Watercolour on paper
555 x 777mm
Inscribed: ‘Mount Egmont, from the North Shore of Cooke’s Strait, New Zealand. Natives Burning off Wood for Potato Grounds.’
The inclusion of two descriptions for this work reflects the Maori and Pakeha curatorial approaches taken for the exhibition Te Huringa/Turning Points.
Thomas Allom never visited New Zealand. However, his son, Albert James Allom (1831–1909), arrived as a survey cadet in 1842 and remained here until the late 1880s, when he moved to Tasmania. In London, Thomas Allom made plates for lithographs based on watercolours and drawings by Charles Heaphy published by the New Zealand Company. This painting is closely based on Heaphy’s 1840 watercolour Mt Egmont from the Southward, from which Allom also made a lithograph in 1841 for the publishers Smith, Elder & Co. He probably consulted Augustus Earle’s 1839 Sketches Illustrative of Native Inhabitants of the Islands of New Zealand when adding the incidental Maori figures. He also changed the nature of the delicate screen of trees symmetrically placed on either side of the mountain that were such a feature of Heaphy’s watercolour. However, he did nothing to disturb the proportions of the original work’s extraordinarily symmetrical cone of Mt Egmont.
In spite of its title, the Maori people depicted in this picture seem incidental. Their activities set within a brownish landscape look overshadowed by the Charles Heaphy-inspired, oddly-shaped mountain in the background. The adding of Maori people, their dwellings and lifestyles to such a landscape composition was an artistic fashion whose purpose was to attract the interest of a foreign audience. A record of land features such as mountains, rather than people, was often the primary motive for colonial paintings. The fact that Thomas Allom never visited Aotearoa and is highly unlikely to have known any Maori people adds to the general impression that this picture is pure fantasy, though we are able to turn the tables on that interpretation.
To dismiss this painting as purely imaginary is also to dismiss its human component, namely the Maori people within it. Due credit should be given to them, at least, in that they remind us that Taranaki land was always worked industriously, often over and above subsistence levels. Importantly too, a renewed sense of mana recognises that historical links with the land may be traced back well before the arrival of British colonisation. In Taranaki, as well as in all other rohe (tribal territories), this link has been vigorously defended against the negative effects of colonialist expansion. Allom could have never predicted that his painting of those unidentified ‘Natives’ could so aptly symbolise the persistence and strength of Maori culture up to this very day.