Oil on canvas
228 x 442mm
The inclusion of two descriptions for this work reflects the Maori and Pakeha curatorial approaches taken for the exhibition Te Huringa/Turning Points.
Born in Devon, England, into an artistic family, Strutt had his schooling at Jersey and later in Paris. In 1838 he entered the atelier of Michel-Martin Drolling, a pupil of the great neo-classicist painter Jacques-Louis David. In 1839, Strutt was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts, where he was attracted by the work of the orientalists and was taught by one of them, Vernet. He disliked England and, in 1850, after various jobs as a copyist, booked a passage for Melbourne. Here he delighted in the “pure and searching light” and worked as a painter and engraver. Marrying in 1852, he took his wife and one child to Nelson in 1855, remaining in this country for a year, mostly in Taranaki, where he purchased a bush property between the Henui and Mangorei Rivers.
Here he built a ‘whorry’ (whare). In New Plymouth he sketched Maori, mostly “the grim old and tattooed specimens” and also favoured subjects in which those he depicted were involved in some strenuous activity. The Ambuscade was painted after he had returned to England, its detailed treatment of foliage and triangular arrangement of figures showing evidence of Strutt’s academic training. The central visual point of the painting is the contrast between the brightly lit, unsuspecting British redcoat and the group of fearsome warriors, shrouded in gloom, at whose hands he will shortly meet his fate. Leonard Bell has suggested that the painting offers a generic, fictitious view probably made to satisfy a contemporary taste for ambush scenes though undoubtedly referring in a general way to tensions existing in the Taranaki area.
The Ambuscade coincided with a notably bellicose time in the history of Aotearoa’s internal affairs, the Land Wars of the 1860s. The luxury of retrospect permits this picture to be addressed in broader terms than Strutt himself may have ever entertained. No longer, for example, do the symbols of war, including guns and a uniform, engender so dramatically the fear of Maori rebellion that they would have once amongst a more naïve audience. Today, for example, we may question the artist’s motives and how his personal experiences impact upon his painting. The painting may then inspire us further than its superficial references to Maori malevolence would restrict us to. The representation of Maori males in this work resonates with French Revolutionary art, if not an Italian Renaissance preoccupation with ideal, muscular human form, a comparison noted by Strutt himself. This detailed attention to anatomical form is displayed in highlighted chiaroscuro, so much as almost to distract us away from the story of an imminent altercation.
The central section of the painting is therefore a glorified one, prompting speculation about where the artist’s loyalties truly lie. Strutt is well-known for his painted episodes of life in this country in the second half of the 19th century and, unlike other nationalistic chroniclers who succeeded him, this image of ‘fierce Maori warriors’ is unusual. The Ambuscade is a ‘soft sell’, despite the dramatic flailing of muskets and anxious looks of the potential ambushers contrasted with the seemingly off-guard expression of the red-coated soldier. The cloaked individual in the lower foreground does not fit the ‘fierce’ stereotype and his feathered representation is not only obscured, it is also enigmatic. The integration of his kahu-huruhuru (feather cloak) with the surrounding foliage could be interpreted (racial stereotypes notwithstanding) as a comment that Maori people are closer to nature than their European counterparts – yet there is a reticence at work that does not completely condemn this or the other ambushers as totally savage by nature.