Christopher Aubrey

Whanganui River Mouth – Te Kai Hau ā Kupe

Where a river meets the sea is a place of great fascination to people all over the world. It’s usually a place of great abundance for fishing as well as gathering whatever interesting wrack gets washed down the river and cast up onto the shore. If the river is large enough it becomes an entrance for shipping or boating, with all the consequent dangers associated with channels, rips and sand-bars.

The Whanganui River entrance has been shaped and changed by major human intervention from its original form. When we at look at old photographs or paintings of the river-mouth, what we see is very different from what is there today.

The building of channel-protecting moles on either side of the river entrance completely transformed, not only the river mouth, but also the coastal area to the west. Interrupting the longshore current that flows from west to south east causes the suspended sand to gradually accumulate against the obstruction. This has created expansive sand-dunes at Castlecliff and has moved the shoreline steadily seawards.

 

1. Castlecliff photo

 Whanganui River Mouth, Castlecliff Beach; Frank Denton, 20th century.  Ref: 1802.1016

One early image of the river mouth is a photograph of Castlecliff Beach by well-known Whanganui photographer Frank Denton. You can see beach visitors enjoying a stroll on the sand. The beach stretches around a natural curve at the river mouth and the sea-swell washes into the river. Ladies lift the hems of their long dresses over the wet sand while children play and paddle in the shallows at the edge of the river. In the far distance a line of surf marks the edge of the sea.

A set of three small watercolour paintings by itinerant artist Christopher Aubrey show the river mouth prior to the construction of the moles. Although the paintings are faded and damaged by long exposure to light and damp, all the details are still visible. Each painting depicts the curve of the river towards the entrance at different times of day. Looking closely, we can see that in 1894 there was a significant sandbar, indicated by a thick line of surf across the across the river entrance. The line of surf across the river-mouth ends at a sand-spit that stretches out from a large cliff on the Castlecliff bank of the river.

Along the river margin stretched a beach with a gentle sloping edge, forming a useful pathway for riding horses or for herding a flock of sheep to the freezing works in the background. The Wanganui Freezing Works were established in 1891 to process the farm animals produced in the surrounding rural areas and freeze them for transport out of the region by ship. The paintings also show ships berthed in the river adjacent to the freezing works, a large ship anchored just offshore and a small vessel crossing the sandbar.

Despite the better shipping channel created by the construction of the moles, the difficulty of negotiating the sand-bar and surf have resulted in a number of shipwrecks over the years, including the Port Bowen which, in 1939, ran aground on a sand-bank, fully laden with a cargo of mutton and lamb from Whanganui destined for export to England.

With the proposed development of Whanganui Port it will be interesting to notice and record further changes to the landscape of the Whanganui River mouth and see how future sea-going vessels manage the difficulties of “crossing the bar”.

 

Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum

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Snapshots in watercolour

Snapshots in watercolour

Museum educator Margie Beautrais shows us a collection of paintings by Christopher Aubrey.  This is an exhibit not to be missed. You’ve entered the museum through the automatic glass doors, nodded “hello” to the front counter person, convinced them you live here so you’re entitled to free admission, and you’re now advancing to the Maori Court. Before you descend to the level of the waka, look to your left. There’s a small side room, softly lit, and therein hang a small number of framed water colours. They’re worth a look, truly.

Margie says these paintings – dated around the turn of the century (not the last one, the one before) – are that era’s version of amateur photography. Those with enough talent could paint a scene to record it. The paintings on show here are Mr Aubrey’s impressions of early Wanganui; detailed pictures of places, topographically accurate and charming in their execution. “They’re very different from photographs, because photography was around then, but you get a much better sense of the feel of what the place was like and a much stronger connection with the person,” says Margie, a painter herself. She calls herself ‘a closet painter’ but says she doesn’t paint closets, which just confused me. She says she paints but does not exhibit, or hasn’t for ages, anyway. She says she uses watercolour, but not in the traditional way like Mr Aubrey does. “These are painted in the correct watercolour technique,” she says, “where the artist uses a bit of pencil to draw their scene or outline, then uses a wash to build up the different colours and then puts the details on.” Finally, she says, the white is added last. She says she thinks Mr Aubrey’s work has been painted outdoors.

The first of Mr Aubrey’s paintings Margie had ever seen was one of Portal St, Durie Hill, when it was just an unpaved walking track. The view is looking down behind two men walking toward the river from about halfway up the hill. It has been on display before.

“There’s something very charming about his work … the buildings that he paints are beautifully done, the perspective is wonderful, the ships are marvellous, ‘cause they’re boy things.” Then Margie pointed out the amateur aspects, the marks of the self-taught artist. “The cows are wobbly,” she says, “he’s someone who used watercolour painting to record what he saw and it was obviously his hobby.” She used the term ‘naive art’. “They’re delicate,” she says, “and they appeal to me because they’re a record of how someone saw Wanganui.”  A couple of his paintings show the same scene at different times of the day. His subject is industrial but the moods are almost poetic.

There is not a lot known about Christopher Aubrey apart from what he allows us to see through his paintings. “He’s a bit of a mystery man,” says Margie. His paintings are held in various galleries and museums throughout New Zealand and show he lived an itinerant life, travelling through the South Island, painting as he went, before moving north through Wellington, Wairarapa, Manawatu, Wanganui, eventually making his way to Auckland.

Watercolours fade relatively quickly, so they’re not exhibited for long periods of time.  “If Christopher Aubrey lived now, he would be showing his paintings in the Open Studios, and people would be admiring and buying them,” says Margie, and I’m inclined to agree.

Please note the Aubrey exhibition is no longer on display but the works are available to view by contacting the Archivist, Sandi Black: info@wrm.org.nz

Also, Museum admission is free for everyone now.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2011 and reproduced with publisher’s permission.