Thomas William Downes

Thomas William Downes was a Whanganui historian, ethnologist and writer with an immense love and respect for the Whanganui River, the people and wildlife, past and present, who lived within its valley. As a writer, he attempted to record as much as he could about the history of the Whanganui River, believing it would otherwise be lost.

2. Downes

T.W. Downes, circa 1910.  Unknown photographer. Ref: P/J/37

Born in Wellington, Downes moved to Bulls with his family in about 1874. He showed early interest in history and never lost his enthusiasm, although he made his living by other means. In 1910 he published a paper, “Early history of the Rangitikei and notes on the Ngati Apa” in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. This article reflected his work and interests while he was growing up in Bulls.

Downes had moved to Whanganui in 1898 with his wife Margaret. In 1921 he was appointed Supervisor of River Works and Ranger for Domain Lands for the Wanganui River Trust. His annual salary was £100. It is said that Downes knew the full length of the river better than any other European. He travelled up and down the river repeatedly, made friends and paid attention to the oral histories of tangata whenua. He documented a version of the early history of the Whanganui district in his book, Old Whanganui, published in 1915. He used the “h” in the Whanganui of the title, believing it to be the correct spelling of Whanganui dialect.

1. Expedition

 Thomas Downes on an expedition to inspect Wanganui River Trust works. Photographer: F J Denton, 1908
T W Downes is in the centre of the photograph with his feet dangling in the water.  Standing behind him is George Marriner, the Curator of the Wanganui Museum. On the far right is photographer Frank Denton, who took this image using a remote cable fitting so he could be in the photograph. The men were voyaging in a motorised canoe, the Stewart, owned by the Wanganui River Trust. Ref: UWR/S/219

This major work was followed in 1921 by his History and Guide to the Wanganui River. This publication, surprisingly, did not employ the “h”. A final book, River Ripplets, was published much later on in 1993.

Downes was also a busy and gifted artist. He painted many scenes from history, using his knowledge and imagination. One that survives is in the Museum collection, a large oil painting titled Retaruke Reach, Wanganui River, a work of large proportions and undisguised romanticism. He created illustrations for his own and other’s books and was in great demand for painting and lettering illuminated addresses, often presented to people of civic importance as a token of respect and thanks.

3. Illuminated address

 Illuminated Address to James Crichton Esq. In 1904 this illuminated address was created by T W Downes as a tribute to James Crichton “In appreciation of your sterling worth as a Citizen …” Ref: 2017.26

Downes was elected to the Wanganui Museum Board of Trustees in 1910. He served for two periods, from 1910 to 1918 and from 1923 until his death in 1938. While on the Board he facilitated the purchase of a number of taonga Māori and was responsible for negotiations involved in the lending or gifting of many treasures from the region. He also made personal gifts to the Museum of Pacific Island artefacts that he had purchased at auction, photographs and archives.

A modest, quiet and unassuming man, Downes dedicated forty years of his life to the recording and preservation of Whanganui heritage. He was still employed as the supervisor of the Whanganui River Trust when he died in Whanganui on 6 August 1938.

Libby Sharpe is the Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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:

Also, Museum admission is free for everyone now.

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

Seaworthy – Ships as Art

St Kilda

‘St Kilda’ by JC Ferry

Why have so many artists painted so many ships? The art galleries and museums of the world are filled with maritime paintings of billowing sails and storm-crested waves and wind-blown smoke stacks.
Life on board ship in the nineteenth century was not easy. Poor food, short commons, harsh enforcement of sea law, wet, cold, back-breaking work, poor pay, no social security, chronic health problems, danger, loneliness, pain … The romanticism of maritime art was not a feature of the sailor’s life but the ships and the seas where they lived and worked epitomised the yen for adventure. Maritime artists captured form and movement in paint, glorifying the vessels and shrugging off the hardships.

'Catherine Johnstone' by JA Gilfillan

‘Catherine Johnstone’ by JA Gilfillan

This selection of watercolour paintings is of ships that sailed to and from Whanganui and focuses on the days of sail and early steam, the 1840s to the 1900s. They capture the essence of shipping at that time. These maritime paintings are not just lovely images; they also give us an historical perspective. Paintings can exist for many hundreds of years. Think of the Michelangelos of Italy or the Rembrandts of the Netherlands. They are still available for the world to see and they still illustrate historical experience wherever they are shown; likewise these shipping paintings from Whanganui.

'Governor Gray' by Charles Heaphy

‘Governor Gray’ by Charles Heaphy

The Port of Wanganui
Shipping activity supported the development of the town of Whanganui. Its importance was appreciated by its population and idealised by the artists who left us this visual record.
The development of the town of Whanganui was due largely to the Port. The wharves were situated seven kilometres up the Whanganui River by the growing town. In 1855 Whanganui was created a Port of Entry with powers of custom and excise.

'Alexa' by unknown artist

‘Alexa’ by unknown artist

The waters were awash with ships. Whanganui surveyor G F Allen once recalled that in the 1860s, 65 ships were counted between Market Place and Castlecliff.
Plans were drawn up in the 1860s for Port improvements. In the next two decades a Harbour Board was set up. Significant work was done to deepen entry into the town wharves and two moles and a wharf were built at Castlecliff to open up shipping near the mouth of the river. Railways to and from the wharf sites were built, facilitating hugely improved internal transportation. The installation of a railroad linking with Wellington in 1886 did not suppress Wanganui shipping trade as it was still much cheaper to transport cargo and passengers by ship.
By the 1890s refrigeration had added value to the Port. Between 1908 and 1929, trade through the Port more than doubled and other industries such as woollen mills and phosphate works were established because of good port facilities.

'SS Wanganui' by William Goodwin

‘SS Wanganui’ by William Goodwin

Conserving our maritime art
Paintings need to be cared for. Sunlight, dirt, mould, insects, human carelessness and sheer wear and tear all take their toll. Museums and galleries reduce potential damage by providing optimal storage, handling, exhibition and security conditions for their paintings. Sometimes, however, paints, papers and mounts used may cause chemical or physical changes that result in damage.

Watercolour of 'Stormbird' by W Forster

‘Stormbird’ by W Forster

The painting of the Stormbird was in trouble. It had been glued onto a thick pine board that had dried out over the decades and almost split in two. The glue had discoloured the paper and was affecting the image. Painting Conservator Louise Newdick of Wellington carefully, millimeter by millimeter, removed the painting from the board with the help of a mild chemical solution, cleaned off the glue, repaired some small tears and stabilised it to prevent further deterioration. It was then remounted and framed for exhibition, and later, storage.