Colonial Fortunes
The New Zealand Paintings of Commander R.A. Oliver


Last October at an auction at McArthur & Co in Auckland nineteen watercolours and two sketches by Richard Aldworth Oliver sold for $139,200 - the highest price, $17,000, fetched for A Korero: Te Rangihaeata addressing the Governor-in-Chief (Sir George Grey) at Waikanae, 1851.

Prices of that sort might lead one to expect works of high technical and formal quality; the products of a trained and exhibiting professional artist. This is not the case. Oliver was a Royal Navy officer who spent the 1847-1851 period in New Zealand and the Pacific, commanding Her Majesty's Sloop Fly, which was engaged in hydrographic survey work. His Private Journal and letters indicate too that he assisted in the administration of the colony - accompanying, transporting Governor Grey on diplomatic missions among the Maori and on tours of inspection of the European settlements.

R.A. OLIVER Her Majesty's Sloop Fly 1840s

Oliver was no more than an amateur sketcher and watercolourist, as his New Zealand works make amply clear. He may have been a good amateur, but there is still no disguising the formal and technical deficiencies of his paintings - the rudimentary modelling of the figures, the weak drawing, the sometimes clumsy articulation of anatomical elements, the lack of a convincing sense of space and recession in the landscapes, for instance. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, these features, together with their colourful and decorative look, can give the paintings a certain charm - a charm akin to that of 'naive' paintings. That should not be confused with the qualities of works produced by professional artists.

There has been a tendency among some writers on New Zealand art to exaggerate the aesthetic quality of paintings by other amateurs of the early Colonial period - William Fox, Charles Heaphy, John Buchanan, for example. It seems as if Histories and Art Histories of new lands need artist of high merit - a means of validating European presence, perhaps. If they do not exist they can be invented ... Heaphy, Fox: functionaries of the colonialist take-over of New Zealand, making their marks, staking their claims. Is Oliver, whose work has not received much attention until recently, now going to be elevated into the ranks of major mid-nineteenth century New Zealand artists?

R.A. OLIVER Tanghi or Lamentation over tomb of a chief Motueka
watercolour, 265 x 375 mm.

However, despite my scepticism about the canon of early Colonial artists, and even if Oliver's watercolours and sketches are of minor artistic quality, they are of considerable interest and value as historical documents or artefacts; as examples of how Europeans represented New Zealand people and places in the first decade of organised European settlement: a period in which hardly any authentic professional artists either visited or settled in the country. These factors, plus the relative scarcity on the art market of New Zealand-made paintings from the eighteen-forties and eighteen-fifties, probably explain what might seem to be the very large sums paid out for the Olivers.

In fact the prices are quite in line with international art market trends for similar works. Over the last five to ten years there has been a rapid expansion of interest in paintings and drawings made by European artists, amateur besides professional, in the Pacific, Asia, Africa and the Americas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For instance, a number of watercolours by William Ellis (an amateur) from Captain Cook's third voyage, now being offered for sale by Sotheby's in London, are expected to make up to £18,000 each. That is over twice the sum for the highest priced Oliver. At that rate New Zealand buyers did well. Oliver's work has a rarity value here too. It has not been well-known in New Zealand because most of his New Zealand pieces could not be seen here. The largest known collection - about a hundred, with only fifty finished watercolours - from which the auctioned twenty - one came, belongs to a descendant of Oliver's in England. They were exhibited there in 1964, and were for a time on loan to New Zealand House, London. The most substantial holding of his work in a public collection - about fifteen - is in the National Library of Australia in Canberra. Until the October auction there were only a handful of Oliver watercolours in New Zealand, these being in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

R.A. OLIVER Te Rauparaha (plus another inset portrait head)
watercolour, 270 x 270 mm.

Oliver produced some landscapes, but mostly pa scenes, portraits of named Maoris, singly and in groups, portrait-like studies of unnamed Maoris (the majority young women), and occasional depictions of Maori activities (e.g. tangi) and encounters between Maoris and Europeans (such as Te Rangihaeata's and Grey's Waikanae meeting). The terms 'picturesque' and 'interesting' recur frequently in Oliver's journal descriptions of Maori people and artefacts, and landscapes. Indeed his choices and treatments of subjects were fundamentally mediated by prevailing conventions of the picturesque and the exotic in European art. To put it simply, he painted what could be made into good pictures; what was picture-worthy. His landscape views are routinely formulaic - usually characterised by a relatively open fore- to mid-ground area, tree-framed, with one or several of the following features; a cottage, a whare, more foliage, groups of small figures, a stretch of water; with impressively mountainous and craggy hills in the background. His depictions of Maori people too are so conventionalised that it would be difficult to isolate a really distinctive, unique, authorial voice.

R.A. OLIVER Emily, a Maori girl, Nauranga. .

Whatever the degree of attention to dress, rather than being faithful records of the Maori as they were, his figures are stock types, who, in look and facial feature, are generally more European or ethnically non - specific than Maori. For instance, his sketches of young Maori women, like those of his contemporaries Angas and Merrett, were modelled on a type of femininity, the keepsake type, that had widespread and popular currency in European visual imagery of the day - particularly in the fashion - setting periodicals, genre paintings and illustrated travel books. Basic ingredients of this type included pretty, dainty, gently-curved faces and forms, pert lips, large eyes, a look of gentility (even if the location was rustic), and a suggestion of fragility or wistfulness. Oliver's Sophia Gray, is a good example.

His male figures tended to be primarily clothes-hangers or exotic 'specimens'. Bland-looking, their Maori identity was conveyed by a weapon, cloak or tattoo - all suitably picturesque items. Consider Oliver's comment about the Maori adoption of European clothing: 'There is no-one with the least feeling for the Picturesque who does not lament the change of the native costume.1 Oliver did though show Maori figures in European dress, even if in the case of Te Rauparaha he considered it 'ludicrous':'On his head was a magnificent hat trimmed with ostrich feathers ... in blue frock coat with naval epaulettes'.2 That too had the makings of a good picture.

Even if Oliver's Maori representations do include signs of the impact of European settlement, these were largely incidental to his concern with the picturesque. He was neither a maker of documentaries nor a reporter. His New Zealand watercolours were akin more to tourist mementos - the natives in costume, with the real world and real life kept at a distance - a quality that a passage in his Journal corroborates: '. . . a little, temporary Maori settlement of surpassing loveliness, all seemed a fancy scene and work of enchantment, till the smell of the half dried sharks and other abominations and close proximity to the dirty native brought you back to the world'.3

His watercolours veered towards the 'fancy' rather than to the earthy realities of the world. Pleasing to the eye, they avoided anything that from a European point of view might have seemed rough, ugly or discordant.

R.A. OLIVER Sophia Gray (also known as Te Paea), Bay of Islands
watercolour, 385 x 260 mm.

It is not known whether Oliver had originally intended to publish or exhibit his paintings. But back in Britain after his travels he did attempt to capitalise on them. His A Series of Lithographic Drawings from Sketches in New Zealand was published in 1852 - the first part of an ambitious, though never realised, plan to publish a number of portfolios of lithographs after his New Zealand and Pacific paintings, 'to range in size and character with Robert's Spain and Miss Eden's India.'4 The book concentrated primarily on the Maori; eight of the nine lithographs featuring Maoris cast in a variety of situations. Again the exotic and the picturesque dominated, though the book included some information about the actualities of Maori life and aspects of Maori-European contact.

For instance, Oliver's depiction of the important meeting between Grey and Te Rangihaeata was reproduced. One plate, Strangers. House, Hauraki Pa, showed a typical pa and traditionally dressed figures, while several lithographs (including one based on the watercolour A Group outside a tent, Pomare's Pa, Bay of Islands), presented half - castes, for whom Oliver seemed to have a special attraction: 'the finest mixed race in the world', he asserted.5

R.A. OLIVER A Group outside a tent, Pomare's Pa, Bay of Islands 
360 x 535 mm.

Given this view, it might seem apt that they were depicted as good-looking, but this quality, combined with their uniform neatness, cleanliness, blandness of expression and lack of individuation, conformed to the cosmetic presentations so frequent in illustrated travel books. The exotic was exemplified by A Tangi: 'Of all the curious customs that strike the European coming in contact with savage races, there is nothing more extraordinary than the tangi of the New Zealanders'6, while a stock motif of the picturesque, a waterfall, also appeared. The Falls at Kirikiri has two small Maori spectators gesturing towards the sight, as European travellers encountering a waterfall were usually depicted as doing.

In Britain from the late-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries there was a great vogue for illustrated travel books. Many hundreds were published in the period7 - ,so many that by the eighteen-forties and eighteen-fifties novelty of place had become a necessary ingredient for success.

R.A. OLIVER Te Hara (of the Ngati Whatua, Orakei)
watercolour, 380 x 255 mm

New Zealand may have seemed novel, since there were only a few precedents in the illustrated travel book genre - Earle's Sketches Illustrative of the Native Inhabitants of New Zealand (1838), Angas's The New Zealanders Illustrated (1847), and Brees's Pictorial Illustrations of New Zealand (1847). That, as Oliver discovered, was sufficient to saturate the market. The reported opinion of a London publisher suggests why the planned series of lithographs after Oliver's paintings did not eventuate: 'New Zealand is overdone, illustrated books are overdone.'8

Another contributing factor may have been Oliver's disappointment in the mediocre quality of the lithographs after his work - so much so that he would not let his family and relatives see the book.

R.A. OLIVER A Korero: Te Rangihaeata addressing the Governor-in-Chief (Sir George Grey) at Waikanae 1851
watercolour, 350 x 525 mm.

With the bulk of the artist's watercolours and sketches in private hands, the public career of Oliver's New Zealand representations may have ended there - but for the present day revival in taste for eighteenth and nineteenth century images of the exotic and picturesque and works by travelling artists, plus the investment potential that such work has now acquired. Given the lack of success of the lithographs when published and that his watercolours were not exhibited in his own day, the status and financial value that Oliver's work now has would probably have surprised him. One could say that Oliver the artist is very much a 1980s construction.

1. R.A. Oliver, Private Journal of New Zealand, 1848-49, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
2. ibid. 
3. ibid. 
4. R.A. Oliver, A Series of Lithographic Drawings from Sketches in New Zealand, London, 1852, Prospectus.
5. ibid., letterpress, Plate 6. 
6. ibid., letterpress, Plate 3. 
7. For instance, J.R. Abbey in his Travels in Aquatint and Lithography 1770-1860: From the Library of J.R. Abbey, London, 1972, lists 517 illustrated books in English on Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania in his collection.
8. R.A. Oliver to George Grey, March 24, 1852, London. Grey Collection, GL:04, Auckland Public Library.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 30 Autumn 1984