Watercolour on paper
442 x 337mm
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 France, where his father was a merchant and British consul in Bordeaux, Bell grew up bilingually, educated in the classics and in painting and music. Such an education was considered the basis for the life of a cultivated gentleman. In 1839, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, his father’s cousin, found the young Bell a position with the New Zealand Company in London. By 1841 he was acting secretary for the company, taking responsibility for the Nelson area. Bell arrived in New Zealand in 1843, where he was sent to buy land from Maori, first in Auckland and then in Nelson. In 1847 he was involved in Wairarapa purchases and thereafter worked for the company in New Plymouth.
In 1850, when the New Zealand Company folded, Sir George Grey appointed him Commissioner of Crown Lands and a member of the Legislative Council. In 1853 he was elected to the Wellington Provincial Council and in 1855 won a seat in the House of Representatives. A fluent Maori speaker and more experienced in Maori affairs than most of his contemporaries, Bell became Minister of Native Affairs in the Domett administration in 1862. He supported the invasion of the Waikato in 1863, visiting Australia to recruit military settlers. When Domett’s administration was replaced by that of Sir William Fox, a former rival, Bell retired to his sheep station near Palmerston, Otago.
In 1871, Bell was returned to Parliament in the Mataura seat, which he had held since 1866. Knighted in 1873, he served as speaker of the House of Representatives until 1875. He retired in Otago in 1891. A fine calligrapher as well as a painter, his works were exhibited at the 1865 Dunedin Exhibition with others by fellow politicians J.C. Richmond and Sir William Fox. This painting’s meticulous detailing exhibits a calligraphic finesse and Ruskinian botanical accuracy. At the same time, it displays the artist’s feeling for the gloomily romantic beauty of a forest in a strange land.
This painting’s featured bush setting is intriguing, given the artist’s familiarity with Maori custom and language. Dillon Bell was a learned government official whose various roles directly impacted on Maori customary attachments to land. His social status is less obvious in this picture than his urge to record a detailed idyllic scene. Botanically-based observations dominate; the three small Maori figures included in the composition are shown as bystanders overpowered by the forest. There is the sense here that picturesque concerns are more dominant than the artist’s recorded involvement in colonialist land acquisition. His capacity to capture this landscape in paint does, nevertheless, mirror the political power he actually had during his lifetime, a power that witnessed a wholesale cultural decline with the imposition of laws that denied Maori customary land tenure.
The artist appears to excuse himself from such political realities by privileging spectacular, untouched nature over human nature. The dense bush-clad land did not, in fact, overawe him as this painting might suggest, his social standing becoming increasingly privileged, particularly when compared to that of many Maori. This point does not detract from his efforts to learn Maori culture and language during his lifetime. However, life in the bush and elsewhere in Aotearoa was not idyllic and equitable for all who dwelt there, this becoming dramatically obvious once colonisation began its inevitable progress.