James Crowe Richmond

1822-1898 Artist Politician Civil Engineer


Right from boyhood James Crowe Richmond was a man of divided interests. His father, a London barrister, had died when the family was young, and, although there was money enough for the children's education, circumstances in England at that time were bad financially for people in their position. Christopher William Richmond, James elder brother, had followed in his father's profession, and was called to the bar in 1847, but he was a delicate asthmatic, and difficulties for the family were only increasing.

James Crowe Richmond

J. C. Richmond had always been attracted to art. If family circumstances had been better and he could have devoted himself to this interest from the very beginning, he might have found a career as an artist wholly satisfying. However this was not possible and in 1837, after finishing at the University College School in London, he trained as a civil engineer. He found he had a special interest in building railways and for a few years he was working for the famous J. K. Brunell. But after ten years he found that conditions in the railways world were not what they had promised to be and he thought seriously of emigrating. Instead he chose for the time being to turn back to art and he attended a studio in London.

In the end the idea of emigrating won the day. Relatives had already gone out to New Zealand and settled in Taranaki and in 1851 Richmond and his younger brother Henry decided to follow them. The idea was that if the two brothers felt conditions to be propitious their mother and sister and elder brother would come out to join them. And by the end of June 1853 the whole family (which now included Christopher William's bride Emily and her two brothers Harry and Arthur Atkinson) were in Taranaki. They were to become probably the most distinguished family group New Zealand had for many years.

J. C. Richmond West Wanganui Looking North East 1862
watercolour on paper, 255 x 354 mm.
(Collection of the National Art Gallery, Wellington)

When J. C. Richmond had decided to emigrate he had seen himself living contentedly a simple colonial life: yet in 1854 he sailed back to England and spent three years, partly in engineering, partly `sketching' up on the Scottish island of Arran, still determined to make a success in the world of art. He was urged on by a friend similarly minded and with a firm belief in Richmond's superior talents—`that more feeling eye and hand which you possess', he wrote.

His sister Jane Maria had put down some of his troubles as being because he had not married (`never did creature need a faithful wife as he does'): but of course when he did find a faithful wife (he married in 1855) this more or less forced him to return to New Zealand and settle down. Before he did this, he made, with his wife's support, one more bid to establish himself as an artist in England. Two galleries in London each took a painting of his. He was already using his favourite 'muted tones'. 'It will not,’ he wrote of one painting, 'bear highly coloured pictures near it . . . and will have a ghost like look on the walls of any exhibition'.

J. C. Richmond, Site of Greymouth,
watercolour on paper. 215 x 355 mm.
(Collection of the National Art Gallery. Wellington )

The next few years, in spite of all the troubles which then beset the province, were fruitful ones for Richmond. He joined the Militia, later the Volunteers, and he became the Secretary of the Taranaki Provincial Government: yet he managed to 'sketch' a good deal and seems to have completed some of his most important paintings. But after the fighting actually broke our—the beginning of the Taranaki land wars—'music and painting', he wrote, 'were gone to sleep' for him, so much so that he noted that he did not even know where his painting materials were stored.

By 1862 he, with many other Taranaki settlers, had refuged to Nelson. He retired from the Taranaki Provincial Council to be Commissioner of Crown Lands in Nelson, and editor of the Nelson Examiner. Yet he continued to be a Taranaki Representative in the General Assembly. In March of that year he visited the Grey and Buller districts on the West Coast—partly in his role of Commissioner, partly too as a needed rest from his other work. He wrote that he made sketches there. Though he felt that they were made against time, some of these too are probably amongst his best work.

In Nelson Richmond had found a valued friend and painting companion in John Gully, himself an ex-Taranaki man. By 1864 James's elder brother had resigned from the government and was a judge of the Supreme Court in Dunedin. The following year there was to be held there a Grand Intercolonial Exhibition with a section for the Fine Arts, and Richmond had Gully send down to his brother C. W. Richmond 'water colour pictures' to be entered for him in the exhibition.

J. C. Richmond, Digger's Hut on the Buller
watercolour on paper, 253 x 353 mm.
(Collection of the National Art Gallery, Wellington)

Later he sent a collection of his own work. One painting was packed separately. It was an unusually large work, an 'Elephant’ he called it. This was probably the oil for which he received a silver medal. 'It is addressed to the Exhibition', he told his brother: 'But if you can find a pen for it in your back yard please consider it yours. It has fallen short of my intentions. The arts don't go well with politics and general business. I may live to improve it or substitute a better—in the meantime I hope it will not shock your eye . . . if you don't think it looks well you are entitled to withdraw it.’

He rightly valued his brother's opinion. This Richmond also was talented: a sketch-book of his small, delicate drawings is held by the Alexander Turnbull Library. And after he retired he was writing to his brother asking for advice in regard to the painting forays he was making. C. W. Richmond must have written to James of his admiration for the 'Elephant'. James answered: 'I am glad the picture looks decently well. It was intended to be much more elaborate and is but a blotting of what I had in mind to make.’ In the same letter he wrote that he had declined to serve Nelson any more as Provincial Secretary, and that he had been invited to join Weld's Government Ministry. He was at the same time called to the Legislative Council.

Although the thought of him 'taking a seat in that quiet sleepy unknown' council gave his wife Mary 'quite a chilly sensation' Richmond seemed to take it all in his stride. And Mrs Gore Browne, wife of a former Governor, wrote to Mary that she was very glad that he was in the Ministry. 'What a witty, agreeable cabinet your husband makes one of. What jokes they will chuckle over and what sketches they will make on the blotting paper of the executive council room'.

Mary however died suddenly, and James, bereft, once more thought deeply of trying to become a professional artist. Yet he stayed serving the Government for eight more years. He took his family back to Taranaki to be close to their relations. Then, when his children were of a suitable age, he set off for England again and took them to be educated there and in Germany and Switzerland. He especially wanted his gifted daughter Dorothy Kate (or Dolla) to have a chance of the thorough art education he had not been able to get.

The Richmonds' first step had been to go to Melbourne. James must have for some time been sending work to an art dealer there, an Alexander Fletcher. He found that in Melbourne his pictures were 'in request' and wrote that he should probably 'with what I sell and with orders that I can execute on the voyage, pay our passages from Melbourne. A hundred pounds has already come in towards it. What pleases me best is the eagerness of an old picture dealer here—a man who has made much money in this trade and who never buys except to sell at profit. He bought that white mountain I last drew and wants three more editions of it. I have agreed to make one and am working at it.' Richmond also agreed to make drawings on wood from his sketch-book for a paper issued by the proprietors of The Argus. ‘The pay is very good. Two guineas for a little sketch that I can execute in an hour or two.'

Once in London he found old New Zealand friends. One was Alfred Domett who had the distinction in Richmond's eyes of being a poet and moreover of being a friend of Robert Browning. When Richmond and Domett were in Auckland, both Representatives in the General Assembly, Domett used in evenings to read poetry to an appreciative Richmond and sometimes Atkinson audience.

Soon J. C. Richmond was settled in a lodging in Kensington where he could paint quietly and where he could easily get to 'several large collections of pictures to learn from.' In 1874 he was able to place his painting of Milford Sound in a London Gallery. He was working at a few other New Zealand scenes; he had a collection of New Zealand photographs to help him. And it is interesting to find that he valued being able to look at Peter de Wint's 'drawings', under which category he would have included his watercolours.

J. C. Richmond, Lagoon at Greymouth,
watercolour on paper, 240 x 338 mm.
(Collection of the National Art Gallery, Wellington)

By the end of March 1874 he was in Switzerland; then he had a month in Austria. It was while he was here that he found his own way of painting mountain scenery—to take 'selected peeps of fine mountain crests . . . through gaps in the forest' or to use the mountains as `secondary subjects to fine foregrounds of rocks and cottages and cattle'. But `atmosphere' was the thing, he thought, to aim at—`atmosphere and sunlight'.

He worked hard and made many small pencil sketches, two or three large `water color drawings' and one small oil painting—`none finished in any sense'. His oil he thought 'promised best' but was not 'improving'. He had to 'knuckle under'. Probably like many others before him he found the pines 'very intractable for artists'. He felt he should try 'a picture of pines. Generally they are terribly regular and conical but there is a sportiveness about them at times . . . that would surprise you.’

In the school holidays he took his family to Syrgenstein in Germany and he set to work there to make something of his sketches. Mr Fletcher in Melbourne was appealing for work of his yet he felt he was not succeeding—he could only hope that his newest sketches he could turn to profit. He moved about the countryside, at one stage considering a series of etchings of the scenery. But in October, after travelling in France and Germany, he was back in England with at least one 'drawing' at the Dudley Gallery in London.

In March 1875 he had to forget about painting for the moment. Funds were running low. He took a position in Algeria, working once more at railway engineering 'to earn a few pounds to balance the budget'. He was there for some years, managing to have spells in London to see his family and to do his painting.

J. C. RichmondDetribalized Natives, 1869
pencil on paper, 420 x 315 mm.
(Collection of the National Art Gallery, Wellington)

In 1878 he had what many New Zealanders would regard as the ultimate success. He had one study of Mount Egmont exhibited at the Royal Academy. In 1879 he was hoping to sell a few small but 'comparatively' successful pictures and ready, he wrote, to go `potboiling', which meant, in his terms, consulting the requirements of the ex-New Zealand millionaires then in England—T. Russell, J. Farmer and C. Nairn. The same year he was sketching in Devon and in Cornwall, but the weather was against him. At this time he was thinking that oils suited him better than watercolours, yet he did think that his skill in watercolours was increasing, and he proposed to send all he could 'muster' to Fletcher in Melbourne.

It was not until late in 1880 that the Richmonds left England to return to New Zealand via Melbourne. John Gully was in Melbourne to meet him and he joined the Richmond party. The ship called in at Milford Sound and Richmond and Gully spent a 'glorious' day sketching there together.

Once in Nelson again Richmond was soon listening to the urgings of friends to go back into politics. He tried twice for a seat in the General Assembly but he was unsuccessful—which is not surprising when you think how long he had been away from the scene. And it is not surprising either that he turned once more to his art. He bought a house, launched out on building himself a studio and at one stage went off sketching in Canterbury. Fletcher, his Melbourne art dealer, was in Christchurchfor the New Zealand International Exhibition held there in 1882 and he welcomed Richmond's modestly styled `potboilers': though he felt that they must go to Melbourne to get enthusiastic buyers. But he had one thing to say: 'I wish you would boldly put your price on the drawings you send, you would cause the hair of a London picture dealer to stand on end were you to send him a lot of valuable drawings and tell him to put his own value on them'.

However Richmond was not even now ready to confine himself to a life of art. When Harry Atkinson became Premier he occasionally called on Richmond for help and Richmond would go over to Wellington, now the capital of the country, and give his advice. And at other times he would go over to give what was no doubt most valuable evidence before railway extension committees.

In 1883 he was called to the Legislative Council again. In 1884, thoroughly in keeping with the Richmond and Atkinson 'liberal' attitude to women, he introduced a married woman's property bill, something he had tried to do as far back as 1870. Both he and his brother C. W. Richmond had married, and valued, women of intelligence and character. Their sister Jane Maria, who had married Arthur Atkinson sometime after she had come to New Zealand, had always had an appreciated voice in family discussions. From the beginning she was given a share in the family property. Incidentally she was the first European woman to climb Mount Egmont.

Richmond had gone with John Gully on a sketching tour to Takaka in 1883 and afterwards his daughter Dolla chided him for letting people buy his 'beautiful Takaka bush pictures' for such a little money. 'You ought to have had 60 or 100 guineas at the very least' , she wrote. She herself wanted to buy another Takaka one for which he was charging only 15 guineas; perhaps it was a misprint for 150 guineas, she suggested ironically.

Richmond certainly never seemed to get good sales for his work in New Zealand. When he sent a `Takaka Lagoon' painting to the Auckland Society of Arts exhibition in 1884 the secretary wrote back expressing his surprise that there had been no ready sale for it while 'awful rubbish' went off at a higher price.

Probably it was about this time that Richmond went on his final sketching trip with Gully—to Lake Manapouri and to Lake Te Anau. And sometime in this period he went on his own to the headwaters of the Waimakariri. (His daughter Dolla recorded that her father was then over 60.) Possibly Gully was already ailing. He had a long illness before he died in 1885. Richmond missed his friend sadly. Gully, a former Taranaki man, had been in the Survey Department in Nelson and had worked under Richmond, and they had become `great cronies'. Richmond had been quick to recognise Gully's talents and had always done what he could to help and to lead him to the success that he soon had.

Early in 1885 Dolla Richmond went off once more for a visit to Europe with the idea that her father and her sister Ann or Alla would soon follow. But Richmond had a period of ill health coinciding with somewhat of a financial crisis when he lost money he put into a putatively rich coal mine. (The Richmonds and the Atkinsons were never money makers.) Still, by early 1886, he and Alla had joined Dolla, and they brought her home to Nelson later in the year.

There was only to be one more visit to Europe for Richmond. He and Dolla made the journey in 1888—Alla was probably married by then. By January 1889 they had returned and Richmond, in Nelson, was writing to Dolla, away from home at that moment to say that he got the studio in order and had begun several drawings 'from the scribbles we made in Italy and the Channel.'

In 1892 J. C. Richmond withdrew finally from political life. He was not well and does not seem to have painted seriously from that time. At some stage he went to Otaki to live with Alla. He was with her when in 1898 he died.

As a young man, though he admired the Maoris as a 'remarkable' people, he had railed at the 'preposterous' Treaty of Waitangi which acknowledged the Maoris as owners of the land whether they were using it or not. At that time he was something of the 'give them a short sharp lesson and things will be right' kind of man. After the Taranaki and Waikato wars, however, he believed firmly that the victorious British should deal generously with the Maoris and the two races should become firm friends. As Minister of Native Affairs he seemed to work unstintingly for this to happen. The Maoris valued his efforts. When he died in Otaki, the Maoris there asked that he be buried in their cemetery by their own beautiful Otaki church. This did not happen, but the coffin was covered by a fine Maori cloak that had once been given to him. His family, one felt, knew that he would have welcomed that.