John Ballance

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.

Margaret Bullock – Whanganui Suffragist

The Women’s Franchise League (later renamed the Wanganui Women’s Political League) led the campaign in Whanganui for votes for women. Margaret Bullock was the Wanganui League founder, vice president, president and committee member until 1900. Born in Auckland, Bullock moved to Whanganui in 1877.

Widowed with five sons, she worked as a reporter and assistant editor on the Wanganui Chronicle, owned by her brother Gilbert Carson. She also worked as a special parliamentary correspondent for several colonial newspapers. In later life she supported herself by writing a novel, short stories and government tourist guides. As a journalist and parliamentary correspondent, however, she gained a credible place within a predominantly male profession. She also played a pivotal role in the nineteenth century women’s movement at both local and national levels.

Margaret Bullock believed women had the same mental ability as men, but lacked men’s knowledge of methods, public affairs, political questions and the world’s needs. Her particular passions were removing what she termed “women’s disabilities” and promoting economic independence for women.

Through her work as a parliamentary journalist, she acquired knowledge of the parliamentary system. With this knowledge she was able to help the passing of the Electoral Act 1893 when she warned leading New Zealand suffragist Kate Sheppard of possible obstruction. Bullock sent Sheppard a telegram that read, “Electoral Bill returned House for strangulation ostensibly amendment wire Parliament instantly.”

1. Telegram to Sheppard

 Facsimile of a telegraph from Margaret Bullock to Suffragist Kate Sheppard. Ref: 1805.417

The Act specified that every person aged 21 years and over (who qualified and was registered) was entitled to vote. The Act declared that the definition of the word “person” included women. After the 1893 election Margaret Bullock visited every household in Whanganui, signing up hundreds of women on the electoral roll.

In December 1899 local printer and publisher A D Willis began his second term as the Member to the House of Representatives for Wanganui; he held the seat until 1905. He had previously been elected for a term in 1893 following the death of his friend, the previous MHR John Ballance, but was defeated in 1896. Bullock was Chairwoman of the Ladies Committee that helped return Willis to Parliament, ironically, as her brother Gilbert Carson lost in his attempt to enter Parliament.

2. Election memento 1899

 Memento of the Wanganui Election 1899. Ref: 1932.6.4

She was prominent in the National Council of Women executive, appointed to the Standing Orders Committee in 1897 and elected vice-president in 1900. She was appointed an official visitor to the female department of Wanganui Prison in 1896. Margaret also worked on behalf of the elderly residents of the Jubilee Home in Whanganui, publicising their poor living conditions.

Margaret Bullock had a strong political and social justice impetus. But she also had many other talents. She wrote short stories for British and New Zealand magazines, often signing herself as “Madge”. She wrote her only novel Utu: a story of love, hate, and revenge under the name Tua-o-rangi. She wrote stories for children, which were printed and published by the firm of A D Willis, her old political friend. She was also an accomplished artist and exhibited her paintings at the Auckland Art Society under the name Maggie Bullock, often using Māori sitters as subjects.

3. Book of Wanganui River

 The Wanganui River – Sketch and Story by Margaret Bullock, late 19th century.  Ref: 1953.108.2

Margaret Bullock was plagued with continual ill-health after she settled in Whanganui. She was diagnosed with cancer and died on 17 June 1903 soon after an operation.


Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum

Ballance House, Northern Ireland

Former New Zealand Premier John Ballance was born in 1839 in a cottage next to the current Ballance House in Glenavy, Northern Ireland. His father was a tenant farmer on the local Hertford Estate. The cottage was situated to the rear of the present house. It appears on a survey of 1837. The cottage was built of stone with a thatched roof.

A two storey farm house was built in the 1840s to accommodate the growing Ballance family. This is what is now known as Ballance House. The exterior of the house was carefully restored to its original appearance.

Ballance House before restoration

Ballance House before restoration

Ballance House after restoration

Ballance House after restoration

Inside the house the parlour has been furnished in the style of the 1850s, when young John Ballance was living there. Over the fireplace hangs a photograph of Ballance at the age of 14. Another photograph on display is a portrait of his mother, Mary Ballance, née McNeice.

Ballance House parlour

Ballance House parlour

Ballance appears to have been uninterested in farming. When he was 14 he left school and was apprenticed in the hardware trade in Belfast.  When he was 18 he left Ireland, never to return. He first went to Birmingham, still in the ironmongery business, but was always looking for self-improvement and business opportunities.

Upstairs in Ballance House is a large exhibition space which was originally two bedrooms. The floor space above the front door is a step lower than the exhibition area and family members have said that this area always had pot plants and was a favourite place for children to play. It is possible that this area was originally intended as a conservatory; it was, however, never completed.

Also upstairs is the Wellington Room which contains a print of Wellington at the time Ballance was Premier. The room also contains a New Zealand interest library and visitors are encouraged to learn about New Zealand history. The next room is The Ballance Room which displays a portrait of Ballance and details his life.

In 1863 Ballance married Fanny Taylor. Because of her ill health, the couple decided to join her brother in Wanganui where Ballance established the Evening Herald, later renamed the Wanganui Herald. Fanny died in 1868.

The Evening Herald Office.  First building in Campbell Place, Whanganui, opened 4 June 1867.  John Ballance stands in teh doorway wearing a black coat.  C1870s.

The Evening Herald Office. First building in Campbell Place, Whanganui, opened 4 June 1867. John Ballance stands in teh doorway wearing a black coat. C1870s.

The Wanganui Herald office, second building on Victoria Avenue, Whanganui.  c1970s.

The Wanganui Herald office, second building on Victoria Avenue, Whanganui. c1970s.

Ballance remarried in 1870, to Ellen Anderson. In 1875 he was elected to Parliament as an Independent. In 1890 he led a Liberal coalition as Premier. This period triggered a great burst of social legislation in New Zealand. A world first was Women’s Suffrage in 1893, which was actively supported and promoted by Ballance.

John Ballance’s leadership qualities ensured that his Liberal Party was able to retain office for 20 years, long after his death. A contemporary cartoon shows him firing the cannon of land tax to dispel the clouds of depression, thus earning him the nickname of “The Rainmaker”.  Ballance died in office in 1893 at the age of 54.