Dunedin in the Eighteen-Nineties

R.D.J. COLLINS

The 1890s have long been recognised as a crucial period in the history of New Zealand art. Gordon H. Brown and Hamish Keith sum it up neatly as a time of 'Arrivals and Departures', but 'Tradition, Arrivals and Departures' might give a more accurate impression, uniting - as did the decade itself - a shift toward the decline of one thread of New Zealand painting, and the revelation of others. The art societies and the aesthetic values they represented were at their peak; the arrivals of mature artists with new ways of seeing the world were soon reflected in teaching studios and exhibitions; the pattern of journeys to Europe was becoming established, often, but not necessarily, to the detriment of painting in this country.

In the early years of the decade, Dunedin and its suburbs were the home of approximately one New Zealander in fifteen. The city's commercial power, displayed outwardly in its architecture, was closely associated with a strong and varied cultural tradition which confirmed its eminence on a national scale. Dunedin could boast of the colony's first university (founded In 1869), its first art school (1870), one of its first art societies (1876) and its first public art gallery (1884). The province's museum was established in 1869, four years after the New Zealand Exhibition, which had included a Picture Gallery. On a far grander scale, the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition of 1889-90 gloried in its Art Gallery, filled with hundreds of works from Europe and the Australasian colonies.

GP NERLI Portrait of Arthur Hadfield Fisher, c1894
watercolour 45.3 x 28.6 cm (collection of the Hocken Library)

Dunedin's interest in the fine arts centred on the activities of the Otago Art Society, which in 1890 had 82 members (the catalogue for that year makes no distinction between 'honorary' and 'working' members, and this figure may refer only to the latter). In 1891 membership was 157, rising slowly thereafter to a peak of 191 in 1895, before declining more rapidly to 139 in 1899. Then too, there were the Art Club, a more select and intimate group which met regularly in the homes of its members, and the Easel Club which appears to have come into existence in mid-1895 as a reaction against the Dunedin art establishment.

William Mathew Hodgkins (1833-1898) epitomises much of this local tradition. His first attempt to establish an Art Gallery, in 1869, was unsuccessful: but further moves which he initiated in 1878 and 1882 bore ultimate fruit in 1884, when the Art Society voted to relinquish its own collection of pictures for public display in the museum. Hodgkins was a founder-member of the Art Society and served as its President during the nineteen years which preceded his death. He was the leader of the Art Club. He was Secretary of the Fine Arts Committee for the 1889-90 Exhibition. He was a critic, a theoretician and a teacher. He was an accomplished water-colourist in a style and a spirit which reflect his own origins. Like most of the nineteenth century artists who worked in New Zealand, he was English by birth, although an insular vision - based on the traditions of landscape and water-colour in general and the works of Turner in particular - was perhaps tempered by a period spent in Paris in the 1850s. In 1898 the Otago Art Society's annual exhibition included eighty-seven of his works in a commemorative loan-exhibition. Their titles fall into three catagories: (1) Art Club sketches, on themes such as Fading Light and Broken Reeds, Dead Sedge, and Barges That Have Done Their Work; (2) New Zealand landscapes, ranging from Pembroke Peak and Stirling Falls, Milford Sound in the west, and Canterbury Plains, from Mt Peel in the east, to Storm in Otira Gorge in the north; (3) Imaginative reconstructions of historical events such as Tasman's Ships, Zeehaen and Heemskercq, Attacked by Natives in Murderers Bay, Nelson, December 19th, 1642 and Dusky Sound - An Incident in Cook's Second Voyage. Even this brief list makes evident the preoccupations and preconceptions which mark W.M. Hodgkins so clearly as a painter of his time, carrying a body of traditions forward to the eve of the new century.

PETRUS VAN DER VELDEN Portrait of William Mathew Hodgkins 1892
black chalk, 38.4 x 29.8 cm (collection of the Hocken Library)

The first of the notable 'arrivals' was probably that of Girolamo Pieri Nerli (1863-1926), whom A.H. O'Keeffe later recalled working on the New South Wales court at the 1889 Exhibition. Nerli was himself an exhibitor on this occasion: nine works are listed in the official catalogues, although the Bacchanalian Feast described at length in two Dunedin newspapers, mentioned too by O'Keeffe in his recollections, does not appear in these lists. A Study of a Lady was judged worthy of a 'first award' in the section for 'Paintings in oils and watercolours'. Whether Nerii then settled In Dunedin or returned to Sydney before undertaking his celebrated travels in the South Seas is unclear: what is certain is that he was a working member of the Otago Art Society from 1893 to 1897, an exhibitor each year from 1893 to 1896, and a member of the Society's Council from 1894 to 1896. Moreover, he was one of the co-founders of both the Otago Art Academy early in 1894 and - with Grace Joel among others - of the Easel Club in 1895. He was appointed to a position at the Otago School of Art and Design in February 1895, a position he no longer occupied by November of the following year. It was also in 1896 that Nerli moved to Auckland, leaving behind his pupils (among them Frances Hodgkins), a number of paintings (among them a portrait of W.M. Hodgkins) and recollections of an 'impressionist style' and 'pleasing... colouring'. James Mclachlan Nairn (1859-1904) reached Dunedin directly from Glasgow in the first days of 1890. It is reported that he stayed briefly in the city, finding it possible to lecture and exhibit his work, before travelling to visit relatives in Southland. Thence he travelled north to settle in Wellington before the end of the year. The length and number of his Dunedin visits remain uncertain, and the direct personal influence he could have exerted there still remains to be assessed (the ever-helpful O'Keeffe reports a conversation with Nairn before the window of a George Street art dealer), but the annual Art Society exhibitions were perhaps a less obtrusive way of making his presence felt. Although Nairn became a working member only in 1893, remaining so at least until the end of the decade, he exhibited with the Society from 1891 to 1898, with a break in 1896: during this period he showed a total of twenty-seven works.

Title page of the catalogue to the Otago Art Society's Nineteenth Annual Exhibition, 1895

That Nairn, teaching and painting in Wellington, should have deemed membership of the Otago Art Society desirable, need not surprise us. Brown and Keith have made the point quite clearly: 'To a considerable extent the eighteen-nineties was the decade of the Art Societies, and to understand this period fully it must be considered against a background dominated by these societies. Van der Velden, Nairn,. Nerli, along with most other practising painters, all exhibited with the art societies, and it was quite usual for the better painters to send their major works around the country. . .' But not only the better painters: taking one Dunedin resident as our example we can observe that between 1890 and 1899 Frances Hodgkins sent work once to the Auckland Society of Arts, five times to the New Zealand Academy in Wellington, and eight times to the Canterbury Society of Arts, as well as showing each year with her home Society. Financial reasons must have played a big part in this regional interchange of works of art. E.H. McCormick has shown how important art society sales were for Frances Hodgkins, even - or perhaps more so - after she settled in Europe. Of the twenty-seven works Nairn showed in Dunedin from 1891 to 1898, twenty-two were for sale for a total of just over 300.

Three years after his arrival in New Zealand, Petrus van der Velden (1837-1913) sold to the Otago Art Society for 130 A Waterfall in the Otira Gorge, which had been exhibited with the Society the previous year; the observant O'Keeffe suggests that W.M. Hodgkins was instrumental in the acquisition of this major work which was promptly integrated into the Public Art Gallery's collection. However A Waterfall. . . was not van der Velden's only 1892 offering. The catalogue records a scene from seventeenth century Dutch history, but refrains from listing in detail the seventy-four studies and sketches which were grouped together in 'the side room'. After this massive showing - all the more surprising when one notes that he did not become a working member until the following year - Van der Velden showed only three more works with the Otago Art Society (two, including Old Jack in 1893, and one in 1896) although his name continues to appear in the lists of members until 1897.

In retrospect, four of the young Dunedin painters of the 'nineties stand out - A.H. O'Keeffe (1858-1941), Grace Joel (1865-1924), Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947) and James F. Scott (1877-1932) - and it is in their work that we will perhaps one day see most clearly the influence of the three European expatriates whose exhibits contributed to the Otago Art Society's zenith in the early and middle years of the decade.

GRACE JOEL Girl with Poppies
oil on canvas, 59.5 x 49.5 cm (collection of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch)

O'Keeffe first exhibited with the Society in 1886, although becoming a working member only in 1887, and exhibited thereafter in 1887-8, 1890-93 and 1895. His name disappears from the lists of members after 1897, but he in due course returned to the fold and was an honoured and active member of the Society after the turn of the century. He knew Nairn, Nerli and Van der Velden, and it is perhaps the spirit of the Dutch painter that is most strongly recalled by the often sombre tonality, the chiaroscuro and the pathos of O'Keeffe's mature painting. A first visit abroad, to Australia, was followed by a longer journey, to the Académie Julian in Paris where he studied in 1894: this period is reflected in the titles of three works exhibited in Dunedin in 1895, Pont-Neuf, On the Seine and Near Notre-Dame. (Did this example stir W.M. Hodgkins's own memories? In any case he too showed a Paris scene, In the Latin Quarter, Paris - 1855, in the same exhibition.)

Despite the quality of her painting, Grace Joel has not yet attracted the full attentions of art historians, and even her biography is full of obscure points and conjecture. Her membership of the Otago Art Society is uninterrupted from 1886 until 1899 at least, and she exhibited in 1886-87,1890 and 1894-98. In 1889 she received a first prize at the Melbourne Public library (in what context is not specified) for a charcoal drawing of an Old Man's Head which was seen in Dunedin in 1890. Painting from the nude won her another first prize in Melbourne in 1894. Thereafter her presence in Dunedin is confirmed by her membership of the Art Society Council from 1895 to 1898, by a Canterbury Society of Arts catalogue of 1895 which gives her address as Dunedin, by her association with the Easel Club in mid-1895, and by the exhibition of two Dunedin views in 1897 and 1898. It has been suggested that she left for Paris and the Académie Julian about 1901, and that she returned briefly to New Zealand in 1906, before settling permanently in Europe. It is perhaps little wonder that her relationships with the new leaders of New Zealand painting have not yet been adequately explored. It has been suggested that Van der Velden influenced her anecdotal figure paintings; the association with Nerli is firmly established; a comparison of the titles of works shown by Nairn and Grace Joel at the Otago Art Society suggests if not another influence, at least a similarity of intention and interest, the most striking parallel being between Nairn's Motif, Blue and Yellow (exhibited 1894) and Grace Joel's Harmony in Blue and Yellow (1895).

It is obvious that the Hodgkins household was familiar with the paintings, and doubtless consequently with the ideas of all the members of the expatriate trio. In particular, one may recall the teaching Frances received from Nerli, and the suggestion that Van der Velden's Old Jack was perhaps the inspiration for one of her own water-colours. She first appears as an exhibitor ('Miss F. Hodgkins' to distinguish her from her older and more highly regarded sister 'Miss Hodgkins') and as a working member of the Art Society in 1890, remaining faithful to the annual exhibitions throughout the period under consideration, and beyond. She too served as a Councillor, in 1899-1900, before leaving for England in 1901. The bonds with Dunedin and the Otago Art Society remained strong for a number of years, but one by one they broke as she became more and more firmly rooted in Europe.

James F. Scott is another 'second generation' member of the Society, his father John H. Scott having joined it in 1878, before serving as Secretary for many years. James Scott became a working member only in 1896, and continues to appear in the membership lists until the end of the decade, exhibiting in 1897 (when he received the Society's Silver Medal for a Set of Six Drawings in black and white, illustrating Bracken's Poems), in 1898 (when a Sketch near Port Chalmers won him another medal) and in 1899 (when the titles of his works show that he too had followed the example of others and travelled to Europe.) Scott is another artist whose early work remains ill-documented, but the small oils of European subjects dating from around 1900 reveal a sensibility shaking off the traditions of Dunedin and opening to the influences of Paris, where he studied for a time.

Traditions, arrivals, departures and - occasionally - returns. O'Keeffe appears to have remained painting and teaching in Dunedin until his death. His influence is said to have been considerable. James F. Scott returned to teach in Wellington; although confident in form, his later works seem to belie the excitement and promise one senses in his paintings from the turn of the century. Grace Joel and Frances Hodgkins escaped from the constraints of a provincial environment, to their immediate and personal advantage, but perhaps ultimately also to the advantage of the country they left, as they return in their mature works to challenge and enchant later generations.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 2 October/November 1976