A Victorian Friendship and Auckland's First School Of Art


It is not generally known that John Logan Campbell (1817 - 1912), Auckland business man, philanthropist, and donor of Cornwall Park, was also an art pioneer. He founded Auckland's first school of art and was an inaugural member of the Mackelvie Trust which helped to create the city's first public art gallery.

The concern of this article is to tell what is even less familiar - the story of the friendship that lay behind the Campbell school of art. For this scheme, which came to fruition in New Zealand in 1878, had its beginnings fourteen years before in Italy when Campbell befriended a young American, P.F. Connelly (18411932). Fully, to understand the friendship, we must know something of the background of the men concerned.

Trained as a doctor in Scotland, Campbell chose to make his fortune as a merchant in New Zealand. But he was no philistine. While still in his twenties, he read authors as disparate as Shelly, Shakespeare, Dickens, Lamartine, and Kinglake. However, a two-year tour he made through Europe in the late eighteen-forties was a personal revelation. It told him that, artistically speaking, he was an ignoramus. This deficiency he set about strenuously to correct, particularly between 1857 and 1870 when, apart from one brief interlude, he was a permanent resident in Europe.

Frank Connolly, c.1877

During those years he spent much time in London, Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome. Art galleries were his particular haunt. He became acquainted at first hand with the work of many 'masters', and, for one largely self-taught, seems to have acquired a sound if somewhat unadventurous taste in traditional art. He also developed a high, but over-ripely sentimental conception of the role of the artist in society. This was an important element in the admiration in which he held the twenty-three year old American sculptor, Frank Connelly, whom he met in Florence during 1864.

John Logan Campbell c. 1867

Connelly was an impressive young man, even if one disregarded his prowess as artist. He was intelligent, handsome, adept in four languages, a fascinating conversationalist, and a fine singer. Few who met him were not charmed and Campbell was no exception. In spite of an age gap of twenty-four years they became firm friends.

Connelly's entry into sculpture had not been by any orthodox route. He had trained as a painter in Paris (Ecole des Beaux Arts), in Germany, and in Rome. Shortly after coming to Florence to settle with his father and sister, he fell under the influence of the American sculptor Hiram Powers, and himself turned to sculpture. For one without training in the plastic arts, he quickly revealed a precocious and abundant talent. But if his rise was meteoric so also was his decline. It is remarkable that though Connelly lived to be ninety-one almost all his creative work of consequence was executed between the ages twenty-three and forty - roughly the years coincidentally of his friendship with Campbell.

Why an artist of such exciting potential in his youth should have become, during his extended later life, a figure of unfulfilled promise is, on the surface of things, puzzling. Anticipating: it puzzled Campbell in his old age, and disappointed him - bitterly. Campbell's explanation was that although Connelly was an 'inborn genius' he was flawed by lack of self-discipline: 'a damned harum scarum' whose 'character alas revealed itself in the wrong direction'.

This simple moralistic diagnosis is not supported by the evidence. But equally the evidence suggests that, beneath an apparently unruffled surface, Connelly was psychologically unstable to an unusual degree.

But if Campbell, even in hindsight, found Connelly's personality mysterious, we living in a post-Freudian age need not. It would be difficult to imagine a more bizarrely disturbed childhood than that which was Frank's lot. His troubles really began back in Louisiana in 1840, a few months before he was born. When Frank's mother Cornelia was four months' pregnant, her husband Pierce appealed to her to undertake with him a celibate life; this as a preliminary step towards a dissolution of marriage that would enable him to be ordained a Catholic priest. Cornelia, herself a devout Catholic, agreed. Early in 1842 she entered a convent taking the infant Frank with her. Shortly after the ordination of Pierce in 1845, Cornelia, who had already taken the vow of chastity, founded the Order of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. But in 1848 Pierce had second thoughts about Catholicism. He renounced his priesthood, gathered his children including Frank about him, and filed a suit in the English courts against Cornelia for the restoration of conjugal rights. After a long delay, judgement in what was generally regarded as an unseemly case if not a public scandal was found in favour of Cornelia. Thus it was that, except for his infant years, Frank was brought up separately from his mother, in an atmosphere of parental confusion and contention, and in a whirl of constant peregrination between America, Italy and England. Upon the collapse of Pierce Connelly's scheme for reconstructing his marriage, he rejoined the Episcopalian ministry. But all his worldly ambition, from that point on, became concentrated upon his talented child Frank. After a decade of trauma, the boy became hopelessly petted and indulged. With what psychic consequences may be imagined.

JFrank Connelly's bust
of Logan Campbell's son, Logie,
modelled after the child's death
in 1867, initially in clay
and then in marble

But Campbell seems not to have noticed anything unusual about Frank's personality as their friendship ripened in Florence between 1864 and 1867. Indeed, such unbounded confidence did he develop in the young sculptor's talent that he decided to become Frank's patron. Encouragement took the form of hard cash. Early in 1867 he advanced £1400 sterling so that Frank might shift from his poky little work-room beside the Piazza San Spirito to a grand studio in the Via Nazionale where he could (in Campbell's words) 'undertake his great works and work out his noble conceptions'. Nor was the relationship between patron and protégé narrowly formal. They became close companions. The death of Campbell's infant and only son Logie, in 1867, gave the relationship a deeper intensity, with (possibly) morbid overtones. As Campbell wrote years later:
In the English (cemetery) Campo Santo in Florence lies buried our onIy son. Frank Connelly stood by my side as we lowered him to his last resting place while the funeral service [was] read by dear old Mr Connelly.' & as we three stood I believed I had found another son in the youth who was at my side.

The mutual affection of the two men, which reached its high point in 1867, fell away little over the next ten years. Campbell was obliged to return to New Zealand in 1871 for reasons of business. But his feelings towards Auckland were ambivalent. Europe drew him. So did Connelly. 'I looked on this bright young genius almost as a son', he confessed to a friend in the mid-eighteen-seventies, 'so much so that not so very long ago I contemplated changing the whole tenor of my life & leaving N.Z. & taking up my home on Italian soil to live beside this very man.

Their next meeting was, in fact, not on Italian soil but in Auckland. In 1876 Connelly travelled from Florence to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition where he exhibited a number of pieces: groups in marble and bronze, and marble statues - one of which took the top silver award. Though his work won acclaim, little of it sold, and no lucrative commissions were obtained either during the Exposition or during the following year when he travelled through the United States. 'Disheartened and out of pocket' (as he later informed Campbell) he looked back upon 'the Ph.C. Exhibition' as 'a humbug'.

Campbell (at this time living in solitude while his wife was in Europe supervising the finishing education of their two adolescent daughters) invited Connelly to come to Auckland, offering to pay his fare to, and expenses within, the colony. Frank arrived in August 1877. Though the friends had not seen each other for seven years they soon slipped into their old affectionate relationship.

Frank Connelly's bust
of John Logan Campbell c. 1865

Once the young artist was installed in Campbell's home, Logan Bank, overlooking the harbour, his flagging spirits were quickly restored. Campbell imagined that he would turn again to sculpture. (There was even talk of a public collection to finance his producing a bust of the premier Sir George Grey.) But Connelly pushed sculpture aside and reverted to his first love, painting. Campbell's memoirs tell us why:
The scenery, which surrounded him at once cooked his artist nature within him and before I could well turn round Logan Bank verandah which could be completely closed in by sliding windows was converted into a studio and easels, palettes and brushes were the order of the day.

Over the next eleven months Connelly went on three separate excursions to paint scenery: to the Hot Lakes, to the Tongariro-Ruapehu mountain area, and to the Southern Alps and Fiords. After the first and third excursions lie returned with notebooks and oil sketches to Logan Bank, there to commit his ideas to canvas. From the second, however, he came back empty-handed. By climbing Tongariro to sketch, he had broken a deep tapu, and on his descent was seized and bound by Kingite Maoris. And it was said at the time, that had it not been for the intervention of a pakeha-Maori he could well have been killed. His punishment was in fact light. Horses, baggage, painting equipment and sketches were confiscated and permanently lost: that was all. Back in Auckland, relying on his mind's eve, he still managed to do his mountain landscapes - 'painting like a hurricane', Campbell reported in a letter to Frank's sister.

The week before Connelly left the colony, he held an exhibition of his New Zealand work, even though he knew it lacked 'completion in detail' and had yet to be finished back in his studio in Florence. Campbell called the showing an 'At Home', which in a sense I suppose it was, as it took place in the main public rooms, and on the verandah, of Logan Bank - 'a perfect gallery' said Campbell. The occasion, attended by ninety-four viewers, is best described by excerpts from letters sent by the merchant to his friends abroad. The purpose, he remarked, was 'to allow Auckland to see the prolific productions of my friend Connelly's brush, a rare and beautiful collection of N.Z. Iandscapes' over 'twenty large oils, besides all his small studies.' Not that Campbell imagined Auckland had reached artistic maturity. Significantly, he observed that 'Frank & I conclude only two persons understood the display placed before them.' To Frank's sister he continued in the same vein: this 'wonderful and very beautiful collection of views will be . . . much more appreciated out of the colony than in it: Few here have any cultivated taste in art - no chance of acquiring that in fact & one feels that the beauty Frank's pictures ought to have offered has been thrown away.

Frank Connelly's painting of
Logan Campbell's daughter, Ida,
made after her death, c. 1882

Very few of the paintings remained in New Zealand. The greater part were bundled up and sent on to Florence. Where they are today is a mystery. Enquiries suggest that some are stored in the basement of the home of one of Connellv's descendants in Rome.

The Campbell-Connelly friendship did not survive the 1877-8 visit. The history of the quarrel cannot be dealt with here, but it is clear that, during the period Connelly spent in the colony, Campbell became increasingly irritated by what he thought (unreasonably I believe) was Connelly's ingratitude, self-absorption, and erratic behaviour.

But while this visit may have killed the friendship, it gave birth to the school of art and to a new direction in art affairs in the city.

Years later, the young artist C.H. Kennett Watkins maintained that at the time Connelly came to Auckland 'art matters were in a very chaotic state'. The fledgling Auckland Society of Artists was little more that a self-doubting côterie. Into this colonial situation entered Connelly, acclaimed as 'a great genius', a sculptor of 'known fame and reputation' whose 'whole life has been devoted to art'. After his Tongariro exploit, the press made him (in Campbell's phrase) 'public property' from one end of the colony to the other.

Yet though Connelly was lionized, he was anything but lofty. Towards local artists (as Kennett Watkins testified) he showed encouragement and sympathy'. Shortly after he arrived, he attended as visitor' a tiny, meeting of the Society of Artists. It was typical of him that at the Society's next exhibition he should join local painters such as Hoyte, Sharpe, and Albin Martin and submit a few of his Auckland sketches as well. Though these were 'unfinished', in the opinion of the Herald reporter they revealed 'a great artistic insight'. As well as encouragement, he gave what we today would regard as enlightened advice. Local artists, he counselled, should not be anxious to replicate the art of Europe in an Antipodean setting. 'The climate and scenery in New Zealand are especially favourable to the growth of a distinct school of art.'

L.J. Steele in his studio
with a portrait of John Logan
Campbell, c. 1903

There is no doubt that it was Connelly's presence that led to Campbell's decision early in 1878 to found a school of design in Auckland. He delayed announcing his intention publicly, however, until the middle of the year when a gift coming from a wealthy expatriate in London provided an appropriate occasion. The expatriate, Thomas Russell, had indicated that he would donate to the Auckland Institute twenty life-sized Plaster of Paris statues, copies of 'the most celebrated antique originals' and also twelve plaster busts. Campbell then offered to provide pedestals, and with Connelly's advice, place the items in the council-room of the Institute building in Princes Street; and, further, to celebrate the Russell donation by inaugurating what he called 'a school of design', this to be 'under the direction of Mr Kennett Watkins, an artist of high repute'.

On the acceptance of his offer Campbell sent to the Institute's council-room 'drawing-boards and tables, cases, easels, and all the requisite furniture, together with a large number of fictile studies' - such items as miniature portions of classical columns and of the Elgin marbles, together with models of various portions of the human body.

On 2 November 1878, Watkins put twenty-six candidates through a drawing test. Fourteen (mainly young women) passed. These were the foundation pupils of what became known as the Campbell Free School of Art.

Campbell supported the School from his own pocket until 1889 when the Elam bequest enabled him, at a time of financial straits, to shift the burden on to other shoulders. By that time he and Connelly were no longer friends.

J.L. Campbell Papers
J.T. Mackelvie Papers
Auckland Society of Arts Minutebooks
New Zealand Herald
R.C.J. Stone, 'John Logan Campbell, Frank Connelly and "Trespiano"', New Zealand Journal of History 10: I, pp. 21 - 36, April, 1976.
R.C.J. Stone, Young Logan Campbell, (Auckland, 1982).