A Letter from Von Tempsky

Some observations on the work and career of Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky arising from a letter to Dr Hector, Director of The Colonial Museum, on the occasion of the soldier-artist's exhibition of Maori War paintings in Auckland and Wellington, June to July, 1867.


On Friday June 28, 1867, the New Zealand Herald included a review of an exhibition in Auckland 'at the shop of Mr Leech, Shortland St': '. . .some very interesting pictures on Maori subjects, the work of Major von Tempsky, a gentleman well known to every colonist in New Zealand as a literary man and a soldier of distinction, but who to many will appear as a new character as an artist, which he sustains with equal credit'.(1)

Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky
collection of the
Alexander Turnbull Library

Von Tempsky's emergence as an artist coincided with a fallow period in his military life. Having been on active service in New Zealand from August 1863 he was struck off pay in March 1866 and was not re-employed by the Government until January 1868. Not surprisingly, five of the six exhibited paintings were war scenes - namely:
Hau Hau Country (This could be an untitled painting in the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia, Canberra - listed there as Scouting Party, Wanganui.)
Attack on Burtt's Farm (Hocken Library, University of Otago).
The Maoris Leaving Orakau Pa (This could be the untitled work reproduced, which includes retreating Maoris and has been described as a depiction of the Orakau engagement. It is in a private collection.)
A Maori Ambush, Wanganui (This is probably an untitled work in the Auckland War Memorial Museum - sometimes called The Ambuscade in Taranaki.)
Officer of Military Train Cutting Down a Rebel at Nukumaru (Auckland War Memorial Museum - sometimes titled British Camp Surprised by Maoris who were Driven off with Heavy Losses.)

At a time when there were very few artists exhibiting paintings for sale in New Zealand, Von Tempsky's art work was reviewed most positively. The New Zealand Herald strongly recommended 'lovers of art' to visit the show, for which there was an admission price of a shilling, and to take the 'opportunity afforded them of enjoying what will be such a more than ordinary treat'.(2) The Weekly News reviewer was 'much gratified with a view of the Maori paintings ... which for minuteness in detail, harmony in colour, and beauty of finish we have never seen equalled in the colony'.(3) He singled out Attack on Burtt's Farm as 'the gem of the collection': '.. the grouping of the figures, the expressions depicted on the various countenances, with the magnificent foliage, are admirably executed'.(4) The Wellington Independent was more restrained - simply describing the pictures as 'cleverly painted' and noting that they were to be raffled 'under the distinguished patronage of Sir George Grey'.(5)

The praise of Von Tempsky's Maori War paintings has generally continued to the present day. Two examples from recent articles devoted specifically to Von Tempsky's art and the exhibition of it should suffice to demonstrate this. In the catalogue to the only comprehensive exhibition of Von Tempsky's art, Anthony Murray-Oliver wrote: '.. . in his genre paintings of the Maori Wars ... he is unrivalled ... Both as author and artist he is exotic, vigorous, flamboyant ... His paintings ... are colourful, exciting, full of detail, episodic, the work of a true romantic with a flair for the melodramatic.'(6) And Sharon Dell has written elsewhere: 'His watercolours with their strength of colour and vigorous design have a compelling immediacy and are of no small historical interest as unique records of incidents in the wars of the 1860's.'(7)

Untitled (The Maoris
leaving Orakau Pa?)
pen ink and wash on paper,
252 x 356 mm.
(private collection)

As expressions of personal opinion and taste one can accept these comments (except that Von Tempsky's pictures are 'fictions' rather than 'war records'): but they tell us little about the paintings as cultural artefacts. It can be profitable to approach von Tempsky's work from other directions.

Last year Michael Dunn unearthed a letter from Von Tempsky to Dr Hector, Director of the Colonial Museum in Wellington.(8) This letter provides a different slant on the Maori War paintings exhibited in 1867. It also gives a valuable insight into the business of making art in New Zealand in the 1860s. The letter, reproduced below, reveals that Von Tempsky himself did not regard the artistic quality of his work very highly; and that his prime motivation for painting and exhibiting the pictures was monetary. No longer employed as a soldier, Von Tempsky experienced considerable financial difficulties in 1866-67. The exhibition for sale of his work constituted an attempt to remain solvent, to 'make two ends meet'. The letter indicates, too, both a touch of desperation and a certain opportunism, even cynicism, in his bid to exploit his friendship with Hector to promote work which he considered 'mediocre'.(9) Dr Hector was to arrange for the exhibition of the pictures at the Colonial Museum in Wellington.

Auckland June 29 1867
My Dear Hector,
I send by this mail some pictures on Maori subjects, to be raffled for in Wellington. Sir George Grey has kindly offered to patronise the raffle, and R. Pharazyn will make the necessary arrangements. I believe he will exhibit the pictures at the Club. I now ask you to do something for me in this matter, by pushing the raffle. I don't know how far your artistic conscience will permit you to act cordially in the pushing of mediocre pictures into your Wellington art world - but I hope you will see at least a sufficient number of good points in them to permit your voice of friendship for me to over-rule the niceties of your artistic acumen. I have been rather hard pushed latterly in making two ends meet seeing that Auckland is bankrupt and this Govt determined to ignore me - up to this however I have kept out of debt and hope to do so in the future - particularly if this raffle comes off well. Could you not get one or two subjects painted for your Museum - if you find my style creditable enough for this purpose - Anything now would be a great lift to me - and I am not afraid of hard work. If your occupations permit it therefore would you drop me a line after viewing my pictures to let me know what you think of them.
I remain
my dear Hector
yours very sincerely
G.F. Von Tempsky.

Von Tempsky wrote other letters about the 1867 exhibitions, some of which have been published.(10) Interestingly, on the day he wrote to Dr Hector he also wrote to Waiter Mantell. There are some noteworthy differences between the two. He did not make any derogatory remarks to Mantell about the very paintings the sale of which he hoped would ease his monetary problems. He did hint to Mantell that he was short of money: but this was expressed more moderately, without the sense of urgency that characterises his pleas and schemes in the letter to Dr Hector, with whom he was more intimate. To Mantell he merely wrote: ' "Pounds" and shillings therefore have become an important consideration in my daily life with a rising family.'(11)

A Maori ambush,
223 x 288 mm.
(collection of
Auckland War Memorial

Von Tempsky's letters - in particular the one to Dr Hector - show that he had a more hard-headed and more critically balanced or 'realistic' view of the aesthetic merit of his own paintings than most of his reviewers, whether his contemporaries or of the twentieth century, have had. There has been a tendency to attribute high value to Von Tempsky's paintings simply because it was he, a 'folk hero' and 'colourful personality'(12) to many Pakehas, who made them - and in the absence of much competition in the representation of Maori War scenes. Only a few such paintings were produced by more gifted and professional artists in the nineteenth century: and most of these are virtually unknown today.(13)

Von Tempsky's letter to Dr Hector suggests that the standard assessments of his paintings as simply attractive and decorative aesthetic objects and/or historical 'records' are not adequate. If his paintings are placed more firmly in the contexts of their production, exhibition, and the attitudes and sentiments about the so-called Maori Wars, as expressed by Von Tempsky himself and his peers, rather different pictures emerge. The reviewers in 1867 would not have needed to establish the context: but in the 1980s it is useful to consciously see the images in conjunction with other manifestations of European taste and culture of the dayand to consider how these combine to form a 'field' in ideology and history.

Briefly, to exemplify this point further: note a long poem The Battle of Mauku, read before the Waiuku Literary Association and published in the Daily Southern Cross on June 29, 1867, and in the Weekly News on July 6, 1867 - the same day that the Von Tempsky exhibition was reviewed. The poem might provide a literary analogue to Von Tempsky's paintings. The Maoris of the poem are a 'wily foe', 'tattooed demons', 'grim barbarians', who 'flashed red fury from their eyeballs'. In contrast, the 'noble' European soldiers, 'though surrounded', 'fought in that wild melee / Like bearded Texan hunters 'midst buffalos on prairie' ... for God and our Good Cause'.(14)

This could have served as a caption for Officer of Military Train Cutting Down a Rebel at Nukumaru. Two of Von Tempsky's exhibited paintings depicted ambush situations, and in one, A Maori Ambush Wanganui, the 'classic' pose of the central Maori figure may seem to imply a sympathetic view by Von Tempsky of his adversaries. However, within the conventions of Battle pictures in the nineteenth century, an ambush of European soldiers ('noble' and 'gallant'), or an attack on unsuspecting Europeans by non-Europeans in itself denoted the 'cowardly' nature of the 'savages', who had to be suppressed in the interests of 'Civilisation' and 'Progress'.(15) In his unpublished Memoranda of the New Zealand Campaign of 1863-64, p. 61, Von Tempsky described the Maoris in the attack on Burtt's farm (the subject of one of the exhibited works) as 'cowardly rnarauders' and 'sneaks', while those who attacked the farm of a Captain Calvert near Keri Keri were a 'cowardly crew (who) shrunk away before the bright blade of the old soldier'.(16)

The soldier-artist's ruminations on the role of warfare in the colonising process elsewhere in his memoirs are worth considering too: 'in new countries yet under the sway of barbarism there is no more powerful civiliser than war; all obstacles to civilisation ... go down before it.'(17) Success in colonisation required, according to Von Tempsky, 'crushing either the spirit or the very existence of native races; yet the Anglo-Saxon is not cruel...'(18) By the standards of the day such opinions were commonplace among Europeans.

Officer of a
military train
cutting down
a rebel
at Nukumaru
222 x 288 mm.
(collection of
Auckland War Memorial

These quotations typify the position from which many, probably most, European viewers in 1867 would have seen the paintings, however 'romanticised' they might be. Von Tempsky knew that he had to strike the right chords in his viewers. He needed to sell his Maori paintings in order to support himself and his family at a time when his services were not required to fight Maoris resisting European expansionism.

In an earlier Art New Zealand article I commented on the Von Tempsky 'myth' and his representations of the Maori - 'G.F. von Tempsky: The Man and Artist", Art New Zealand, Winter 1978, No. 10, pp. 21-22.

1. New Zealand Herald, June 28, 1867.
2. ibid. The sixth painting in the exhibition was titled Takapuna Lake, North Shore. Its present location is not known.
3. Weekly News, July 6, 1867.
4. ibid.
5. Wellington Independent, July 11, 1867.
6. A. Murray-Oliver, "sufficiently True to Nature ... Sufficiently Idealised.. .", Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky: The Man and the Artist, Exhibition Catalogue, Waikato Art Museum, 1978, p.10.
7. S. Dell, "Three von Tempsky letters", The Turnbull Library Record, October 1977, Vol. 10 (n.s.), No. 2, p.54.
8. Correspondence Files, National Museum, Wellington. (uncatalogued) Thanks to Michael Dunn for this information.
9. It may be suggested that Von Tempsky's assessment of his paintings indicates a "false modesty". If so this was not typical of his writing and behaviour otherwise.
10. S. Dell, op.cit.
11. Von Tempsky to Waiter Mantell, June 29 (18) 67, published in S. Dell, op.cit.
12. S. Dell, op.cit., p.54, and A. Murray-Oliver, op.cit., p. 40.
13. For instance William Strutt painted three Maori War scenes, which were exhibited either in Australia or England in the late 1850's, early 1860's. All are in private collections and have only rarely been exhibited in public. Only one, An Ambush, New Zealand 1859, 1867, has been exhibited in NewZealand - in 1980, The Maori in European Art, Auckland City Art Gallery.
For Strutt see Heather Curnow, "The New Zeal and Paintings of William Strutt", Art New Zealand, No. 13, pp. 46-51, and also by the same writer, The Life and Art of William Strutt, 1980.
14. The Battle of Mauku, unsigned, Weekly News Supplement, July 6,1867, p. 23. Von Tempsky was present at the engagement at Mauku. He made a similar evaluation of the Europeans and Maoris involved: "The force of whites gallantly advanced" while the Maoris "commenced a murderous fire upon our men". G.F. Von Tempsky, Memoranda of the New Zealand Campaign of 1863-64, unpublished manuscript, Alexander Turnbull library, p. 65.
15. There are contemporaneous American examples of such paintings, featuring "Red Indians". e.g. George Caleb Bingham's The Concealed Enemy, 1845.
16. G.F. Von Tempsky, Memoranda of the New Zealand Campaign of 1863-64, p. 10.
17. ibid., p. 83.
18. ibid., p. 184. Of the outbreak of war in Taranaki in July 1863 Von Tempsky commented: "At last those overbearing, headstrong and pampered natives were to get a lesson so long needed.---ibid., p. 1.