Notes towards a van der Velden Mythology

T.L. RODNEY WILSON

JUNE 21,1890: Petrus van der Velden, his wife and three children, arrived at Sumner. During the next eight years his life in Christchurch was to give rise to many memorable stories. Van der Velden's constantly recurring problem - his Achilles heel as it were - seems to have been money! It could lead to troubles with the contractor who built his studios. It could cause him to be dismissed from the Art Society (of which he was an executive member) for failure to pay his dues. It led eventually to his faithful friend Alfred John Carmichael stepping in and bailing him out of his difficulties in order that Van der Velden and his family, might depart for Sydney in May 1898. Finally, as we shall come to see, it had him up before the Magistrate in Wellington.

Only seven months after his arrival in Christchurch the painter had already discovered that area of New Zealand upon which he was to make his mark - Otira. A little sketch-book in the National Gallery, Wellington, dated January 23 1891, records the first trip to Otira. It was the trip that resulted in the principal work of this important series, now a keystone in the New Zealand collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Some pages of this sketchbook show the famous Cobb & Co. stage-coaches which made the Christchurch, Otira, Hokitika run. One shows the Otira Hotel - Van der Velden's usual abode during these trips to the Otira region.

According to Grace Adams in Jack's Hut, the store-keeper at Goat Creek, who was Justice of the Peace and unofficial Mayor of Otira, could remember 'that queer old bird'.

'Don't I remember him sitting there on the verandah in the sun, with a pot of ale in one hand, and his pipe, waiting for a decent storm to brew up.'

Van der Velden in his studio with the painting Disillusioned or The Sorrowful Future

And when it did, so reconstructions of Van der Velden's habits relate, the artist would hurriedly depart for the river to work amongst the boulders of the river bed, the deafening roar of the cascading water resounding in his ears and scurrying storm clouds sweeping overhead. True or not it hardly matters - stories like this are rich in the images which they provide to our imagination.

The following scene takes place in Fisher's artists' supplies shop in Christchurch: Van der Velden has just returned 'white hot' from Otira.

To Mr J.H. Fisher:
'Haff you a stretched canvas this big by this big?' (Gestures with the hands)
'No.'
'My Gott! I will lose it!' (Hurried departure) (The scenes rapidly change as the artist tries one colour merchant after another without success.)

The next scene shows our hero seizing a large finished painting, The Convalescent, and in desperation setting to and working up his latest Otira on top of it.

The final scene takes place in the artist's studio some days later when Fisher arrives with a client and £200 in pursuit of the painting now buried beneath the Otira subject.
'Where's The Convalescent, Van?' (Van was the name by which he was known.) 
'There it is.' (Pointing towards the latest Otira Gorge)
'Don't try making a fool of me! (Agitated)
'There it is I tell you. I had no other suitable canvas.'

Van der Velden had, it seems, the uncanny knack of turning misfortune into fortune (sometimes, one must concede, it seems rather more like turning fortune into misfortune). Take for instance the time when, having just had his studios built and taken up occupancy he was faced with the task of settling the contractors' account. When they were told that there was at this time no money to settle the account, it was announced that the bailiffs would be put in.
'What are the bailiffs?' asked the artist. He was told they were men who would stay in his house until he paid the bills- whereupon he retorted:
'That's splendid! I haf no money for models, so I shall paint the bailiffs.' And according to Sydney Thompson, who knew the painting well, he did, although this particular piece showing two men playing cards is not known to this writer.

An even more entertaining version of that story was recorded by Leonard Booth in the September 1930 Art in New Zealand.

Van der Velden's sketch of the Otira Hotel c. 1891 (from a sketchbook in the collection of the National Gallery, Wellington)

Booth relates that a house agent had been dunning the artist for rent, and finally threatened:
'If you don't pay we shall put the bailiff in.'
'Till I pay. Goot. I vill paint hees portrait!'
'But he will sell your pictures.'
'Den he is cleverer dan I am.'

Truth or fiction, at least it was true that the Christchurch public wasn't exactly clamouring to acquire works by this artist. Perhaps that was in part due to the prices.

Prior to Van der Velden's leaving Holland a newspaper critic had mentioned that his works were too highly priced. So, it seemed, was Disillusioned or The Sorrowful Future, a large painting executed in Christchurch and taken to Sydney in May of 1898. In September of that year The Sorrowful Future appeared in the Art Society of New South Wales exhibition, was illustrated in the catalogue, and was modestly priced at one thousand guineas.

In his book Cheerful Yesterdays, Judge Alpers records a meeting with the artist in King Street, Sydney. He was in a good humour and on seeing an old friend told him: 'I have just sold The Sorrowful Future to the National Gallery: they gif me £500 (it was £400) for it - the largest price effer paid for a bicture by any artist resident in Australia.'

To celebrate the occasion the artist proceeded to conduct his family on an extravagant tour of the hinterland by chartered motor-car, sparing no expense. Judge Alpers saw the artist a month later back in Sydney: and when he ventured to ask how he was making out; the reply was, 'Starrrving'. When Alpers mentioned the good price for which he had sold The Sorrowful Future, the artist retorted:
'Sold it? Bah! I geef it away!'

It appears that Van der Velden's wayward financial habits caught up with him on May 30, 1907, when he appeared in the Wellington Magistrate's Court for debt. He was proceeded against for the recovery of £73 for board and lodging at Bellevue Hotel Lower Hutt.

When the solicitor representing the hotel-keeper, in pursuing a line of questioning designed to reveal whether the artist had any unsold pictures', asked:
'How many pictures have you painted during the last two years?', he received as reply:
'I do not know. I only count in colours.'
'Do you knock them off so often that you cannot remember how many you painted?'
'I remember one picture I have painted. I wanted £150 for it. The Art Society got it. They have always no money in the Art Society and they offered me £100. That was only for labour. I should get £7 a week, and I did not get £2 a week out of it. I had to go to a moneylender to borrow the £100 and pay him 20 per cent.'
After further questioning about the production and sale of paintings he was asked:
'What income has your wife?' The reply was:
'She has nearly pretty well nothing. I know nothing about money matters. Art! Art!'
'You owe Mr W.H. Field money, and you have given him a bill of sale over some of your pictures as security. Are these pictures worth more than you got?'
'My pictures are so valuable they are worth thousands. You don't know me. I have a European reputation.'

Study by Van der Velden, made in the Wellington Magistrates Court, 1907 (from a sketch-book in the collection of the National Gallery, Wellington)

It seems that the sketchbook in the Collection of the National Gallery, Wellington that is datable on the evidence of material in it to 1907, must have accompanied the artist to court. On page 4 (illustrated here) we find a study from the court-room showing what must have been a perplexed magistrate resting his head upon his right hand. This poor man, having heard the case and experienced the artist's undeniably eccentric behaviour, pronounced that he could not make an order against the debtor.

Amusing anecdotes these well may be: but while they may cause us to smile to ourselves they also allow us to approach a little more closely the person of Petrus van der Velden. In the process of getting to know the man we circle about his personality, catching fragments of information and impressions. Bit by bit we build up a composite picture of the man - a sort of historical identikit. And the image we get, sadly, only ever resembles the real personality as poorly as the identikit does the suspect. We might well echo the words of Vincent van Gogh writing of Van der Velden to his brother Theo in 1883:
'Well, he is a real artist, and I wish I knew him, for I have confidence in him, and I know for sure that I should learn from him.'

T.L. Rodney Wilson is senior lecturer in the Department of Art History, University of Canterbury. His book on Van der Velden, with a catalogue of selected works, has just been published by A.H. & A.W. Reed.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 4 Febraury/March 1977