Lance-Sergeant John Williams

Military Topographer Of The Northern War


Preluded by Hone Heke's series of bloodless attacks on the flagpole at Kororareka, the War in the North began in earnest with the invasion of the town on 11 March 1845 and continued until the sack of Ruapekapeka pa on 11 January 1846. Over these ten violent months regular British forces learned for the first time what it meant to confront a Maori foe. Things were not easy for the imperial army, despite massive help received from Maori allies. Scores of men died during frontal assaults on pa that were impregnable by such tactics, ordered against Maori advice by commanders completely ignorant of the nature of Maori fortifications.

The British were repulsed in May at a pa built by Heke near Okaihau, and again at Ohaiawai in July, where they suffered heavy losses. At Okaihau the Maori forces first saw the deadly efficiency of fixed bayonets, and realised the necessity of withdrawing deeper into the pa, literally underground. The final stand was made at Te Ruki Kawiti's pa Ruapekapeka (cave of bats), where several hundred Maori defenders faced a combined military, allied Maori and Auckland volunteer force exceeding 1600, equipped with heavy artillery. Ruapekapeka was nevertheless an easy victory, captured on Sunday while most of the defenders were at their customary prayer meeting outside the pa.

Heki's Pa at Mawai
NZ 8th May 1845

watercolour, 209 x 304 mm.
(Rex Nan Kivell collection,
National Library
of Australia)

Two soldiers made extended visual records of this war: Lance-Sergeant John Williams of the 58th Regiment, and his superior, Major Cyprian Bridge. Their pictures are vital historical documents of the first pakeha war, and have been used as illustrations in histories from as early as 1859.(1) Even so, direct information about the pictures, and their production is both rare and scattered, like the pictures themselves. The first obstacle is the incorrect attribution of works, for which Bridge family tradition may have been partly responsible.(2) H.M.S. North Star, destroying Pomare's pa (Turnbull collection) is one of John Williams's most extraordinary pictures, yet it has long been catalogued as being painted by Bridge. Its appearance as one of the Turnbull Library Endowment Trust's Bridge Prints in 1970, and on the cover of volume 18 of New Zealand's Heritage in 1971 means that this has become Williams's best-known painting, albeit as one by Bridge.

The same volume of New Zealand's Heritage (pages 484-5) has two colour reproductions of Bridge's Ruapekapeka watercolours. They convey something of the expressive qualities of Bridge's brushwork, which delights in springy, calligraphic lines: completely unlike the ruler-guided depiction of the rigging on the North Star. Another favourite technique of Bridge's was to drag a fairly dry brush across his foregrounds to achieve a dappled effect on an already coloured ground. The granular lights of the North Star reflected in the water are achieved by a different method, that of scraping through to the paper below.

Waikadi 16th May 1845
watercolour, 208 x 327 mm.
(Collection of the Alexander
Turnbull Library)

By contrast, a comparison of H.M.S. North Star, destroying Pomare`s pa with Williams's signed watercolour Ruapekapeka NZ (Nan Kivell collection) reveals the same artist's hand at work. There is a basic compositional similarity, the same deep focus, and the same interest in atmospheric conditions and the depiction of a specific time of day. In terms of paint-handling, compare the fine vertical strokes with which Williams's brush represents distant tree trunks in both the sunset and the nocturnal scene. Stylistic considerations aside, a passage from Bridge's diary published on the text-sheet to the Bridge Prints should have provoked a query as to his authorship of the view based on sketches made on the other side of the Kawakawa inlet on 30 April. Bridge describes the 'laughable scene' that occurred within the captured pa, with 'officers and men running after pigs, turkeys, ducks and goats, shooting and cutting off their heads with their swords'. He managed to souvenir a small rifle and a 'native war club' before flames engulfed the pa, and supervised the embarkation of the men until 9.00 pm. (3)

With the miniaturist technique that is characteristic of his work, Williams depicted the climax to one of the earliest episodes in the war: one which considerably tarnished British credibility. The story of how the North Star answered the white flag of truce flying from the pa was published by Joseph Jenner Merrett, who as one of the government-employed interpreters was horrified to discover his complicity in the capture of Pomare.(4) Merrett's 'Narrative' is a bitter denunciation of the tactics employed in the Pomare episode, a document which has been ignored by subsequent historians. Written by a participant central to the drama, Merrett's text contributes as much towards an understanding of the ant-like manoeuvres of Williams's picture as does Bridge's diary, with all its close-up detail of the episode.

H.M.S. North Star
destroying Pomare's pa
Otuihu, Bay of Islands
30th April 1845

watercolour, 202 x 278 mm.
(Collection of the Alexander
Turnbull Library)

A further obstacle in approaching Williams's work results from the confusion over his precise relationship to Bridge. The Bridge Prints text-sheet states that in the Turnbull Library 'there are also a number [of watercolours] by Lance-Sergeant John Williams, 58th Regt., who copied views made by Bridge.' Una Platts reports that Williams 'mystifyingly shared a sketchbook with Major Cyprian Bridge during the 1845 campaign ... Between the two men there are sometimes two or three versions of identical scenes and until lately it has been difficult to disentangle the copyist from the original painter.'(5) So not only has Williams had his work attributed to Bridge, but his own position has been degraded to that of a copyist. Williams himself may have been partly responsible for this, through his practice of inscribing a view he has copied for someone both with his own signature and with the name of the originating artist. Ohaiawai (Nan Kivell collection) is a sepia study by Williams inscribed From a sketch taken on the spot by Major Bridge 58th Regiment. Apparently on the basis of this one credit line, all the other drawings and watercolours by Williams in the Nan Kivell collection have been ascribed to John Williams after Cyprian Bridge'.(6) The Turnbull collection in turn has a watercolour sketch of Ruapekapeka on which Williams has inscribed From a sketch by Lt Col Wynyard.

Beyond these acknowledged re-workings, which indicate that Williams worked as a 'reproductive' artist, little is certain about Williams's relationship to his superiors. There is no evidence that Williams and Bridge ever shared a sketchbook in the field, and the only fieldwork that survives is two pencil drawings made by Williams at Ohaiawai (Nan Kivell collection).(7) What has proved confusing is the mixture of works by Williams and Bridge (and others) contained in Bridge's own album now in the Turnbull, from which the sequence of the pictures was not recorded before most of them were detached.

Ruapekapeka, N.Z.
The British Camp and
Friendly Pa
in the fore ground.
The Rebel Pa in the distant
wood on the left
January 1846

watercolour, 205 x 304 mm.
(Rex Nan Kivell collection,
National Library
of Australia)

The important point is that most of Bridge's and Williams's authentic work is unique. That is, they don't copy each other at all, keeping very much to their own compositional and stylistic preferences. However, a strong suggestion that they at least once sketched side by side emerges from a comparison of Williams's Heki's Pa at Mawai (Nan Kivell collection) with Bridge's Battle for Puketutu Pa (Turnbull).(8) These are completely independent renderings of the same scene, from slightly different viewpoints.

The copies (that is, identical versions) occur mainly in the Waikare-related scenes, depicting the dawn raid on the Kapotai pa that Bridge commanded on 16 May 1845. The circumstantial evidence goes against Bridge for a start: with all the anxieties that surrounded the manoeuvring of troops through a mangrove swamp at daybreak, would Bridge have allowed himself the leisure to note down a few compositions? In the Turnbull's album we find Williams's watercolour of the disembarkation, which is inscribed Sketch by John Williams, minus any originating credit to Bridge. This means that the version of this scene by Bridge (also in the Turnbull) is a direct copy of Williams's watercolour, probably made for display purposes.(9)

View of the pah of
Ruapekapeka after its
capture and when in flames ...
12 January 1846

watercolour, 162 x 145 mm.
(Collection of the Alexander
Turnbull Library)

Sometimes Williams copied Bridge. Sometimes Bridge copied Williams. But the best work of both these artists is unique, and deserves to be appreciated for what it is. Bridge and Williams were not artists in competition with each other; rather they were differently ranked soldiers who both loved to draw and paint watercolours, who sometimes worked together, who regularly saw each other's work. By making their pictures of the War in the North, they contributed the earliest examples in New Zealand to an important branch of mid-nineteenth century landscape art: that produced by the military topographers.

1. Works by Williams and Bridge appear in: A.S. Thomson, The Story of New Zealand (1859);James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars (1922); T.L. Buick, New Zealand's First War (1926); Tawai Kawiti, 'Heke's War in the North', Te Ao Hou no. 16, October 1956, pages 38-46; Ian Wards, The Shadow of the Land (1968); Michael Barthorp, To Face the Daring Maoris (1979). Useful general accounts of the war are given by Tony Simpson (Te Riri Pakeha, 1979, pages 68-83) and Jack Lee ('I have named it the Bay of Islands... ', 1983, pages 252-274).
2. An account of the Turnbull collection when it was owned by his son H.B. Bridge of Wellington appeared in the New Zealand Free Lance (30 October 1909, page 4) where the writer states that 'All through the campaign the war artist was Major Bridge of the 58th'. The only reference to Williams comes in the final paragraph: 'There are also watercolour drawings by Lance-Sergeant Williams, also of the 58th, completed in colours by Colonel Bridge, some of which likewise adorn the pages of Dr Thomson's book. Perhaps on this authority, the series of pastel drawings closely related to the illustrations in Thomson have been attributed to Williams. They seem rather to be the work of an eighteen-fifties copyist who had been looking at Cuthbert Clarke as well as Williams and Bridge.
3. Cyprian Bridge's original diary, now missing, was once held by the Wellington Public Library (New Zealand Times, 25 November 1916, page 6: 'The original diary, in the major's characteristic backhand writing, was presented to the Wellington Free Library some years ago by his son'). Fortunately, two manuscript copies of the diary has survived; one in the Turnbull, the other in the Auckland Institute and Museum Library. It is a fascinating document, but Bridge makes no mention of picture-making. Further commentaries may yet be located, as one of Williams's ink drawings of Ohaiawal (Nan Kivell collection) is inscribed see page 214 of manuscript record.
4. 'Narrative of proceedings leading to the capture of Pomare', New Zealand Journal volume 5, no. 152 (October 1845) page 271. The same issue of this journal contains Merrett's 'Attack on John Heki's Pah', an account of the battle near Okaihau originally published in the Auckland Times. Merrett's drawing Heki's first pah at the lake of Mapere (British Library) is reproduced in New Zealand's Heritage, page 483.
5. Una Platts, Nineteenth Century New Zealand Artists (1980) page 256. Platts's recounting of Williams's desertion in New Zealand is based on Dr Hocken's apocryphal biography, written to accompany his four watercolours: 'Sergeant Williams, who drew these spirited and faithful pictures, fought through the whole of Heke's war. He deserted leaving them in the cottage of Joyce, a half-caste, at Paihia, Bay of Islands. Here they lay about for 40 years when I fortunately recovered them...'The Turnbull Library has photographed a privately owned watercolour titled St Peter's Barracks, Jersey, 4th July 1852, signed by Williams. Not only is this evidence that he stayed within the army, but it also displays his characteristic watercolour style, incompatible with many of the supposedly later works attributed to him.
6. The same credit line has been given to works by J.J. Merrett. A detail of Merrett's War Dance appears on the dustjacket of Barthorp's To Face the Daring Maoris, described as 'by Lance-Sergeant Williams, after Major Cyprian Bridge'. The full War Dance is reproduced in colour in Life & Times of Te Rauparaha, by his son Tamihana Te Rauparaha. (ed. Peter Butler, 1980) page 11, along with Merrett's Interior of a New Zealand Hut, page 8. Both are described as 'after the original by Bridge'.
7. These are very free drawings, smaller in scale than the watercolours, in which Williams notes down the essentials of the scene. One of these drawings, showing the attempted storming of Ohaiawai, he developed into two subsequent pictures: a slightly coloured sepia drawing in the Turnbull and a watercolour in the Hocken collection. The sepia drawing is reproduced in Cowan, page 62 (labelled 'From a drawing by Colonel Cyprian Bridge' despite the conspicuous signature J Williams), while the watercolour is reproduced in Buick, page 184, as a work by Williams. The engraved version published in Thomson (vol. 2, page 184), correctly acknowledged to Williams, is a reworking of the sepia drawing.
8. Reproduced in Barthorp, page 80.
9. '... the paintings hung in Mr Bridge's dining room, of which there are about a dozen.' (New Zealand Free Lance, 30 October 1909, page 4). Long-term exposure to light accounts for the condition of many of Bridge's watercolours.