GILFILLAN, John Alexander

Portrait of the Artist’s Son, John Gordon Gilfillan

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1844
Watercolour
240 x 200mm

John Alexander Gilfillan and his family emigrated to New Zealand in 1841, arriving on Christmas Day. John had been a professor of painting at the Andersonian University, Glasgow for eleven years before deciding to transport his family to the New Zealand Company settlement at Whanganui. He established a farm in the Matarawa Valley where after a two year quiet period of friendly relations with Maori a misunderstanding between a young naval officer from a visiting gun boat and a local tribe resulted in the family being attacked by raiding party. On 18 April 1847 Gilfillan’s wife Mary and three of their children were killed and their farmhouse destroyed.

John Gordon, aged seven at the time of the attack, and his six year old sister Sarah were found walking out of the bush by a rescue party which had been sent out from Whanganui. His father moved the surviving members of the family to Australia but John Gordon later returned to New Zealand. He drowned at age 35, in a canoe accident on Lake Rotorua in 1875. This unusual depiction of his son shows John Gordon in a smock standing in a cleared hilly landscape beside a tree stump, holding an axe. It is a telling representation in that the child is imbued with all the attributes of the zealous adult colonial settler in determined pursuit of civilisation.