The New Zealand Paintings of William Strutt


Although his New Zealand sojourn lasted for only sixteen months (from March 1855 until July 1856) William Strutt was certainly the most competent professional artist to visit this country in the mid-nineteenth century. Born at Teignmouth, Devonshire, in 1825 into an artistic family, Strutt received his first drawing instruction at the age of twelve from a tutor in Boulogne, France. In 1838 he entered the Paris atelier of Michel-Martin Drolling, a history painter; and the following year he was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. From 1843 he worked in the atelier of another history painter, Joseph-Nicholas Jouy, returning to England in 1848.

In 1850, 'seized with the urge to seek new fields', Strutt paid his passage on the frigate Culloden, which was then advertising for 'persons of respectability desirous of emigrating to Port Phillip and Sydney', and on 26 February set sail for Australia.(1)

At the time of his arrival in Melbourne in July1850 Strut had intended to try life in the bush: but instead he found a position as an illustrator on the Illustrated Australian Magazine, published by the Ham Brothers, a firm of lithographers and printers. He also painted several portraits, depicted political events at the beginning of Victoria's history as a separate colony, and in 1852 visited the gold fields at Ballarat.

WILLIAM STRUTT Self-Portrait as a New Zealand Bushman
pen, ink and wash, 230 x 267 mm.
(The Dixson Library, Sydney)

Strutt's earlier ambition was not to be realised until 1855 when he landed in Nelson, New Zealand, with his wife and young child on the schooner Marchioness.(2) Two weeks later he arrived in Taranaki,(3) and purchased a 100 acre block of land, ten miles from New Plymouth.

With the help of friends, Strutt cleared and burnt off a section and established a neat little bush house and garden. His pioneering progress is recorded in a series of precise drawings (in his albums in the Alexander Turnbull Library). It was in this bush house that his son, Alfred William, was born in January 1856.

Becoming disenchanted with the solitude of bush life, Strutt and his family returned to New Plymouth, where he made many studies of Maoris and the landscape round the town before returning to Melbourne in July 1856.(4)

Strutt painted seven known oils of New Zealand subjects. As they have now all been located, they are reproduced together for the first time as illustrations to this article.

The first, a fairly uninspiring oil entitled Taranaki (showing Mt. Egmont from the country in the vicinity of New Plymouth) (Alexander Turnbull Library) is dated 1856 and must have been painted about the time of Strutt's return to Melbourne. At the time of his arrival in Taranaki, Strutt, like other artists, had been struck by his first sight of Mount Egmont, which
as we approached was most impressive: its beautiful outline and the grandeur of its form standing alone and towering up to the height of 9000 feet, its summit crowned with perpetual snow, glittering in the clear atmosphere of this region, cannot be described or painted; it must be seen to realize its wonderful beauty. (5)

WILLIAM STRUTT War Dance at Taranaki; Mount Egmont in the Distance
oil on canvas, 315 x 415 mm. (oval) (Private collection)

This is all too true: for although the mountain appears in the background of several of Strutt's New Zealand paintings, he never managed to convey the mystery and sublimity of Mount Egmont - which had been captured in a watercolour by Charles Heaphy, artist and surveyor to the New Zealand Company fifteen years earlier.

A second oil, Beach at Taranaki, New Zealand, with Maoris and boats, 1855 (National Library of Australia, Rex Nan Kivell Collection) may be identical with N.Z. coastal scene, a work by Strutt that was exhibited with the Victorian Society of Fine Arts in Melbourne in 1857. It was later purchased by Rex Nan Kivell from a descendant of the artist.(6)

Strutt completed two further New Zealand paintings during his second residence in Melbourne (both are now in a private collection). War dance at Taranaki, New Zealand, Mount Egmont in the distance also was shown at the 1857 exhibition of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts. Contemporary Melbourne critics admired the painting, although they found the snow-cap of the Mount Egmont rather too prominent. For example, the Illustrated journal of Australasia remarked:

The best production of the artist now shown is a War Dance at Taranaki, New Zealand; in which both landscape and figures are produced with extreme delicacy; and the picture would be altogether covetable were it not for a clumsy snow-cap to Mount Egmont in the distance, which brings the mountain not merely out of the picture, but almost into the centre of the room. (7)

WILLIAM STRUTT Beach at Taranaki, with Maoris and boats
oil on board, 130 x 175 mm.
(National Library of Australia, Canberra)

The war dance itself takes place in the centre of the painting: while in the foreground a young warrior stands over a group of women and children. At the right of this group is seated the old chief Rawiri, holding a greenstone mere. (Strutt made several studies of Rawiri while in Taranaki, being especially fascinated by his tattooing, and the war dance derives from several spirited drawings that Strutt made from life at the same time.)

The painting was exhibited again, probably in 1861, at Norton's Picture-Frame Manufactory, 83 Corlins Street, Melbourne. Priced at 45 guineas, it was one of three paintings which Strutt hoped to dispose of by Art Union.(8)

View of Mount Egmont, Taranaki, N.Z., taken from New Plymouth, with Maoris driving off settlers' cattle was completed in 1861 and written up by the Melbourne Argus as follows:
Mr. Strutt, to whose merits as an artist this journal has frequently borne lestimony, has just completed a picture of more than usual interest. It represents a raid of New Zealanders upon the flocks and herds of some settlers; and as every figure in this composition was a study from the life, and all the adjuncts of the scene are likewise faithfully copied from nature. it invites, and will repay, a careful examination. In the middle distance several Maories [sic] are seen urging the cattle they have lifted at full speed up a grassy slope, while one ot the natives has just dropped from the bullet of the pursuers, who are only indicated by the smoke of their rifles to the left. In the foreground an ambush of natives, half hidden by the beautiful vegetation of the country (among which the kopakopa and the superb Nikau are conspicuous), are marking down the pursuing settlers with deadly precision. This group of figures is painted with masterly skill and high finish, and a like attention has been paid to the more distant objects, Mount Egmont, and the neighbouring range of hills, and to the aspect assumed by the clouds which gather round that snowy peak towards sunset. (9)

The painting was exhibited in the Victorian Picture Gallery, in Collins Street, Melbourne, in December 1861.

WILLIAM STRUTT View of Mount Egmont, Taranaki, N.Z., taken from New Plymouth, with Maoris driving off settlers' cattle 1867
oil on canvas, 644 x 840 mm. (Private collection)

In the five years after his return to Melbourne from New Zealand, Strutt was also commissioned to paint the portraits of several prominent Melbourne citizens. He was on the committee of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts, which held its first and only exhibition in December 1857; and in 1860 he made drawings of the departure of the Burke and Wills' Exploring Expedition from Melbourne: In 1861, after the news of the death of Burke and Wills reached, Melbourne, Strutt gathered eye-witness accounts and made preliminary studies for a reconstruction of The burial of Burke, a large oil which was not completed until 1911.

In January 1862, after completing a full-length posthumous portrait of Robert O'Hara Burke, Strutt returned to England, where he pursued an active painting career until his death at Wadhurst, Sussex, in 1915. From 1865 until 1906 he exhibited a wide range of subjects with the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of British Artists: religious works, genre, animal paintings, together with exotic and classical subjects. He was most admired for his paintings of lions, for which he made many studies at the London Zoo and the Menagerie at Margate. Most of Strutt's best-known colonial paintings were also completed after his return to England, including three New Zealand subjects.

In 1863 a group of Maori chiefs and their wives visited England; and in November the baby son of Hare Pomare and his wife Hariata was christened in the district church at Tottenham, in the presence of a representative of Queen Victoria, who stood as godmother to the infant. Shortly after, Hare Pomare and Hariata were received by the Queen at Windsor Castle. It must have been on this occasion that Bambridge, the Queen's private photographer, and John Mayall, another well-known Victorian photographer, took carte-de-visite photographs of the Maori couple with their baby.(10)

William Strutt was living in Tottenham at the time, and took a great interest in the event. In December he made several head studies of Pomare (now in the Strutt albums in the Alexander Turnbull Library). By August 1864 he had completed a painting of the family, together with another chief, Patuone, in a pose which closely echoes one of Mayall's photographs. The painting was exhibited before Queen Victoria at Osborne in August 1864, later acquired by T. Ernest Waltham, and in 1957 was purchased by Rex Nan Kivell at auction at Christies, London.(11)

WILLIAM STRUTT Maoris beaching their canoes at Onehunga 1856
oil on canvas, 420 x 785 mm. (Alexander Turnbull Library)

In 1865 Strutt completed another New Zealand painting, Maoris beaching their canoes & going off to market, at Onehunga near Auckland (Alexander Turnbull Library).(12) This was based on a scene that Strutt witnessed on the beach at Onehunga, during a brief stay there prior to departing from Auckland for Melbourne in 1856. For this work, Strutt drew on his Taranaki studies as well as some made at Onehunga, and until recently the painting was known as The beach, New Plymouth, probably because of its similarity to a Taranaki drawing of the same title (also in the Alexander Turnbull library). However, the discovery in 1974 of an album of photographs of Strutt's paintings in the possession of one of his descendants revealed the true title and subject of the painting, which was described in the artist's autobiography as follows:
Before leaving Onehunga a pretty sight presented itself to us. The morning was lovely, and the charming bay and beach were quite animated with a fleet of canoes, just arrived with all sorts of produce for the Auckland market. The picturesque canoes were beached to the lively song of the natives, their contents landed, and the tribe gathered together to hear a short speech from a fine old chief, which done, the kits (native baskets) were shouldered, or strapped to the backs of the bearers, with the strong and handy slings, each generally as well, carrying a huge cum cum or pumpkin, while not a few drove fat pigs tied by one leg to the market.(13)

In 1912 this painting, together with Taranaki [showing Mt. Egmont. . . ] 1856 and Strutt's New Zealand drawings, was purchased from the artist by Angus and Robertson; and the following year acquired by the Wellington collector Alexander Turnbull.

The last recorded New Zealand painting by Strutt was An ambush, New Zealand, 1859, which was exhibited with the Society of British Artists in London in 1867. This is probably identical with a small oil entitled Maoris in ambuscade. (Now in a private collection, this painting was purchased in London in 1968, incorrectly attributed to Gottfried Lindauer, and was correctly identified as the work of Strutt by Hamish Keith, then Keeper at the Auckland City Art Gallery. Figure drawings in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and the National Library of Australia, Canberra, conclusively support Mr. Keith's re-attribution.).

WILLIAM STRUTT Taranaki 1856
oil on canvas, 332 x 708 mm.
(The Alexander Turnbull Library)

Five fierce Maoris crouch and lie in a small clearing in the bush, preparing to ambush a passing soldier. This was probably a reconstruction of a specific incident, of which Strutt was informed after his return to Melbourne. It is interesting that three of Strutt's New Zealand paintings show the Maori in his more warlike aspect. In his autobiography the artist had mentioned the hostile behaviour of the Maoris in the Waitara district; and his albums in the Alexander Turnbull Library include a drawing of a carved pole, Te pou Tutaki, or Fitzroy's pole, which had been erected in 1845 by the Maoris to define for the Europeans the boundary of permitted settlement.

Contemporary depictions of New Zealand colonial events are rare. It is fortunate that these few examples by an artist of Strutt's calibre still exist. He is well-known in Australia for his epic painting of Black Thursday (1864, La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria), a tableau depicting settlers and animals in flight from a bush fire which destroyed large areas of Victoria in 1851; for his Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852 (R.A.1887, The University of Melbourne, Russell Grimwade Bequest), a reconstruction of a hold-up which took place on the St. Kilda Road near Melbourne in 1852; and for a large oil painting of The burial of Burke (1911, La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria).

WILLIAM STRUTT Hare Pomare, his Wife Harriet & Infant Son Albert Victor, with a Maori Chieftain 1863
oil on canvas, 280 mm. diameter
(National Library of Australia, Canberra)

Twentieth century interest (like colonial taste) has until recently been directed towards the representation of landscapes rather than incidents. It is only in the last decade that Strutt has been acknowledged as one of the most important, and certainly the most accomplished painter to visit the colonies in the mid-nineteenth century. By the use of classical poses and compositional formulae that derive from his academic training, he invested his subjects with a dignity which elevated them above the level of mere genre painting. Most of his works are composite productions, carefully assembled out of detailed studies made from nature. It is this concern for accuracy (for example in the costumes and botanical embellishments of his New Zealand subjects) that gives them that authenticity of time and place so important to the academic history painter of the nineteenth century.

1. An account of William Strutt's life in Australia and New Zealand may be found in The Australian Journal of William Strutt, A.R.A., 1850-1862, 2 volumes (edited by G. Mackaness), Sydney, Halstead Press, 19S8.
2. Nelson Examiner, 17 March 1855, lists Strutt among the passengers for Nelson who arrived on the Marchioness on 14 March.
3. Taranaki Herald, 28 March 1855, lists Mr and Mrs Strutt among the passengers on the coastal steamer Nelson, which arrived in New Plymouth on 27 March.
4. Daily Southern Cross, 8 July1856, lists Mr Wm Strutt and 2 children among the passengers on the William Denny, which sailed from Auckland on 4 July.
5. 'Autobiography of William Strutt, 1850-1862', pages 80-81. Typescript, NK 4367, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
6. Information supplied by a descendant of William Strutt.
7. Illustrated Journal of Australasia, January 1858, page 37.
8. Printed notice of Art Union of works by Strutt, on Norton's. On verso of Acc. R3852, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
9. Melbourne Argus, 8 October 1861
10. Copies of the photographs by Bambridge and Mayall are in the Alexander Turnbull Library.
11. For a full discussion of the iconography of this painting, see: Leonard Bell, 'The making of a portrait: William Strutt's Hare Pomare and Family, 1863-64', Bulletin of New Zealand Art History, Volume 6,1978, pages 31-39.
12. See: Heather Curnow, 'Notes on a New Zealand painting by William Strutt (1825-1915)', Turnbull Library Record, Volume 9 (n.s.) number 2, October 1976, pages 22-23.
13. 'Autobiography of William Strutt, 1850-1862', page 115. Typescript, NK 4367, National Library of Australia, Canberra.

WILLIAM STRUTT Maoris in Ambuscade
oil on canvas, 280 x 420 mm.
(Private collection)

Heather Curnow is a free-lance writer who specialises in the fine arts (particularly in colonial painting). Her monograph on The life and art of William Strutt will be published in a limited edition by Alister Taylor, Martinborough, later this year.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 13 Spring 1979