Paradise or purgatory, Alan Knowles

John Kinder’s New Zealand
Ron Brownson (with contributions from Peter Shaw, Michael Dunn and Roger Blackley)
Godwit and Auckland Art Gallery, $49.95,
ISBN 1869621077

John Kinder turned his back on taunts of religious inflexibility and charges of being a “stiff-necked” schoolmaster when he agreed to head the planned Church of England Grammar School in Auckland, and must have dreamed he was off to paradise when he emigrated in 1856. He was an Oxbridge don who, despite his father’s financial ruin, had lived a life of scholarship in the libraries and museums of England and Europe and indulged a love of art and architecture. As such, this 36-year-old high church curate was ill-prepared for the scrub, bush and swamp of Auckland, where the buildings were of the “poorest and shabbiest description, mere shanties”. He was not impressed.

It’s a situation that has been repeated thousands of times up to the present day. Immigrants, disgruntled by the situation in their home countries, have recoiled from an unsophisticated New Zealand and become stranded in a no-man’s-land of longing and not belonging. For many, to admit disappointment in letters home would mean loss of face, and so embellished reports of their new life have become commonplace.

To Kinder’s credit he grabbed his sketchpad and easel, learned the diabolical chemistry of wet collodion photography, and, loaded up with glass plates, set off into the countryside to explore and record the topography, economic activity and the spread of the Anglican Church. His duties as headmaster and churchman enabled him to travel far and wide.

When he died in 1903, Kinder left behind 400 watercolour paintings and as many photographs carefully preserved in albums. It’s this body of work that has exercised the minds of four art historians who contribute essays to this lavish production. John Kinder’s New Zealand is a catalogue which reproduces all the watercolours and photographs on display in the exhibition of the same name, plus more.

The catalogue was produced by Ron Brownson, senior curator of New Zealand and Pacific Art at the Auckland Art Gallery, who also assembled the exhibition, and wrote the essay on Kinder’s photography. The bona fides of his fellow contributors are vaguer and point to a target audience of art cognoscenti. Peter Shaw (Faculty of Architecture and Design at UNITEC, Auckland) writes on Kinder’s life; Roger Blackley (Art History Department, Victoria University of Wellington) deals with Kinder’s position in New Zealand Art; and Michael Dunn (Head of Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland) discusses his painting.

Given that much of what they write already exists in academic treatises, a simpler text might have helped Kinder’s cause. Our academics meander into each other’s territory, repeating information and quotations. The language is dense and often complex as in this slice of Brownson: “Landscape has its own veracity, as the more one searches for locational truth the more landscape is transformed into an emblematic representation. Kinder used his camera to display what is inseparable from the nature of place.”

There is a sniff of disagreement over how much he used photographs as aides-mémoire. The three examples in the catalogue of paintings printed adjacent to their source photographs are fascinating. Kinder photographed a raw reality but painted romantic nostalgia, showing us the mind of a man who exchanged purgatory for paradise, acknowledging he had achieved the opposite. Or perhaps the paintings simply demonstrate limited technical skills with their cut-out figures and formula skies, bush, paddocks and buildings looking so much the same. Roger Blackley refers to this as “Kinder’s highly idealised, retrospective practice as a topographer”.

Kinder was not alone in interpreting photographs to suit a romantic notion. Engraver Vincent Brooks rendered a photograph, attributed to Kinder, of Ngati Haua Chief, Wiremu Tamihana, into a coiffeured gentleman, replacing his huia feather with a halo. There is doubt about the provenance of this photograph as William Main attributes it to Kinder’s photography tutor Hartley Webster in Maori in Focus (not cited in the bibliography).

For a deeply reflective classical scholar, Kinder wrote surprisingly little. He tried being a war correspondent and just sounded forlornly homesick: “Events have recently taken place here which are likely to increase the interest felt at home in this country.” But he was no fool when it came to art. He had seen the best in Europe, collected Dutch masters, witnessed his sisters being lauded as superior artists to himself, and seen his paintings publicly disparaged when he did exhibit. It’s easy for us to understand how he could assess his own work as illustrations for a personal diary. However, Michael Dunn talks of Kinder’s “commitment” and says “it is hard to think of any other painter of his generation who equals him in range, dedication and individuality”.

Kinder painted with the same scientific precision as amateur cartographer Leslie Adkin applied to his maps of the Tararua ranges. It’s Kinder’s photographs, like Adkin’s, that achieve emotional engagement. They draw you in and hold you with the extraordinary detail afforded by contact prints made from large glass negatives. Kinder’s training as a painter shows in the way he selected viewpoints and composed his photographs. His commonplace scenes of bush, mining and forestry are revelations.

The effort and talent that went into making these photographs is equal to that of his paintings. They hold their own as works of art. In the catalogue they are exquisitely reproduced and sealed on beautiful paper stock. They get the full colour treatment that holds the tonal integrity of the originals, including the colour blemishes associated with ageing albumen prints.

The watercolours that make up the bulk of the images are faithful to the originals. A simple, elegant serif typeface aids text readability. But copious footnotes, the absence of an index, and referencing some images by plate number and others by page number make navigation cumbersome. However, a chronology of Kinder’s life and a plate list are useful.

As with most picture books, it’s not the text but the illustrations that occupy the reader, thus for the photographs alone this catalogue is worth the price, and with so many watercolours thrown in, it’s good value.


Alan Knowles is a Wellington photographer.


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