G.F. Von Tempsky: The Man & The Artist

The recent Von Tempsky exhibition at the Waikato Art Museum was the first to present a comprehensive coverage of the work and career of a man who has been described as one of New Zealand's few 'folk heroes'. Over a hundred watercolours, drawings, lithographs and woodcut book illustrations after Von Tempsky pictures, and colour photographs of paintings not available for exhibition, were gathered together. Good examples of Von Tempsky's Prussian, Central American, Californian, British and Australian work, as well as his New Zealand paintings and drawings, were included. Information about his career and elevation to 'folk hero' status, extracts from his letters, and a variety of portraits of Von Tempsky were also on display providing a necessary and useful background for the pictures. It was a valuable and most interesting show - one of the best historical exhibitions in recent years of an artist who worked in New Zealand. Thanks are due to Rose Young, who was primarily responsible for the research and organisation.

G.F. von TEMPSKY On General Chute's March 1868
watercolour, 252 x 355 mm. (Collection of the National Museum, Wellington)

Von Tempsky is popularly known as a 'dashing', 'glamorous', and 'colourful' soldier outwitting the Maori at their own game in the bush during the Land Wars of the mid-1860's, before dying heroically in combat. One wonders how long the myth can survive now we know that. under his direction fleeing Maoris were killed, and villages, including undefended ones, looted and burned. This cannot adequately be explained away as necessary or inevitable in war. Von Tempsky's unpublished Memoranda of the New Zealand Campaign in 1863 and 1864 contains several cruelly racist remarks about his Maori opponents. On one occasion he compared them to carrion crows; and on another he asserted that the responses of Maoris to pain were 'a sure sign of an inferior organisation much too like that of the less well developed classes of animal life to be desirable in a race of men'. These passages were not quoted in the exhibition or catalogue. Perhaps they should have been.

The mythologising of Von Tempsky, the man, has probably contributed to the neglect in the writings about his art of what I consider essential features in his depiction of the Maori. One writer suggested that Von Tempsky presented the Maori as a 'noble adversary'. That is simply incorrect. In almost all Von Tempsky's pictures of war scenes his Maori enemies were presented negatively as grimacing and/or wildly gesticulating 'savages', defeated or about to be defeated by European soldiers striking traditional and stereotypical 'noble' and 'heroic' poses, which echo innumerable nineteenth century paintings celebrating or romanticising war and fighting men. The pose of the central figure and the situation depicted in Ambuscade in Taranaki, (1866, Auckland Institute and Museum) provides an exception, but only in part. The Maori figures still have wild and bulging-eyed 'crazy' looks. Most likely Von Tempsky chose the pose of the central figure not out of any sympathy for the Maori, but simply because it enhanced the dramatic effect of the picture. His jingoism and belief in the innate superiority of the European did not allow any real respect for the Maori.

G.F. von TEMPSKY Mosquito Indian Sooko, Chief of Quamwatta 1856
pencil, 230 x 180 mm. (The Alexander Turnbull Library)

The quality of his paintings and drawings varied greatly. At his best Von Tempsky could produce lively pictures - charmingly decorative in colour and design. This applies to the battle pictures too. That may seem odd but they are basically romances or fictions in which the participants 'play' at war, even if they are based on actual events. At his worst, Von Tempsky's technical deficiencies, the defects in draughtsmanship and in the modelling of the figures, do not seem 'naive' or 'primitive' - as they do in some pictures thus working to their advantage - but are simply clumsy, banal, and amateurish.

Von Tempsky exhibited his war paintings in Wellington and Auckland, where they were praised. They were painted to sell. That is to say, it is unlikely his pictures were intended as historical records of the events they referred to. He wrote that he hoped the Maoris in his paintings were 'sufficiently true to nature to be recognisable and sufficiently idealised[?]to suit my artistic purposes'. This suggests that Von Tempsky wanted to paint striking pictures full of excitement, adventure, and exoticism, regardless of ethnological and historical accuracy. Given the tastes of the day these were more likely to sell. Some paintings, like the Maori War Council (c1866-67, Hawkes Bay Art Gallery and Museum) and Ambuscade in Taranaki, were purely imaginary concoctions. Von Tempsky could not have witnessed such incidents.

He did participate in some of the events he, depicted. For instance General Chute's March (1868, National Museum, Wellington) is based on first-hand experience. But the painting does not really present or record anything new or valuable in an historical sense. The compostional and emotional focal point is the 'friendly' Maori girl on a white horse - an exotic, beguiling, and incongruous motif in the drab column of marching anonymous soldiers extending interminably into the distance, investing the image with an almost nostalgic quality. Painted two years after the march for Sir William Fox, it was another exercise in the picturesque and the fanciful.. The reference to the actual event was primarily a pretext for this.

G.F. von TEMPSKY Maori War Council 1866-7
watercolour, (Collection of the Hawkes Bay Gallery and Museum)

Working in different places for different reasons Von Tempsky had produced very different types of images. For example some of his drawings of Central American Indians show an interest in delineating their facial features and characteristic 'look' as accurately and faithfully as possible - qualities notably absent from his New Zealand work. And there is a sketch of a Californian gambler that, unlike the New Zealand material, is astutely observed and psychologically realistic.

Von Tempsky was one of the stock characters of the nineteenth century European colonialist and imperialist expansion - the adventurer who tried his hand all over the globe. He came into contact with a wide variety of peoples and cultures with attitudes to life and land radically different from his own: yet, despite all the bloodshed, he remained resolutely convinced of the absolute 'rightness' and 'superiority' of the European style of 'Christianity and Civilisation'.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 10 Winter 1978