Oldest painting of Aotearoa in Te Papa's collection to go on display

Kate Nicol-Williams
Source: 1News

With bated breath, gloves and torches at the ready, Te Papa’s newly-acquired artwork by a draughtsman for Captain James Cook has been unboxed.

Curator Rebecca Rice said seeing the rare piece in a good condition after its journey from England gave her a “great sense of relief.”

“A tear came to my eye because it’s been such a long process bringing this taonga back to New Zealand,” she said.

The artwork was created in 1776 by English painter William Hodges, who was with James Cook when he made landfall in Tamatea/Dusky Sound and met Ngāti Mamoe in 1773, on Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific.

Mātauranga Māori curator Dougal Austin’s iwi lived in the area and he said he felt a sense of connection with the painting of the area when he saw it unveiled.

“When I was visiting these sites I was thinking a lot about what it meant for those who lived there and with the arrival of this painting it’s another piece of the puzzle,” he said.

Mr Austin said while the waka was believed to be accurately represented with two hulls latched together, he thought aspects of the painting including the weather were romanticised in Hodge’s depiction.

“It's as though it's been reimagined to make a nice painting.”

“There’s definitely a kind of armchair tourism at play for the public in the United Kingdom because they’ve heard, they’ve read about Cook’s voyages but having the picture, it brings it to life and perhaps does a little bit of storytelling, and romanticising is a very desired thing at the time,” curator Rebecca Rice said.

Ms Rice said she immediately noticed the painting’s “wonderful glow.”

“The artist really captured a sense of place and while that might be a romanticised sense of his memories of New Zealand, it still carries his own aura with it after all this time.”

The piece supersedes John Webber’s 1788 artwork of Queen Charlotte Sounds from Cook’s third voyage as Te Papa’s earliest painting with a New Zealand subject.

“It is likely to be one of the last paintings by Hodges that is available for purchase,” Ms Rice said.

For over 200 years the painting has been owned by an English family.

Te Papa purchased the piece for $685,000, with the cost largely funded by the Lottery Grants Board.

It’s hoped the piece will be on display by the end of the year for Tuia 250, a national commemoration of the first onshore meetings between Maori and European 250 years ago.

The artwork will be a talking piece for what early encounters looked like in Aotearoa and the sharing of memories, as well as history, Ms Rice said.