The Later Paintings of William Fox


Sir William Fox, politician and public figure is an easy man to find out about. G. H. Scholefield, in his book Notable New Zealand Statesmen (Whitcombe and Tombs) devotes a chapter to Fox's career in New Zealand: from his editorship of the New Zealand Gazette and Britannia Spectator, (he edited this journal from 1842), through his involvement with the New Zealand Company(1) on to an active political career as parliamentarian, Premier, and Royal Commissioner.(2) Scholefield also describes his activities in the Temperance movement and his personality:
Though good-natured, he was highly satirical, sometimes too bitter and sarcastic and too fond of personal denunciation.

WILLIAM FOX Otira Gorge, looking down 1864
watercolour 350 x 255 mm.
(Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library)

He even devotes an entire paragraph to a description of how Fox wore his hat. He dismisses the role of William Fox artist, however, in two perfunctory sentences:
Like so many of his contemporaries, Fox could sketch as well as he could write. Some of his pictures were reproduced in the Illustrated London News, and many were shown at the 1865 exhibition in Dunedin.

which he follows (presumably not in deliberate disparagement) with two achievements of apparently equal value:
He was a strong swimmer and twice saved himself from drowning. At the age of eighty he climbed Mount Egmont. (3)

E. H. McCormick calls his essay on Fox Public Man and Painter: but also presents a much more complete picture of the public man than of the artist. Dr McCormick comments that Fox himself was less than forthcoming about his own work; and cites Fox's description of the early New Zealand watercolours of Nelson and the Wairau - among Fox's best known and most admired paintings of New Zealand landscape - as 'a few sketches' for the directors' information.(4)

WILLIAM FOX Westoe 1872
watercolour 115 x 320 mm.
(Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library)

It is true that personal or contemporary comment about Fox's work is extremely scarce. (5) However, this is more than compensated for by the availability of the works themselves. Both the Hocken and the Alexander Turnbull libraries hold extensive collections of his paintings. Little attention has generally been paid to them.

The earlier landscapes, particularly those made as a record of the expedition with Heaphy & Brunner in 1846, have been given wide circulation by the production of the Alexander Turnbull library series. It is perhaps partly because of this that these landscapes are seen as representing the peak of Fox's achievement in watercolour painting. Both E. H. McCormick and Gordon H. Brown(6) suggest that Fox's work demonstrates unevenness, and deterioration: and both find the landscapes of the 1840s the most critically acceptable works. McCormick writes:
Of all the early amateurs he was the most prolific but also the most uneven. . . it would seem that he was at his best in the South Island years and reached his peak in recording the historic journey with Heaphy and Brunner in 1846. The scenes of this expedition, instinct with true poetry, convey supremely well the primeval quality of the country and are, surely, among our finest landscapes. The later watercolours, whatever their historical and topographical interest (and it is often considerable), belong to a different and lower order of achievement.

and Gordon H. Brown comments:
Like other educated settlers in the early colonial period Fox painted, not with any high-minded seriousness, but as an activity befitting a gentleman, and one looks through his writings in vain(7) for any reference to himself painting. As a painter he was very uneven, and a considerable number of his watercolours are marred, in one way or another, by details which fail to meet his aims, while others are simply bad paintings. . .

WILLIAM FOX Te Whiti's Pa at Parihaka, Taranaki (detail) 1882
watercolour 165 x 980 mm.
(Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library)

Leaving aside the questions of what constitutes 'simply bad paintings' (a 'simple' way of coping with a critical problem?) it is plain that Brown and McCormick agree about inconsistency in Fox's work: they both generally locate this inconsistency in his later works, and they both partially account for it by his political involvement, which they presume made him too busy to paint. In the Brown/Keith book we read:
On his return to New Zealand (in 1854) Fox became embroiled in the political life of the colony, and the time he could set apart for his painting became less and less. Too often the time he could snatch was all too brief, as is evident in the hurried nature of so many later paintings, for of those at present known, only a very few escape from too hasty an execution, and fewer still. . . capture anything like the dignity seen in his early New Zealand works. . .

And in McCormick's essay:
. .. in seeking reasons, first, for the superiority of Fox's early work and, second, for its later decline, one is forced to consider biographical explanations. Perhaps the Fox whose talent and delicate perceptions are so evident in such paintings as the Mangles Grass Valley was effaced by the politician.

WILLIAM FOX Te Whiti's Pa at Parihaka, Taranaki (detail) 1882
watercolour 165 x 980 mm.
(Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library)

There are two assumptions expressed here about Fox's work after his supposed hey-day of the 1840s which deserve consideration in the light of two groups of Fox's later works. in the Alexander Turnbull library. The first assumption concerns the apparent split between Fox as public man and politician, and Fox the artist. That this paradox is present in Fox's work is amply demonstrated by the paintings themselves: but this does not make Fox a visionary or even a romantic. If, as McCormick suggests, Fox had a sense of 'true poetry', a feeling' for the 'primeval quality' of the country, he was just as much preoccupied with converting the primeval to the progressive. It seems evident that he was more moved by the agricultural possibilities of the New Zealand landscape than he was by its daunting emptiness. There is little evidence that Fox was a poet or prophet of the romantic aspects of unspoiled nature - he was an idealist, not a romantic, and his ideal was a civilising one. Nowhere in his work is this ideal more apparent than in the watercolours of his own estate, Westoe, in the Rangitikei, painted largely in the 1860s.

The other assumption concerns his deterioration as an artist in his later years. The Westoe landscapes or the 1860s demonstrate the same competence and mastery of watercolour as do the earlier South Island landscapes - and although it is true that from the 1860s to the 1870s Fox was fully occupied with politics, it is also true that between his retirement in 1885 and his death in 1893, his interest in painting revived: and he produced in his later years a series of landscapes painted in Taranaki that are of considerable interest.

While Fox never considered himself as an artist with the 'high-minded seriousness' referred to by Gordon H. Brown, nevertheless the sheer quantity of work he produced must indicate that painting was a significant activity in his life. Doubtless he saw himself as a gentleman artist; or as using his skill with watercolours as a means of documenting his ideas about the land. His paintings, however, reveal nothing of the generally disturbed nature of New Zealand society in the latter half of the nineteenth century; in fact some of his paintings could be said to constitute a deliberate attempt to replace political and racial disorder with an ideal of civilisation existing in the rural areas of New Zealand.

WILLIAM FOX Mount Egmont with Train c 1880
watercolour 238 x 340 mm.
(Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library)

The paintings of the Westoe estate are a clear indication that Fox was more or less deliberately representing a high degree of colonial achievement. These paintings are reminiscent of the late eighteenth/early-nineteenth century English tradition of paintings of stately homes. He was likely to have seen works like the 26-volume The Beauties of England and Wales (1801-1818), or Neale's Views of County Seats (1818-29) in 11 volumes. Steegman comments:(8)
both publications present their subject in the same way, descriptive and topographical, the house and its setting often dissociated from the activities or even from the personalities of its occupants.

A further comment made by Steegman seems appropriate to Fox's intention:
The type of house with which we are concerned was generally built for families well aware of their own importance and quite certain of their future continuity, whatever doubts they may have had about their past. To the owner himself. .. his house and its laid-out surroundings were hardly inanimate objects but were a living part of the complex which went to make up his own personal existence. .. it was important, therefore, that such evidence should be recorded for posterity.

In the Westoe paintings, Fox painted his house as an English country seat, transplanted to the New Zealand landscape, which by association assumes qualities of serenity, productivity, the charm of traditional pursuits. The garden scenes (reproduced below), with their curiously heightened palette (contributed to in one case by the fact that the painting was done on 'plain brown paper') represent stylised figures going through the motions of aristocratic behaviour - watering gardens which have been laboriously created by 'social inferiors', dallying at evening in a carefully orchestrated garden. The figures are surrounded,. almost oppressed, by the New Zealand bush - which is however identifiable as such only by carefully-described specimens of native plants. The scene remains in fact wilfully European.

WILLIAM FOX Lower Westoe, Rangitikei 1860
watercolour on brown paper 400 x 270 mm.
(Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library)

That this emphasis was not merely a painterly creation was apparent from the reaction of the Reverend Canon J. W. Stack on his first encounter of Westoe:(9)
The road to Westoe was a pleasant change from the monotony of our beach ride. We were charmed with the beauty of the Rangitikei Valley scenery, which kept on improving until we reached Westoe. Here everything that refined taste and artistic skill could accomplish had been done to enhance the natural beauty of the situation. It was a pleasant surprise to find in such an out of the way part of New Zealand a miniature reproduction of an English gentleman's country house, with all its comforts and conveniences both inside and out. . .

In the sense that Fox was a country gentleman in the English manner, and that his attitude towards colonisation was central to his ideas about land ownership and development, these paintings are not divorced from his political thinking. Fox was convinced throughout his life that the need to develop and make productive was the basis of colonisation. His frustration and apparent radical change of position on Maori land confiscation was very much due to the fact that he thought the Maoris did not 'use! their land, and therefore did not value it or deserve it. As suggested above, many of the early landscapes emphasise not so much unspoiled primeval nature, but potential productivity. This preoccupation was evident even before he arrived in the country. In 1842, before leaving England, he wrote Colonization and New Zealand, the title page of which bore the following quotation from Milton's Paradise Lost:
This delicious place, where thy abundance wants / Partakers, and uncropp'd falls to the ground.

The document appears to rely heavily on information supplied by the New Zealand Company, and in it Fox proposes, without having left the shores of England - with a sort of confidence that was never to desert him - to 
give a short account of the present state and nature of that country which in many parts of England is very little known.

The document proceeds to a brief description of the colony of New Zealand, and a much lengthier argument about the merits of settling there. The logical outcome of this argument was of course Westoe, and Fox's status as landowner in New Zealand. In Colonization and New Zealand he discussed New Zealand's productivity:
concerning the productiveness of the country; in this respect, as might be anticipated from the climate, New Zealand is inferior to none.

the social structure of the colony:
The country is agricultural, not pastoral; the land has been disposed of in small contiguous lots; and the people have settled, and in all probability must continue to do so, in close communities. There are no convicts . . . Besides this, it happened that on the foundation of the colony so many respectable families went out, that the society at once assumed a superior tone. . .

and the possibility, through land ownership, of great social mobility:
[The emigrant] escapes from the straitened circumstances which oppressed him here; he finds an open sphere for the employment of his labour or capital. .. If the colony prosper (and it cannot prosper without him) the labourer becomes in time a small farmer; the small farmer a landowner, and the great capitalist the lord of a territory.

It would obviously be unfair to suggest that Fox saw himself as 'a great capitalist': but it is equally obvious that he didn't see himself starting at the bottom rung of the ladder. In his position as New Zealand Company agent he was in an ideal position to find out where the most productive areas of this eminently productive land were; and as Scholefield recounts:
Realising [in 1848] that the Company's life was drawing to its end, Fox purchased 5,000 acres of land in Rangitikei and established his Westoe station on one half while the other he disposed of in small farms on deferred payment to persons of little means.

WILLIAM FOX Lower Westoe, Rangitikei 1860
watercolour on brown paper 395 x 270 mm.
(Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library)

This seems to show a perfect blend of speculation and philanthropy. In a letter to the Hon. Constantine Dillon, dated 8th February 1850, he described the Rangitikei enthusiastically:
It is a splendid country - for the size. .. far the finest I have seen in New Zealand. It is magnificent grassland, and at the same time nearly 800 acres fit for wheat growing; better soil than any I have seen in New Zealand. . . About 25 miles from here the hills begin to recede from the sea, gradually widening, till you have a fine plain of from 30 to 40 miles wide running in fact all the way to New Plymouth, . . . and most of this is level, grassy and first rate agricultural land, with two large rivers. . .(10)

The location of his own estate on the rich river flats of the Rangitikei made it one of the most desirable agricultural opportunities then available. Although Fox was fully occupied by parliamentary life (he represented Wanganui and then Rangitikei from 1855, with a 'retirement' in 1860 - Scholefield reports Fox as saying years later: 'I had almost retired and was living on my farm at Rangitikei, but the unhappy events of the Taranaki war forced me into the position of leader of that party whose business it was to stand between the natives and the great injustices which were being perpetrated upon them,) he set up his gentleman's estate at Westoe, named after Westoe in County Durham, his family home.  J. G. Wilson writes in Early Rangitikei:
Lady Fox was a Miss Halcombe, and her nephew, Arthur Follett Halcombe, afterwards came and managed the property.(11)

and it is true that, what with parliamentary activities and trips abroad, Fox was often more an absentee landlord than a resident landowner. His occupation was sporadic throughout the 1860s; and he seems to have placed much faith in Halcombe's management. In a letter from Adelaide, 15 May 1865, to Halcombe(12) he wrote:

. . . as regards private affairs, I have none except to see how you are getting on, and so long as you pay 'the Rent', I shall take it for granted you are getting on well... [and concerning the lease of Westoe which Halcombe had by this time taken up, he requests] it must be in such shape as will not involve me in any expense or uncertainty.

Despite his confidence however, when he came to sell Westoe on his retirement, it was at a considerable loss. As early as 1868-9 his letters to Halcombe from Westoe display disillusionment and even apathy.
WESTOE 13 November 1868
Your sheep are all over the country. Willis makes great complaints and Curl is sending in his Bill for trespass. They have not bothered me.
WESTOE 3 April 1869.
Everything here is in a state of stagnation and bankruptcy and gets worse every day.

Apparently the dream of becoming 'the lord of territory' was not so easily achieved, despite the idealised world he had created in the paintings.

WILLIAM FOX Urenui c1882
watercolour 175 x 250 mm.
(Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library)

Another group of later paintings in the Alexander TurnbulI library concern Taranaki subjects, some painted at that time In Fox's life when he was considered to be so occupied with politics that he no longer had time to paint - or paint properly. However, many of these later Taranaki landscapes, particularly those painted of Mount Egmont from Urenui (where Halcombe had bought a farm after his departure from Westoe) show a high degree of finish and a painterly concern with effects of climate and atmosphere on the mountain itself. Mount Egmont is used as a motif, which is repeated from similar points of view but at various times of day - particularly times like sunset when dramatic effects were possible. Not quite Fox's Mont Sainte Victoire perhaps: but a more than topographic, documentary concern is evident here.

The mountain appears in another painting in the Turnbull library showing Mount Egmont, with a train appearing in the foreground. Fox's use of a train in a landscape setting again shows his interest in development and settlement. He does not see the train as a noisy intruder on an idyllic 'primeval' landscape, but as a welcome harbinger of progress.

Fox's interest in Taranaki dates from his early years as a parliamentarian: in 1861, for example, he spent considerable time touring the native districts of the North Island, including Taranaki, with Sir George Grey. A more taxing involvement came at the time of the confiscation of Maori lands in Taranaki in the 1880s. Fox was made Royal Commissioner, appointed to investigate this confiscation of land, and was subsequently asked to supervise the carrying out of the Commission's recommendations. This enterprise occupied Fox between 1880 and 1884, and meant that Fox was present in Taranaki during the Parihaka crisis.

Fox painted a panoramic watercolour of Te Whiti's pa at Parihaka at this time. He pays great attention here to the topographic reality of the scene, producing a documentary effect not unlike contemporary photographs of the scene.'] There is however no hint, in the technically competent and tranquil representation, of the tension that must have surrounded the pa at the time. The painting is dated 1882, apparently after the evacuation and destruction of the pa which began in 1881. Fox's date at the very least puts his painting in the middle of the troubles, yet records nothing of the crisis. The painting has the same dry flavour of documentation combined with an imposed tranquillity that can be seen in the Westoe pictures. Just as Te Whiti's torment is not allowed to disrupt this quiet village, so in the Westoe paintings there is no suggestion that at any moment Te Rauparaha could come rampaging over the hills. In both, it is as though the Maori wars had never been: yet Fox the politician spent much of his time and energy on the native cause. His attitude towards Maori affairs has been criticised,(14) but the point is that he was deeply involved yet none of this involvement is revealed in his paintings.

WILLIAM FOX Mount Egmont from Urenui c1882
watercolour 175 x 250 mm.
(Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library)

In his years of retirement, in Auckland, he obviously spent much time at Halcombe's farm at Urenui, where he painted his series of Mount Egmont. His retirement left him with time to paint, and his letters of this time reveal an interest in artistic affairs. He seems to have taken a Iively if patronising interest in the local art scene, and in the following comments (in a letter to Halcombe written from Auckland in 1891) he gives, in a rather negative way, an account of his own standards and expectations of painting. The comment is of great interest:
The exhibition on the whole was not even equal to its predecessors. Two of the most pretentious pictures were views of Mount Egmont, one by Wright and one by Bloomfield. For any resemblance they had to the reality, they might have been painted with the eyes shut. Bloomfield's idea of the mountain is. . .

(here he gives a crude and schematic sketch of a completely undifferentiated cone shape - interestingly not unlike Heaphy's Mount Egmont shape in his version of the motif)
and his colour a solid hard brilliant blue with streaks of white to represent the snow. Wright's is I think the worst attempt to represent the subject I ever saw. The mountain is a uniform heavy purple with a hideous white night cap on the top, which looks as if it had been stuck there by a plasterer. All the picture except the night cap being a heavy mass of dull brownish green and not a bit of sunshine in the picture. It would make me quite ill to have either of these works of art hung in my room. Yet the art critic of the Herald will give you half a column of art criticism in terms fit to describe a Turner or a Poussin. . .

These comments, irascible, even unreasonable though they are, give a perspective on all Fox's work. He remained true throughout his life as a gentleman artist to what he calls here 'reality': but his choice of Poussin and Turner as standards by which to judge the pretensions of Wright and Bloomfield (Blomfield?) and their like confirms what is evident in his works - a tendency to idealise, to remove the disruptive elements of contemporary existence, to present a world that, while based on careful observation, and meticulous presentation in terms of technique, reflects a dream of progress towards a social ideal firmly based on English ideas of colonisation

WILIAM FOX, Summer View of Bare Mount Egmont
watercolour, 175 x 245 mm.
(Collection of The Alexander Turnbull Libray)

1. Fox's involvement with the New Zealand Company began with his exploration of the Wairarapa district in 1843. He was offered the post of resident agent in Nelson in 1843 and became the principal agent there in 1845. In 1846 he went on the Brunner/Heaphy expedition, and in 1848 succeeded Colonel Wakefield as the principal agent of the New Zealand Company in Wellington.
2. Fox's parliamentary career began with his election to represent the City of Wellington in the Wellington Provincial Council in 1854. In 1855 he entered Parliament as member for Wanganui; from 1860-65 he held the Rangitikei seat. He became Premier for the first time in May 1856 - a short-lived ministry lasting only a fortnight. In 1861 he took office for the second time, resigning in the same year; in 1863 he formed another government, not as Premier but as colonial secretary and minister of native affairs. This ministry resigned in 1864. In 1868, after a period abroad, he was returned to Parliament for Rangitikei, as leader of the opposition. In June 1869 he moved a resolution of no confidence in the Government, and after its success became Premier again. In 1872 the Fox ministry was defeated by Stafford: but after only six months Fox was again in power, in a Waterhouse/Fox ministry. This was his last time in parliament - he retired in 1875.
3. Scholefield: page 65. A. B. Scablan in Egmont, the Story of a Mountain (Reed 1961), pp. 68-7), gives an account of Fox's ascent, but without the usual unqualified admiration:
' . . . there was no lack of helpers and the venerable abstainer (Fox) needed plenty of it. .. A novel method of propulsion left Sir William with some dignity. A rope was fastened to a pole embedded in the ground and held firmly while the determined visitor pulled himself up to the pole by means of the rope. The pole was then taken higher and driven in...' 
 In a newspaper interview 26 years later Guide Peters recalled that the object of the climbs was to demonstrate that a man of 78 who had been an abstainer would be as active and enduring as a man of 45. Peters added dryly: 'The experience gained during the ascent did not confirm the contention.'
4. E. H. McCormick, Sir William Fox: Public Man and Painter, Wellington, 1966
5. Among the scarce contemporary comments on Fox's work is a description of Fox's water-colour technique in J. W. Stack, Further Maoriland Adventures (Reed 1938: page 30): 
'Mr Fox was a good water-colour artist, and possessed a very large collection of drawings taken in various parts of the world. His rough sketches were made in an incredibly short space of time. He told us his secret was to work with a large brush, put his darkest colours on at once and tone down afterwards with another thick brush dipped in plain water.' 
McCormick (page 10) quotes C. w. Richmond's assessment of Fox: 'a capital draftsman, but a coarse colourist. . . his perspective was uniformly good..' 
For a rare personal comment on his work, see the letter to Halcombe quoted below.
6. Gordon H. Brown and Hamish Keith, New Zealand Painting: an introduction, Collins, 1969.
7. And yet, see below - the letter to Halcombe.
8. John Steegman, The Artist and the Country House, Country Life.
9. Further Maoriland Adventures of J. W. and E. Stack. ed. A. H. Reed. (Reed 1938).
10. The Dillon Letters, pp. 107-8, ed. C.A. Sharp, Wellington 1954
11. James C. Wilson, Early Rangitikei, Whitcombe & Tombs, 1914
12. The Halcombe letters are in manuscript in the Alexander Turnbull Library.
13. An example can be found in Looking Back, by Keith Sinclair and Wendy Harrex, 1978.
14. See for example Dick Scott, The Parihaka Story, Southern Cross, 1954

Originally published in Art New Zealand 11 Spring 1978