World-famous in New Zealand, Philip Temple

Heaphy
Iain Sharp
Auckland University Press, $64.99, 
ISBN 9781869404215

The one-name title for this book confidently assumes this is someone we all know. After all, there can be only one Heaphy – Charles – because in the history of our world he had no precursors and, despite a 30-year marriage, produced no heirs. In a single photographic image, he looms in our pantheon of 19th-century British pioneers as the gallant hero of the “Maori Wars”, hand clutching sword, Victoria Cross pinned to his uniform jacket, looking as if he realises the studio sitting is a mistake but remaining keen to make an impression.

The uncertainty of Charles Heaphy’s 1867 pose reflects the polymathic yet lightly documented nature of his life, and the several ways we are able to remember him, although few could recall precisely all. Now, for the first time, someone with patience and acuity takes us through the life of this artist, explorer, surveyor, soldier, MP and magistrate, and probes behind the studio stare. Iain Sharp’s book is an overdue study, decades overdue, pointing not only to biographical accident and circumstance but also to the difficulty of solving who Heaphy really was.

Sharp addresses the problem directly. In his introduction, “Reading the Face”, he makes a journey around the 1867 portrait in an attempt to understand the man within the context of his times and career. It is a common exercise for a biographer, although not usually as overt as this. It is tempting to find a whole personal world and character in the momentary capture of expression and gaze in a rare photograph, forgetting that in the extended and dressed studio exposures of the 19th century, nothing was natural.  From this portrait, Sharp finds Heaphy at the age of 47, sporting  the first VC awarded to a colonial soldier, “more melancholy than satisfied … careworn, sorrowful, withdrawn into himself, haunted by private disappointment … anxiety in his eyes.”

He admits that conclusions might be different if we could see Heaphy move, light up a cigar, tell a story or “pace the room with brisk nervous energy”.  For me, that last possibility comes closest to describing the persona in the photograph. Heaphy carries no weight, his striped military trousers are creased over  long bony legs; he is fresh-faced, no worry lines, no trace of grey in curly hair and bushy black beard. He seems remarkably youthful for his age. Here was someone forever on the move, trying this and that, the very “clubbable” man who “belonged to associations devoted to everything from chess, rowing, and gymnastics to horticulture, literature and banking.” It was simply awkward for him to sit still for the length of time it took to pose for his photograph.

This illustrates the difficulty of “reading” portraits, when the exercise reveals as much, if not more, of the biographer’s sympathies and predilections as the subject’s. But the paucity of evidence forces Sharp into a degree of speculation, especially in the early chapters where the recurrence of “might”, “probably” and their variants is sufficient to stir a sense of unease. As well as occasional unconscious humour: Heaphy’s stepmother Harriet is described as “probably” pregnant with her second son when attending the christening of her first in December 1835, and after her husband had died two months before.

This is no comment on the range and assiduousness of Sharp’s research, which is almost  impeccable. So that exceptions to the rule, such as describing the New Zealand Company’s “chief township at Port Nicholson” as a “flourishing concern” in late January 1840 – when the settler ships had scarcely arrived – simply confirms the excellence of the whole.

Sharp decides early on what quality, other than chronology, can make a piece of Heaphy’s varied and sometimes enigmatic life. There is the one consistency: painting and drawing. Yet he was never, by profession, an “artist”. His studio was never in Queen Street rooms or upstairs in Lambton Quay; there were no galleries for regular exhibition. Although the itinerant Heaphy’s studio space was a hill or shore with an outlook, he rendered a distinctive and peerless view of early British New Zealand:  images painted through the eyes of a skilled young freshman.

Sharp quotes Eric McCormick’s assessment of Heaphy in his Letters and Art in New Zealand (1940), the first time Heaphy’s original place in the history of our indigenous art was recognised: “You are aware of a man wrestling with the strange contours and colours of a new environment and moreover attempting to define the peculiar quality of each part of New Zealand, as he visited it in turn.”

Heaphy’s watercolours for the New Zealand Company painted between 1839 and 1841 have been criticised as propaganda postcards, designed to entice settlers with their images of a fertile, well-watered land, savages absent. But Hamish Keith, 40 years ago, noted Heaphy’s “sensitivity to the clarity of New Zealand light”, his work the “precursor of such light-sensitive twentieth-century painters” as Rita Angus, Colin McCahon and Pat Hanly. More than that, Heaphy’s arguably most famous painting, Mt Egmont from the southward has become the most enduring – and I use the word advisedly – icon of the New Zealand historical imagination.

Sharp finds that Heaphy’s life divides into five chapters. Each is punctuated with paintings or drawings that serve sometimes as direct illustration and
always as  markers of Heaphy’s artistic development. The first chapter, “Young Charles”, is of especial interest to Heaphy enthusiasts, where Sharp does his best with limited evidence to explain Heaphy’s origins and family connections. Losing his mother when a small child, the influence of his artist father, Thomas, was all the greater. Thomas Heaphy first achieved stature as a painter when attached to the staff of the Duke of Wellington during the Peninsular War. In 1823 he founded and became the first president of the Society of British Artists and, later, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. Thomas taught all his children to paint, including his youngest. Sharp writes, “Watercolour painting was clearly a topic much discussed in the Heaphy household, which explains why Charles, during his first years in New Zealand, was able to deploy a wide range of painterly techniques although barely out of his teens.”

The Heaphys were a family of professional artists, seeking commissions and  patronage. “In order to prosper,” Sharp comments, “they needed to ingratiate themselves to the rich and powerful.” Charles followed the pattern and, in New Zealand, attached himself to the Wakefields, William Fox, George Grey and Donald McLean. “So long as they paid him or granted him favours, he was their faithful advocate. Fidelity for hire … . If a readiness to toady is one of Charles’s least admirable traits, it is nevertheless intelligible in terms of his upbringing” – from lower middle-class origins.

Sharp returns to Heaphy’s trait of “toadying” to employers later in the book. The fact that, in 1858, he was initially posted as a sergeant and not an officer in the City Company of the Auckland Rifle Volunteers, leads Sharp to wonder:

whether Heaphy’s contemporaries regarded him as much of a natural leader. In spite of his ambition, there was a strain of servility in his makeup, which might be traced back to his family’s insecure social position as professional artists whose livelihoods depended on gratifying their patrons.

 

Servility and toadying are unpleasant character traits to deduce from Heaphy’s  conformity to the Victorian world of class and patronage. Which artists of the time survived without patronage or commercial contract? The greatest of them all, J M W Turner, would not have survived without the support of the likes of Walter Fawkes and the Third Earl of Egremont. How else would Heaphy have survived without employers to whom, like everyone, he owed some responsibility to produce what was required of him? Even those most dubious of employers, the New Zealand Company, sponsored the production of the most important paintings to survive from the years of early settlement.

Heaphy’s restless ambition saw him pursue success in several different lives: as a New Zealand Company draughtsman and publicist (Chapter Two); a South Island West Coast explorer (Chapter Three); an Auckland surveyor and Commissioner of Native Reserves, and eventually MHR (Chapter Four); and as a soldier (Chapter Five), when he was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in a Waikato skirmish in 1864. In the more than two decades he was domiciled in Auckland between 1848 and 1872, Heaphy, Sharp estimates, spent as much as half of that time elsewhere: “A less restless personality would have looked for a more stationary kind of employment. Heaphy thrived on mobility.”

Heaphy’s existential dilemma, common to many of our most talented and ambitious pioneers, was well expressed in a letter to his old friend Frederick Moore in July 1871. Looking back on his 30-odd years in New Zealand, he wrote that while it was “a nice enough place to live as far as climate goes, seashore etc”, it was hampered “by want of a great interior and remoteness from Europe.” In New Zealand, one could not become an explorer of international renown on the scale of a Burton, Speke or Stanley; the country was too small. It was also too far away to be noticed much by the arbiters of fame and wealth in Britain and Europe, no matter what the field of endeavour. But Heaphy, like so many who have followed him, could not be content with recognition and praise from his local peers. In the colonial cringe that persists to this day, he was disappointed not to receive the overseas accolades he thought his due.

Although Sharp finds it difficult to describe Charles Heaphy as a great man, he was one of the more notable and successful of the British pioneering generation. He was an archetypal New Zealander: versatile, hard working and physically engaged with the landscape, both in actual exploration and painterly depiction; and he was brave. Brave enough to battle down the West Coast of the South Island from Golden Bay to Arahura with Thomas Brunner; brave enough, though wounded himself, to stand by a fallen comrade in battle. It might have given him some satisfaction to know that he would become world-famous in New Zealand for these exploits, as well as for his painting; enough to rate 68th on Prime Television’s 2005 New Zealand’s Top 100 History-Makers!

In celebrating Heaphy’s worth as a painter, Sharp concludes  that “Many of his images are ripe for discussion, but there has been little dialogue to date”, and he hopes the book will “help open up the debate”. In a scholarly, thoughtful and beautifully presented way, the book is also a major contribution to our understanding of the man and his entire fascinating career.

 

Philip Temple’s memoir Chance Is a Fine Thing will be published by Random House in March 2009.

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