William Strutt’s “historically significant” painting bought by Te Papa

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Report by NewsroomPlus.com

Contributed by Te Papa

A rare and historically significant painting set in Taranaki during New Zealand’s land wars has been acquired by Te Papa.

The 640 x 840mm oil painting, which is in remarkably good condition for its age, will require some conservation treatment. But before that happens, visitors will have the opportunity to see it on display as part of the new Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa season, opening on 6 November.

Picture caption: William Strutt, View of Mt Egmont, Taranaki, New Zealand, taken from New Plymouth, with Maoris driving off settlers’ cattle, 1861, oil on canvas. Purchased 2015, Te Papa
Picture caption: William Strutt, View of Mt Egmont, Taranaki, New Zealand, taken from New Plymouth, with Maoris driving off settlers’ cattle, 1861, oil on canvas. Purchased 2015, Te Papa

The oil painting, View of Mt Egmont, Taranaki, New Zealand, taken from New Plymouth, with Maoris driving off settlers’ cattle, was made over 150 years ago in 1861 by English artist, William Strutt.

It depicts an imagined scene based on newspaper reports of the Taranaki wars and sketches Strutt made during his brief residence in New Zealand from 1855 to 1856.

Te Papa was offered first right to buy the painting due to its historical importance to New Zealand, and purchased it for approximately $1.5 million from a family who have owned it since the 1860s.

“This acquisition is a major investment, in a very important piece of work. There are very few paintings that reflect the historical events that were unfolding during this period – it captures a powerful moment in our history,” says Te Papa Chief Executive Rick Ellis

“I expect this dramatic painting will become an icon of the national collection, and we’re delighted New Zealanders will now have the opportunity to see it.”

The work is one of seven known oil paintings Strutt completed based on New Zealand subjects, and is the first to enter a public art gallery in New Zealand. It will complement the collection of drawings and works by Strutt currently held by the Alexander Turnbull Library.

“It’s fantastic that this painting is now coming home to Aotearoa New Zealand,” says Te Papa’s Kaihautū Arapata Hakiwai.

“The period represents a significant part of the nation’s shared history, and historical work like this plays an important role when we look back and reflect on our identity today.”

Te Papa’s Historical New Zealand Art Curator, Dr Rebecca Rice says the new painting will strengthen the national art collection.

“It’s rare to have a painting that allows reference to the disputes between Māori and Pākehā in the 1850s and 60s. Typically painters of that era focussed on New Zealand’s unoccupied and pristine landscape to encourage immigration, or made portrait studies of Māori.”

“Strutt combines these in one painting to create an exotic spectacle. On the plains in front of majestic Mt Taranaki, Māori are driving settlers’ cattle off disputed land, supported by the armed group concealed by scrub in the foreground. Smoke from settlers’ rifles is visible on the left of the painting while a homestead is burning on the right.” says Dr Rice.

“The national art collection doesn’t have any other significant oil paintings from 1850s and 1860s, so this painting is particularly precious.”

English artist William Strutt studied in Paris from 1838-45 at the École des Beaux-Arts and later exhibited with the Royal Academy in London. He emigrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1850, attracted by the potential of colonial life. He spent a short time in New Zealand, from 1855–56, before returning to Melbourne, and eventually heading home for England in 1862. In both places he made numerous sketches, which were later worked up into finished paintings.

Strutt is a key figure in New Zealand and Australia’s colonial art histories. In Australia, he was a founding member of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts in 1857 along with Eugene von Guerard, Nicholas Chevalier and Conrad Martens. He is currently the subject of a major exhibition at the National Library of Australia ‘Heroes and Villains: Strutt’s Australia’ until 15 November 2015.

New Zealand land wars:

The New Zealand wars of 1845-72 were a series of conflicts between Māori and settlers that extended from Wairau to the Bay of Islands and the East Cape.  They were ignited by disputes over land as Māori contested issues of sovereignty following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and increasingly resisted selling land to the government. Meanwhile there was an increased desire for land for settlement as the Pākehā population grew.

Strutt’s painting makes reference to the first Taranaki war from March 1860 to March 1861. It was ignited by dispute between the government and Māori over the sale of a block of land at Waitara, north of New Plymouth, but conflict quickly spread throughout Taranaki. Troops were brought in from Australia to fight alongside local volunteers and militia. Losses were estimated at 238 Pākehā and 200 Māori, a proportionately higher number.

Is this the most expensive art work purchased by Te Papa?

Acquisition of this painting can be compared to other major acquisitions of iconic art works that Te Papa has made for the national collection in recent years. These include (excluding GST):

  • Colin McCahon, Walk (series C), 1973, purchased in 2004 for $2.75 million
  • Colin McCahon, A painting for Uncle Frank, 1980, purchased in 2000 for $2 million
  • John Webber, Poetua, 1785, purchased in 2010 for $1.97 million
  • Michael Parekowhai, He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river, 2011, purchased in 2012 for $1.3 million

How was the price of the painting settled on?

Te Papa sought a number of independent valuations, and negotiated the final price.

How much does Te Papa spend on art annually?

Te Papa’s budget from Government for acquisitions of any kind is $3 million a year. This is spread across all our collections; including history, science, Māori, Pacific and art.

The amount spent on art works each year is determined by what becomes available in the year, and the two to three year objectives across the museum’s collections.

Art works such as the historic Strutt oil painting do not come up for acquisition routinely, and the painting was purchased after considerable thought, research and the approval of Te Papa’s Board.

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues.
Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia’s FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

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