The Reverend John Kinder
Painter and Photographer


When John Kinder was first discovered as a painter of some significance in the history of New Zealand painting by The Auckland City Art Gallery in 1958, Hamish Keith's catalogue introduction presented the picture of a young middle-class Englishman of liberal persuasions: one among many of his generation who were willing 'to exchange the felicities and advantages of their cultivated society for a ruder colonial atmosphere.' Mr Keith had as his main source a manuscript in the painter's handwriting titled A Brief Account of My Life by J. Kinder, M.A., D.D. of 'Woodcroft' Remuera in the Neighbourhood of Auckland, 1900. It seems clear from hints in this manuscript that Kinder himself was well aware of the sacrifice he was making. And yet, with that species of Victorian Christian purpose, part idealism, part self-righteousness, he was willing to spend the second half of his life as a schoolmaster in a remote part of the Empire instilling the rudiments of Euclid and Greek grammar into the minds of children who were to live into the new century.

It seems to me that it is difficult fully to appreciate Kinder as a painter without some attempt to understand him as a man. Some idea of his personality can be gained by reading his autobiographical sketch: though unfortunately he has little to say here about his painting, and those who have written on Kinder have had to fall back on speculation as to his motivations and intentions.

JOHN KINDER Mercury Island, 1857
watercolour, 231 x 334 cm (collection of The Auckland City Art Gallery)

Kinder was born into an England where (in his own words) 'there were no steamboats, . . . no telegraphs, no telephones, no omnibuses, no bicycles, no penny post, not even gas (I think) or lucifer matches... In government the house of Commons was entirely in the hands of a few noble families. Agriculture was kept up by the corn laws. Roman Catholics and still less Jews were not admitted into Parliament. In the colonies there was no representative government but all were under the absolute control of the office in Downing St. There was little or no emigration to them as without steam they were too remote. Australia was looked upon as a place only fit for convicts. New Zealand and many others formed no part of the British dominions. Africa beyond the coast line and a few miles about the cape was unknown.'

Kinder's father was a well-off merchant and the family had at first lived in some style in a house in Portland Place. However, progressive failures in his business interests in Mexico placed them in reduced circumstances, later prompting Kinder's mother to open a preparatory school for boys and his sisters to seek positions as governesses (it was through one of his mother's pupils that Kinder met Aaron Penley, a successful academic watercolourist who' gave him the only lessons he seems to have had).

After attending a minor preparatory school, whose Master followed the educational principles of Pestalozzi, Kinderwent up to Cambridge in 1838, where he was at Trinity College (the classics college) and read for mathematical honours. In these years his interest in ecclesiastical antiquities and church architecture developed. 

JOHN KINDER Crater of Poerua, Pakaraka
watercolour, 15.5 x 34.5 cm (collection of The Auckland City Art Gallery)

In 1840, during a long vacation in France, Kinder travelled in Normandy, which was of interest to him because of its antiquities, and especially because of its Gothic architecture. He made many sketches of Gothic churches and ruined abbeys, examples of which are preserved. Some personal remarks in the text dealing with this period are of interest. He speaks of his youthful shyness and nervousness, and describes himself as of a retiring disposition, with a certain 'want of readiness in speaking'. He also admits that he was beginning to tire of mathematics, and to acquire a taste for French literature. 

It was in 1845 that Kinder saw much of Frederick Denison Maurice (he had met him a few years earlier), whose species of Christian Socialism evidently appealed to him. Maurice was certainly one of the liberalising forces in the Christianity of that time, with his denial of doctrines of eternal punishment, and the emphasis laid in his theology on God's redemption of Man. In 1845 Maurice was Professor of English at Kings College London, and, in addition to personal contacts, Kinder attended his lectures on English history and literature. It may be possible to gain an inkling of Kinder's temperament by knowing of his predelictions toward the ideas of such men as Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley. In the event Kinder decided for the clergy and in 1847 was ordained for a curacy in the East End of London. 

JOHN KINDER View from the Kinder Residence, Arney Road, 1888
watercolour, 25.4 x 25.5 cm (private collection, Auckland)

The turning-point in Kinder's destiny came when, after an interview with Selwyn at the S.P.G. Office in London, he got the job of Master of the Church of England Grammar School in Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand. 

The Auckland City Art Gallery's August exhibition Kinder's Auckland, which showed some fifty watercolours and drawings, together with a number of photographs, laid the emphasis, necessarily by reason of its intended scope, on Kinder the topographer, the recorder. Of course this is of historical and academic importance: but to me it is Kinder's least interesting side. I think, too, that it is plain to see how much Kinder developed his drawings from mere topographical observation by comparing his on-the-spot sketches with the watercolours that he produced in the studio - many of them years after. Kinder's habit was to take the drawings and photographs he had made on his many trips both north and south of Auckland and work them up at home later (Gordon H. Brown has proved by examining the watermarks in the paper of certain paintings inscribed with dates in the 'sixties that they were in fact made in the 'eighties, after earlier drawings). 

JOHN KINDER Kawau, 1857 - Old Copper Mine
watercolour, 22.1 x 32.8 cm (collection of The Auckland City Art Gallery)

The paintings have been analysed as falling roughly into two styles: a loose treatment with much broken colour, the result presumably of a plein-air working (an example is reproduced Kawau, 1857 - Old Copper Mine); and a more considered technique, built up from consecutive washes of colour. I agree. with Hamish Keith that Kinder's most significant achievement is seen in the second style, in such works as On Mercury Island, Manaia, Whangarei, and the well-known Keri Keri Falls (the last-named, interestingly, based on a print by another photographer). I suspect that if it was not for works like these, possessing as they do an 'icon-like' quality, Kinder's watercolours would have merely a nostalgic interest. 

The Master's garden at the Grammar School, c1863
(photograph in the collection of The Auckland Institute and Museum)

Gordon H. Brown, in a longish essay, has made some valuable suggestions as to Kinder's methods of working and the stylistic origins of his more ambitious works. Mr Brown lays much emphasis on Kinder's attitude of non-involvement, his command of a 'neutral' style. There is a plausible comment in the essay on Kinder's propensity to 'architecturalise' land-forms (though in connection with this he fails to mention Kinder's undoubted familiarity with Euclid and the classics of geometrical proportion, which surely must have been the main influence on the ordering of his compositions). I think myself that, notwithstanding these factors, Kinder's watercolours fit quite comfortably into a region of nineteenth century romanticism.  Mr Brown's own introduction of Ruskin and of Philipp Otto Runge points in this direction. We know from his autobiographical notes that Kinder in the more formative years of his life was interested in Thomas Carlyle and in the literature of French and German Romanticism. Consider also such clues as Kinder's interest in the Gothic, his early education under a teacher influenced by ideas derived from those of Rousseau. If we look further in these directions I think we will conclude that New Zealand is being seen with a Ruskinian eye, that of a strayed and perhaps unconscious Pre-Raphaelite. From these hybrid strains arise the poetry and ambiguity of Kinder's best works.

The Master's house at the Grammar School, c1869
(photograph in the collection of The Auckland Institute and Museum)

Leading Sources:
1.  A Brief Account of My Life by J Kinder... A photocopy of the original manuscript is in the Auckland and Institute Museum library.
2. John Kinder, catalogue by Hamish Keith and Ross Fraser, Auckland City Art Gallery, 1958.
3.  The Ferrier-Watson Collection of Watercolours by John Kinder, by Gordon H. Brown (Waikato Art Gallery Bulletin No.2), 1970.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 2 October/November 1976