EARLY NEW ZEALAND ART

Historical and Topographical

It is generally accepted that the history of ‘fine art’ began in New Zealand with the arrival of the artists on Cook’s first voyage in 1769. Most of the art produced during the first century of European history in this country is now housed in public or major private collections. The only images still generally available from this period are engravings of maps and portrayals of the ‘native inhabitants’. There are occasionally works offered by some of the early gentleman, soldier or surveyor artists painted prior to 1865, but most of the early New Zealand work on the market dates from 1865 to the early 1900s. It wasn’t until the first professional artists took up residence in the new colony that any real quantity of work was produced.

Two of the better known and more prolific artists from this Colonial period were John Gully and John Barr Clarke Hoyte. Like many of our early artists they were both English trained watercolorists and worked here as teachers. Of the two Hoyte was the more prolific and his work has always been popular with proven commercial appeal. Gully is considered the more important of the two and completed a number of larger scale works. One of these larger watercolours was the first New Zealand painting to fetch over $100,000 at auction, in 1985. In the same sale a Hoyte about two thirds of the Gully’s size (although an equally major work for the artist) sold for $62,500. It would still be fair to say that works of equivalent quality by these two artists would each be of approximately similar per square centimetre value. These two artists help to illustrate the point that market values can driven by different factors of artistic and historical worth combined with popular commercial appeal and yet arrive at remarkably similar levels.

There were in fact more early watercolours produced than oils. This was due, in part, to the greater portability and lesser cost, but also a greater proportion of our early artists were trained in watercolours. That is not to say that we did not have some excellent early oil painters.

Charles Blomfield and John Gibb are two painters in oils who may be compared in a similar way to Gully and Hoyte. Gibb was Scottish trained artist arrived in Christchurch about the same time that Hoyte arrived in Auckland. At his best, Gibb’s work is the equal of any of our early artists; although not hugely prolific his work is featured in most important public collections. Blomfield on the other hand was a self taught artist who arrived in Auckland as a youth. He became a prolific artist whose work has always been popular with the general public. His work varies enormously in quality. A large painting by Blomfield was purchased at auction by Te Papa for $180,000 and a few private sales have been concluded in the $200,000 range. Yet his smaller, lesser works sell for more modest sums. While Gibb did not produce the same quantity of work, his quality is generally more consistent as are his prices.

It was during the Colonial period of New Zealand’s art history that the foundation was laid for the country’s rich artistic heritage. The first art societies were formed and art schools were established. A number of European artists were attracted to the colony to paint the unique scenery and to teach. There were many good artists and even more average artists working during this period; far more that can be covered in this publication. Any reputable gallery will offer you biographical notes on the artist whose work you are interested in. There are many sources of information available on early New Zealand artists through public galleries, libraries and the Internet.

A considerable amount of art work, which varied greatly in quality was produced during the Colonial period,. Naturally no all of it has survived and a lot of the better works are now in public or private collections, so there is only a limited supply of these works on the market. When considering purchasing early New Zealand works there are a number of factors to take into account. One obvious thing with any older art work is its condition – how well has it survived the last century or so? With so many of these earlier works being watercolours one of the first aspects to check is whether the paint has faded, and if so, by how much? The condition of the paper is another important consideration, not all of the paper used was of good quality, and if the paper is in poor condition there are very limited ways to ameliorate the problem. Aging oil paintings can also present conservation problems, but it is more likely that they can be satisfactorily restored. One of the worst problems to deal with is the early works that have been incompetently restored at some stage during their life. Accurately assessing condition is something best left to the experts as restoration can often disguise damage and poor condition. If in doubt always get a second opinion from a qualified restorer or experienced dealer.

Try to establish where the work you’re looking at fits in the artist’s oeuvre and how it compares with other examples; is the subject typical? For example if an artist is known as a landscape painter a still life or portrait is likely to be considerably less valuable. The provenance, or ownership history, can also be important, particularly with higher value works. Many of the early New Zealand works sold regularly at auction and through galleries are of only average or poor quality. When top examples do come onto the market they command an ever increasing premium. However for the collector who is prepared to patient and seeks good advice, there is a limited supply of interesting and highly collectable works, some at surprisingly affordable prices, which provide a fascinating visual history of our Colonial past.