part of the turning mechanism for the Whanganui Town Bridge. WRM Ref: TH.1252.

A swing span was a common feature of early bridges in New Zealand when shipping was still the best form of transportation of goods and people. Once the span opened, the ships would sail up to the sheltered basin near Shakespeare Bluff to discharge cargo.

Although not built until 1871, the structure had been in development since 1857 when a petition requesting a bridge was submitted to the Provincial Superintendent.  The first pile was driven into the riverbed in 1859, but the project met continuous halts due to failed contracts and arguments over the location.

The turbulence of the 1860s also halted work on the bridge, with fraught land purchases and the resulting wars causing tension and bringing threats to the area.  Despite not having a permanent bridge, Whanganui was a prime transport location and became a major military site during this time.

As the region began to calm and peace was resuming, the bridge project was raised again. A plan by Mr Henry McNeil was accepted at a cost of £30,000 (around four million dollars in 2019). The bridge was formally opened by Governor Sir George Ferguson Bowen on 28 November 1871.

Tolls were introduced to help pay for the bridge: A penny for pedestrians, sixpence for horseback riders, nine pence for two-wheeled carriages with springs and a shilling for those without, and two shillings for four-wheeled carriages. Stock were charged by the head. The first toll was paid by pedestrian Mr George Ross. Mr Tom Jones was the first to cross on horseback, riding backwards for the occasion.

Prior to construction, all people, stock and goods were transferred across the river by small boats or by pulley bridges, but a permanent bridge made access much easier. After it opened, the bridge became the main link between the coast and the hinterland, and the port boomed with the increased ease of access to trade routes.

2. Bridge with open span

Whanganui Town Bridge with the swing span opened to allow a ship through. WRM Ref: 1967.8

Coaches had already made their way north but the bridge helped to open up transport routes to Whangaehu, Turakina, Marton, Bulls and Palmerston North.  These routes from town to town spurred the development of rural roads, and more farms became established. A significant proportion of the Whanganui economy came from this fertile farming hinterland.

Whanganui became New Zealand’s second most important town and port. The European population advanced at a great rate and by 1886 was around 15,000. At the same time, the Māori population was 1,770, having halved within 15 years.

As technology developed, gas and water pipes and telephone lines were fitted to the bridge but these proved to be cumbersome as they had to be disconnected every time the span opened, resulting in a half hour delay for those waiting to cross. The span last opened in 1902 when the SS Huia passed through carrying materials to fix the Aramoho Rail Bridge which had opened in 1877. In 1914 the span on the Town Bridge was closed up permanently, meaning it was no longer a swinging structure. It was finally demolished in 1969.

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Reverend Richard Taylor

In June 1840, not long after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in Whanganui, a Mission Station was built next to Pūtiki marae and many of the leaders converted to Christianity. After Reverend John Mason drowned in the Turakina River, Reverend Taylor and his family were called to take over the position, arriving at Pūtiki on 1 May 1843.

P-Q-006

A photograph of Reverend Richard Taylor in his later years. WRM Ref: P-Q-006.

Taylor came from Yorkshire, England. He earned his BA at Queen’s College in Cambridge before being ordained as a Minister on 8 November 1829. He was then appointed as a missionary to New Zealand by the Church Missionary Society after gaining his MA in 1835. After a three year stint working in New South Wales, he worked in the Bay of Islands before being stationed in Whanganui. Taylor’s role was as evangelist, travelling the area from Taupō to Rangitīkei. He was also a peace keeper, defusing tensions within and between European and Māori.

At one point Taylor was baptising more converts than any other missionary in the country. He regularly travelled his parish to make sure he kept in contact and maintained an influence, leaving his wife and family at home to run the Mission Station and cater for visitors. He and Bishop Selwyn oversaw the building of several churches. He was also responsible for some of the place names along the Whanganui River, including Ātene/Athens, Koroniti/Corinth, Hiruhārama/Jerusalem, and Rānana/London.

He was greatly respected among local Māori. In the early 1840s he was presented with an intricately carved chair by the Māori of Pūtiki in recognition of the work he did with them and as a token of their respect for him. Whereas many Māori were appreciative of Taylor’s efforts, European Settlers were ambivalent towards his pastoral work, preferring to attend the horse races on Christmas Day rather than the church services that Taylor offered.

From the 1850s Taylor’s religious influence began to wane as his role in civil matters increased. He continued negotiating the peace but was not always successful. He attempted to prevent war in Taranaki in the 1860s and was torn when Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui and Pūtiki Māori fought on the Government side, unable to condemn them but upset by the devastating effects of war.

Taylor often represented Whanganui in government matters. He was a close friend and confidant of Governor Grey and helped make the decision to call a military presence to the town in 1845. He was involved with land negotiations and the final Whanganui land settlement agreement, and helped to establish several schools and the local hospital.

 

2001.57

View From the Cave in Hill overlooking Putiki-waranui [sic]-a-tamatea-pokai-whenua. A pen and wash painting by Cranleigh Barton after a work by his great-grandfather Rev. Richard Taylor. WRM Ref: 2001.57.

Alongside this Taylor also maintained a serious interest in the natural world. He discovered a new species of plant, Dactylanthus taylori, or the wood rose. He also sent moa bones to Richard Owen, who ultimately recognised and named the species of bird new to science. He sent samples of New Zealand native plants to Joseph Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew at the time. And he found the time to write and illustrate several books on natural, social and religious themes.

Reverend Taylor passed on his mission work to his son Basil, who joined him in his pastoral work in 1860 but continued his civil work. Taylor died on 10 October 1873, but is still fondly remembered and respected today.

Leg Shackles

This set of leg shackles illustrate a fraught time in Whanganui. They consist of two ankle clasps joined by four links to a central ring, which has a further set of links to which a weight or bolt could be attached. These shackles come from the Rutland Stockade and are known to have been used on prisoners of the Pai Mārire Movement.

1. Shackles

The leg shackles from the Rutland Stockade, known to be used on Māori prisoners. WRM Ref: 1800.262

The 1840s was a fraught time for Whanganui with tensions high over land sales and concerns for Māori rights as kaitiaki of the river. In 1846, fighting broke out in the Hutt Valley and Whanganui Europeans feared similar resistance and unrest. This was heightened when upriver leader Tōpine Te Mamaku and 200 toa (warriors) joined the resistance in the Hutt Valley, leading an attack on Boulcott’s Farm and calling on other Whanganui River Māori to follow him. Te Mamaku returned to Whanganui and assured the European settlers that he would protect the town, as long it remained free of soldiers.

By mid-December 1846, however, the 58th Rutlandshire Regiment had garrisoned the town. The 58th completed building the Rutland Stockade by April 1847. It cost £3,500 and was thought to be the largest stockade in the country at the time, measuring 55 x 30 metres. As well as being a home base for the soldiers, the stockade was also a military prison, housing detainees from battles in the region.

2. Rutland Stockade

The Rutland Stockade, overlooking Atkinson’s Hotel on the left and the Court House on the right. WRM Ref: B-ST-01D

In 1847, an incident occurred in which a young Māori man was shot in the face by a midshipman from the HMS Calliope, although sources differ on whether the incident was deliberate or accidental. The man was treated by a military surgeon and later recovered, but the injury drew utu (retaliation) when the Gilfillan family of Matarawa was attacked by a group of young Māori men and four family members were killed. Five of the six attackers were captured and court-martialled, with four of the men being hung and one being banished due to his age – he was only 14.

After this, many of the European settlers in the rural areas fled to the town and the stockade and a number of women and children were evacuated. Te Mamaku and 300 of his men attacked and blocked the town for two and a half months, with many rural settler homes being burned and stock plundered.

The 65th Regiment arrived in May 1847 to help reinforce the town, resulting in nearly 800 soldiers being stationed to protect fewer than 200 settlers. More skirmishes and minor battles followed and a second stockade, the York, was built by July of that year.

The tensions came to a head on 19 July 1847 with the battle of St Johns Wood. Even though this had an indecisive outcome, Te Mamaku and his men returned to their upriver home a few days later and a tentative peace was restored. The military presence would remain for nearly two decades.

In May 1848, eight years after the initial negotiations began, the Government repurchased the block of land at Whanganui, paying £1,000 for 34,911 hectares, of which 2,200 hectares were reserved for Māori.

Go-Ashore

 

This distinctive vessel is known as a “go-ashore” pot. The round shape and handles made it the ideal pot for cooking over an open fire, and were handy for sailors when going ashore for supplies.  These pots were often traded in exchange for timber or provisions and were offered as part of larger purchases. This particular pot is believed to have been part of the initial purchase of Whanganui.

1. Go-Ashore Pot

The “go-ashore” pot included with the payment for The New Zealand Company’s purchase of land to settle the town of Petre, later Whanganui. WRM Ref: TH.3527

The New Zealand Company was formed in London in 1825 with the express purpose of systematically colonizing New Zealand. Edward Gibbon Wakefield joined the project and envisioned a new-model English Society in the Southern Hemisphere. He planned to purchase land from indigenous populations at a low cost and sell it on to speculators and gentlemen settlers at higher rates. The buyers would in turn hire immigrant paupers and labourers who would break the land in and cater to their needs while saving up enough money to purchase their own piece of paradise after several years’ work.

After the turbulent settlement of Wellington in 1840, the New Zealand Company searched for more land to house the prospective settlers who had already purchased farms and homes. In November 1840, Edward Wakefield (son of Edward Gibbon Wakefield) began negotiations for the sale of 40,000 acres of land on the lower reaches of the Whanganui River from 27 local Māori chiefs. He named the site after Lord Petre (pronounced Peter), one of the directors of the New Zealand Company.

The purchase of the land was disorganised, unethical, and haphazard. Māori were paid in goods, including muskets, umbrellas, Jew’s harps and cooking pots, possibly including the one shown here. These goods, the purchase price of the land for Petre, reached a value of £700, the equivalent of less than $100,000 today.

2. Petre plan

A plan of the town of Petre, late Whanganui; commissioned by The New Zealand Company in 1842. WRM Ref: 1971.70.1

European settlers began to move in from February 1841, before the sale was completed in May. Many Māori were angered by the inundation of strangers and their demand for more land. Some Māori saw the settlement as “their town” while others were concerned that European settlement on the river might challenge those who held mana (traditional authority) over it. Others did not acknowledge any agreement had been made.

An enquiry was held to look into the purchase, and in 1844, Land Commissioner William Spain ruled against the New Zealand Company. He found the settlers had purchased land through the Company in good faith, but the Company’s dealings with Māori were far from satisfactory.

Rather than return the land, he ordered the New Zealand Company to pay monetary compensation to the Māori, but allowed the Company to establish the value themselves. Some chiefs refused to sell their portion of land regardless of what compensation was offered, but when Spain’s offers were refused, he stated that would not prevent the land from going to the settlers.

Ambrotypes

Another post here discusses photographic daguerreotypes, so let’s now look at the next step in the development of photography.

Whereas the daguerreotype produced a negative image on a metal base, an ambrotype created a positive image on glass. The ambrotype is a variation of the wet plate collodion method introduced by Englishman Frederick Scott Archer in 1851.

For the wet plate collodion method, a glass plate was polished and coated with a thin layer of iodized collodion before being dipped in a bath of silver nitrate solution for three to five minutes. Once it had drained and dried, it was placed in a plate holder with a dark slide to protect it from the light.

1. Woon Brothers

 Ambrotype of four of the sons of the Reverend William Woon
Date unknown. Left to right: Garland William, James Garland, Edwin Turner, and Richard Watson Woon. WRM Ref: 1988.35.1

The prepared plate was loaded into the camera while still wet and the dark plate removed to begin exposure, which could take as little as five seconds, or well over a minute, depending on the light and conditions of the day. Once done, the dark slide was replaced and the plate removed from the camera for immediate treatment – it could not wait or the image would be lost. It would be developed using a ferrous sulfate developer, and the image would be fixed with potassium cyanide or sodium thiosulphate solution before being rinsed and varnished.

The resulting image looked like an underexposed negative, but would appear as a positive when viewed against a dark background. The dark areas of the image appeared as clear patches on the plate while the lighter areas of the image showed opaque. The glass plates were often painted black on one side or mounted against black velvet to make the image easier to see. They were monochrome but could be hand coloured.

2. Mr Keen

 Ambrotype of Mr Keen, a stable keeper with premises on St Hill Street. 1869. WRM Ref: 1955.74.1

Another plate of glass would be mounted over the emulsion side before the plates were mounted within a metal frame and housed in a case, just as daguerreotypes were.

Ambrotypes were significantly cheaper to create than daguerreotypes. The plates did not need to be polished or fumed, which reduced equipment and material costs, and they were made out of much cheaper glass rather than expensive silver-plated copper. It was also possible to photograph more clients per day, due to the reduced exposure time.

There were, however, disadvantages. The technique required great dexterity as the whole process had to be completed within 10 minutes before the plate dried, so ambrotypists had to have a dark room immediately available. Travelling ambrotypists would take a tent or portable dark room with all the associated chemicals with them.

3. Unidentified woman

 Ambrotype of a young woman, with hand coloured background and jewellery accented with gold pigment. Date unknown. WRM Ref: 1977.33.19

The nitrate bath solution could leave stains on clothing and furnishing, and the plates could leave nitrate residue in the camera. An overload of nitrate could be potentially explosive.

The photograph fixer, potassium cyanide, was a powerful, deadly poison, and occasionally caused cyanide poisoning. It was even drunk by one photographer to commit suicide.

Ambrotypes were still relatively quick and significantly cheaper than daguerreotypes and became immensely popular between 1855 and 1865. There are many more ambrotypes than daguerreotypes surviving today, 32 of them in the Whanganui Regional Museum collection.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Daguerreotypes – the first photographs

In the 21st century, most of us have mobile phones, and most of those phones come equipped with a pretty good camera. We can take a photograph, add a filter, crop and edit, then share it with the world within seconds. Photography has not always been so easy and readily available.

After centuries of painstaking carving and painting to capture a likeness, in 1822, French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was the first person to make a mechanical image. He used a process called photo etching to create a permanent image on a metal plate, and was then able to use the plate to create copies of the image etched onto it.

2. Unknown child

Undated daguerreotype of an unidentified child. WRM ref: 1960.145.2

He worked with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre to further the process before passing away in 1833, but Daguerre continued with the work. He finalised the process in 1837. In 1838 he took the first photograph of a person, by accident, while he was attempting to make a daguerreotype of a street scene in Paris. Moving pedestrians and carriages are too blurry to see, but one man who was having his boots cleaned on the street corner, stayed still long enough to be captured.

In exchange for a pension from the government he allowed France to present his method as a gift to the world. Daguerreotypes were very time-consuming and intricate to make. A plate of copper was coated with silver and polished to a mirror-shine, then exposed to halogen fumes to create a layer of light-sensitive silver halide which would bear the image. Initially, exposure could take up to 70 minutes, but was refined down to only a few seconds on a bright day.

The latent image was revealed by exposing the plate to mercury fumes.  Although known to be dangerous, very little protection was taken when handling the mercury and there were reports of inattentive daguerreotypists developing mercury poisoning from it.

The plate was toned with gold chloride before being rinsed and dried, and the daguerreotypist could add colour washes to clothing and skin or gold tints to jewellery. The plate was then sealed behind a layer of glass and bound in a brass mat, before being housed in a wooden case covered with leather and padded with velvet or satin.

3. Unknown man

Undated daguerreotype of an unidentified man. WRM ref: 1802.8612

The resulting image could be seen as a positive or a negative, and had a high-shine finish, made easier to view by the padding in the case. It was a single-use image and it was not possible to make copies without creating a whole new daguerreotype. It was also quite expensive. In 1882, an advertisement for the process in the newspaper, The New Zealander, stated the daguerreotypist could take a photo in only five seconds; he charged between 10 shillings and two guineas, equivalent to $60 – $260 today.

1. Mrs J Allison

Daguerreotype of Mrs Allison, relative of Dr James Allison. WRM ref: 1975.43.19

Although it was expensive, the daguerreotype was the first publicly available photographic process. Its peak popularity was from the early 1840s to the mid-1860s. The Whanganui Regional Museum holds six in the collection, only one of which is named. This is Mrs J Allison, a relative of Dr James Allison who arrived in Whanganui from Glasgow in 1840.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

The School on the Hill

Queens Park School was known as the school on the hill because of its situation on Pukenamu, or Queens Park. Its proud motto was, Esse Quam Videri (To be is better than to seem to be).

1. Queens Park School Banner

Queen’s Park School banner, 1921. WRM ref: 1802.1719

The first school on Queens Park seems to have started in 1875. Then Girls High School was built on the site in 1879, opening in 1880. The term “High School” was used at the time to differentiate “Infant” schools from schools that taught older children, possibly from Standard 3 (Year 5) upward. In 1901 Girls High became a District High School for girls, combining some classes with classes from the Boys School. The early records of the school were destroyed by fire in 1905 which means there are not many details of those formative years.

The local Education Board started looking at the possibility of building a primary school in 1904. The fire of 1905 that burnt two classrooms in the Wanganui District Girls High School seems to have been the impetus for change. The Girls and Boys District High Schools were merged into the Wanganui District High School. Later in 1905, the old school was renamed Queens Park School and taught pupils up to Standard 6 (Year 8), both boys and girls. New single-seat desks were introduced that year too – Queens Park was the first school in New Zealand to have them! The School was noted for its strong Cadet group that started in 1906 and the talented Band, formed in 1916.

By the end of World War I, many Queens Park School boys had served and been wounded. A Queens Park School Roll of Honour lists 24 names of Old Boys who were killed while on active war service.

3. Queens Park School 1939

Queens Park School with Memorial Gates. Photo by FH Bethwaite, 1939. WRM ref 2005.56.32

A fire in 1917 destroyed many of the wooden school buildings. In 1920 a new brick building opened, and the pupils marched from their temporary home in the Methodist Church Hall, up the hill to the new school.

In 1926 Queens Park School pupils raised funds to build the Memorial Gates, in honour of past pupils who gave their lives in the War of 1914 – 1918. These gates still stand on their original site, the only visible reminder of the school on the hill.

From 1933 only pupils from Primer 1 to Standard 4 attended the school. Standards 5 and 6 pupils were sent to the newly established Wanganui Intermediate School, only the third intermediate school in New Zealand at the time. Queens Park School closed in 1972 and was demolished in 1977. A centenary was held in 1979, and surplus funds from the event were donated to repair and restore the Memorial Gates.

2. Queens Park School 75th Jubilee Plaque

Queens Park School 75th Jubilee Plaque. WRM ref 1984.8.3

 

Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Sun Smart

Summer may be over and Winter approaching here in New Zealand, and many people will be lamenting the impending loss of their tan.  But it wasn’t so long ago that being in the sunshine was something to be avoided.

Before the 1900s a tan was a stigma – the working classes had tans from their long hours of labour in the sunshine, so being pale was thought to indicate wealth, refinement and beauty. The fashions depicted in artworks and advertisements show full length trousers, skirts and sleeves, and even swimwear and sportswear covered most of the skin.

1. Outing

 Preparing for a summer outing in 1907, complete with hats, parasols, and very little skin exposed to the sun. WRM ref: 2015.93.6

On top of this, women dared not leave the house without a wide-brimmed hat and parasol to shield the sun’s rays. Rudimentary sun screens were available, consisting of petroleum jelly mixed with magnesium, zinc oxide or bismuth, which coated the skin and prevented sun burn and freckles. If colour did start to show they could purchase one of the many bleaching creams or powders designed to whiten skin.

During the 1890s medical studies discovered that sunlight killed the Tubercle bacillus (TB) and prevented microorganisms from growing, and a lack of sunlight caused Rickets Disease. The sun became a provider of health. UV radiation, otherwise known as sunbathing, became a treatment for many conditions including lupus, anaemia, Hodgkin’s disease, renal failure, syphilis and septic wounds.

2. Parasol

 A black and purple brocade parasol, made 1890s. WRM ref: 1975.43.27

In 1910 medical journal The Lancet published the statement, “the face browned by the sun is regarded as an index of health”. Having a tan was no longer a social stigma, and by 1930 was publicly regarded as healthy. Mothers were told to put their children in the sunshine every day to keep their bones and teeth strong. UV radiation lamps were used in hospitals to decrease blood pressure, increase appetite, and promote wellbeing. Models for the home soon followed.

Alongside this, society changed. Work hours were reduced and people had more time to experience the outdoor leisure centres that were being built. Fashions were shortening and more skin was being exposed to the sun, particularly in leisurewear.  Hats and parasols became unwanted trappings of the past.

The Industrial Revolution led to changes in many work environments, from outdoor to indoor. The working classes grew pale, while having a tan indicated having money and leisure to travel. The desire to tan was increased with fashionistas like Coco Chanel declaring “a golden tan is the index of chic”.

But it wasn’t all fun in the sun. As early as 1894, dermatologists noticed that those who worked outside were more likely to develop skin cancers, especially on areas that saw the sun frequently such as hands, faces and necks.

3 Hat

 A black afternoon hat, with brim and lace covering, made around 1880. WRM ref: 1980.47.2

The term “sun cancer” was first coined in 1933 but the initial causal links were largely ignored by the wider medical community and the public. In the 1940s a link between tanning, sunburn and skin cancer was confirmed and the name “melanoma” became commonplace. Knowing UV radiation was dangerous helped to improve sunscreens, but the desire to be tanned and beautiful was stronger. Between 1930 and 1970 the rates of melanoma over the world increased 300-400%.

In New Zealand around 4,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma every year, and around 300 will die from it. We have the highest incidence of melanoma in the world.

So enjoy the sun, but be safe and remember your hats, sunscreens and parasols.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Dear Santa…

Christmas has been and gone but many children will already be planning their wish list for later this year.  Reaching for a tablet or smartphone they could sneakily message Saint Nick another gift for their wish list, while a frustrated parent threatens to email Father Christmas and tell him to cancel the toys because of too many tantrums.

2. Santa Claus's visit

 Postcard of a child waiting for Santa Claus to fulfil her wish list, while her father offers advice about not being too greedy, presumably. WRM ref: 1978.77.5 73c

In today’s world of digital communication, it is quick and easy to get an instant message to Santa through any of the websites the Google elves offer. But what about the hand-written and illustrated letters that used to be sent by post?

The following report appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle on Wednesday 24 December 1952:

 “Father Christmas, No.1 Cloud, Iceland”, so the address proclaimed. The blue envelope with its tuppence-ha’penny stamp rested in the trained hand of the postal sorter. All round him stretched the pigeon-holed sorting bays of the overseas mail floor at London’s General Post Office.

“Well, well,” said the sorter, turning to his companion, “Christmas must be closer than I thought. Here’s the first of the Father Christmas mail. A good one, too.” He put it aside and returned to his stack of letters with a shake of his head, a smile and a thought of Christmas and the children.

That was way back in September. But as the mail sorter said, it meant that Christmas was on the way.

1. Christmas toys

 Postcard of a child’s Christmas wish – fruit, biscuits and toys. WRM ref: 1978.77.5 34b

The letter, with its fairy tale address and childish scrawl, was the first of about six thousand of its kind to pass through London General. They came in from overseas as well as from all around Britain. It is a law of the Post Office that a letter must get as near to its destination as possible. And a request to “Santa Claus, Snow Cottage, Iceland”, which might have been posted in Fiji, comes first to London on its way to Iceland.

The Post Office in Iceland, unable to find Santa, who is probably out on his rounds in any case, holds the letter for a time and then it … well, who but Santa is entitled to read the Christmas wish of a child?

There are very few exceptions to this rule of forwarding Father Christmas’ mail. One is when a child’s letter is addressed simply to “Father Christmas” or “Father Christmas, Fairyland”, or “Toyland”, or when the letter is sent to “Santa Claus, the North Pole.” In these cases the letters are held at their office of origin.

3. Tickner envelope

 Hand-decorated envelope with a festive theme, from the Tickner Envelope Collection. WRM ref: 1989.15.3

Father Christmas has many homes, judging by the variety of addresses where children hope to find him. There was one to “Father Christmas, Reindeer Hotel, Iceland” and yet another with the direction “The North Pole, Arctic Ocean, Siberia”. One child tried to reach him through “Fairy Land, Iceland, England”.

Let’s just hope that Santa’s email account has a good spam filter and plenty of storage.

A Trick of the Eye

1. Stray Leaves

Stray Leaves by W F R Gordon, 1878. WRM ref: 1940.67.1

Stray Leaves is a dramatic drawing in pen, ink, watercolour and gold leaf. The drawing follows a particular art genre known as trompe l’oeil, from French, meaning to deceive the eye. It contains the realism of a photograph with a three dimensional visual depth and features over 70 different items, supposedly scattered on the artist’s table.

New Zealand artist William Francis Robert Gordon completed this remarkable work in 1878. Stray Leaves has been described as “The most remarkable still life drawing to have survived from colonial New Zealand” by Dr Roger Blackley, Associate Professor in the School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies at Victoria University.

2. Stray Leaves detail

Detail from Stray Leaves.

Each intricately drawn object is an insight into the artist’s interests and the events of the day. Some, like the inclusion of the title in Māori by Waata Hīpango, and a newspaper report of the sinking of the Avalanche in 1877 that had 25 Whanganui citizens on board, have specific local interest. Many of the objects reflect the means of communication of the era, contrasting strongly with television, mobile phones and emails of today.

Gordon worked in the Post Office in Whanganui at the time, and included correspondence and postal paraphernalia in this drawing. We can identify envelopes addressed to the Hon John Ballance, Member of the House of Representatives for Whanganui, and Sir Walter Buller, both notable local politicians and businessmen of that time. We can see newspapers and periodicals from around the world. Gordon, born in New South Wales, also left hints about his private life, such as the Parramatta steamer ticket used during his youth in that town.

Works in the trompe l’oeil style were a popular form of colonial art. Gordon first exhibited Stray Leaves in a Whanganui shop front in 1878 and later won prizes for it, including a gold medal, at industrial exhibitions in New Zealand and Australia between 1878 and 1904.

3. Bush attire

Sketch showing the Bush Attire adopted by Surveyors in New Zealand, by WFR Gordon, 1880s. WRM ref: 1935.59.25

He was known and admired for his cartoons and sketches. At one stage he worked as a draughtsman with surveying gangs in Taranaki and made a series of comic sketches of his workmates.

His most famous sketch, however, was of Te Whiti, the great Māori prophet and pacifist leader of the people of Parihaka in Taranaki. In 1880 Gordon attended a meeting at Parihaka where Te Whiti asked that no image of him be made. Gordon, however, surreptitiously sketched an image of Te Whiti on his shirtsleeve, later re-drawing it and filling in details. It was one of the few images of Te Whiti ever to be created.

Gordon was also a prolific photographer. A collection of his studio works of people, mainly from Taranaki, survives in Puke Ariki in New Plymouth.

Gordon died in New Plymouth in 1936. He bequeathed Stray Leaves to the Museum where it has been exhibited many times. In 2001 Dr Blackley curated an exhibition about colonial trompe l’oeil drawings in New Zealand at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington. Stray Leaves featured in this exhibition, receiving national recognition and Blackley’s acclamation.

 

Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.