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.
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.
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.