Watercolour on paper
625 x 925mm
It is not known exactly when Alfred Sharpe was born though he was baptised on 30 September 1836 at Tranmere, Cheshire, England. His father, a prosperous Liverpool merchant named William Sharp, was a collector of paintings and took his son to visit collections and exhibitions. By his own account Alfred studied at the Birkenhead School of Arts and spent two years in the west of Ireland before emigrating to New Zealand. He arrived at Auckland, already spelling his name with the final “e”, in September 1859, took up land at Mangapai, south of Whangarei and then relinquished it in favour of Auckland upon marrying in 1866. During the 1870s he exhibited large scale watercolours with the newly founded Auckland Society of Arts and at venues in Wellington, Melbourne and Sydney as well as in Auckland shop windows.
Later in the decade he organised solo exhibitions in the form of art unions, or raffles. Auckland denied Sharpe the professional recognition he craved. Reviewers were frequently dismissive of the works they regarded as “painfully elaborate” and Sharpe – by now profoundly deaf – increasingly adopted the newspaper columns as a means of expressing his views on art, architecture, water pipes, political corruption, acclimatisation of vermin and outrageous taxi fares. The true title of this work was discovered only in 1994 by the curator Roger Blackley while researching Sharpe’s art union records for the large Sharpe retrospective held at Auckland City Art Gallery. While he regarded himself primarily as a professional artist, Sharpe’s paintings were produced in the time allowed by a full time position as an architectural draughtsman and part time teaching.
At the end of 1887, only months before Auckland’s new art gallery opened, one if its most vigorous propagandists left for Newcastle, New South Wales. Sharpe produced probably between 100 and 150 paintings in New Zealand, of which fewer than 100 survive. He rarely repeated his compositions, unlike Hoyte and Gully. In style they owe much to the pre-Raphaelite landscapes he had seen in Liverpool in the 1850s, incorporating high viewpoints, sharp focus and vivid colour. Like O’Brien he was criticised for his detail and harsh colour. He continued to exhibit through the 1880s at the Auckland Society of Arts and was a leading member of a rival group, the New Zealand Art Students’ Association from 1884–1887. This group’s call for a specific New Zealand content fitted perfectly with Sharpe’s documentary approach.
Sharpe remained in Newcastle, Australia the next two decades, practising as an architect. He continued to paint watercolours, designed the city’s principal parks and produced over 50 illuminated addresses commissioned for special presentations. Roger Blackley has written that Sunset on the Puhoi River also known as Wenderholm is one of Sharpe’s most ambitious paintings. It was the major prize in his first art union which took place in May 1880. Innumerable washes of watercolour blended with glazes of pure water combine to represent a characteristic North Auckland coastal landscape glowing in the late afternoon sunlight. A virtuoso display of technique, it exemplifies the “Hints for Landscape Students in Watercolour” which Sharpe began publishing in August 1880.
These essays appeared weekly in the New Zealand Herald and Auckland Weekly News and provide valuable information about how Sharpe made his spectacular watercolours. First of all a colour sketch was executed on the spot, a point of view was carefully chosen and the essentials of the scene at a particular time of day laid down on paper. Like many of Sharpe’s pictures, Wenderholm is a late afternoon view, allowing a contrast of shaded foreground against warm, sunlit middle distance. Back in the studio the outdoor sketch was transformed into an ambitious exhibition watercolour intended to compete with contemporary oil paintings. Sharpe used innumerable washes of colour to build the picture gradually, working from the distance (the palest, most translucent zone) towards the foreground.
The blended glazes of colour and the more specific brushwork applied over these glazes combine to produce a unified scene. It is the combination of technical brilliance and landscape realism which makes Wenderholm so much more than another topographical painting. Passionately interested in the development of a local landscape tradition, Sharpe gave the following advice in the last essay of his “Hints” published in the Auckland Weekly News of 6 September 1882: “New Zealand scenery is special and unique, and, therefore, it is altogether inexcusable to take liberties with it on the pretence of improvement. Leave that to the artists at home, who, painting hackneyed scenery, depend greatly on novelty for effect, and strive to reproduce Nature here as she is, ere her originality disappears before the combined effects of advancing civilisation and imported vermin and vegetation.”