Watercolour on paper
260 x 390mm
William Mein Smith served in the British Army in Britain, Canada and Gibraltar and was appointed Surveyor General to the New Zealand Company in 1839, arriving in Wellington in 1840. He surveyed Thorndon and drew up Wellington’s first town plan, acted as a magistrate, surveyed parts of the Wairarapa and laid out the town of Featherston. He took up land in the Wairarapa and was active in provincial and national politics. Details of his training as an artist are not known but it is likely that his natural ability was encouraged as part of his army training; one of his army posts was as Master of Plan Drawing at Woolwich. The Alexander Turnbull Library holds a substantial collection of his pencil and ink drawings done for the NZ Company, watercolours of the greater Wellington area and the Wairarapa done for his own pleasure, and one oil painting — a panoramic view of Wellington. The land shown in this painting was originally purchased in 1840 by Francis A. Molesworth who cleared much of the bush and began farming.
In 1848 he sold 46 acres to Henry William Petre who named the property Woburn and had this substantial house built to accommodate his wife Mary Walmsley and their four children. Two more children were born later and the area was further developed as farmland. They were a sociable family and Mein Smith is likely to have been a visitor. Although very different from the aristocratic way of life they had left in England their NZ way of life was a great success until 23 February 1855, the night of the severest earthquake ever recorded in Welllington. Petre lost confidence in his farming plans as the result of this terrifying experience. He sold the farm and house to the Riddiford family who retained it until 1960. The house depicted in this work, Woburn Farm, had burned down by 1910 when it was replaced by another mansion named simply “Woburn”.
The property continued to be subdivided and today the former Prime Minister’s residence Vogel House (1932) stands on some of the original Woburn land, as does Hutt Valley High School. Woburn House was demolished in 1981. The above notes are the work of Marian Minson, Curator Pictorial Collections, Alexander Turnbull Library and were made at the time this painting featured as one of the library’s limited edition prints in 1987. When the painting came to auction in 1986 it was attributed to S.C. Brees, the New Zealand Company’s principal surveyor, but Marian Minson discovered that Brees had left New Zealand three years before Woburn Farm was built. Her analysis of the colour, composition and distinctive way of drawing trees and stumps of the ATL sketches by William Mein Smith proved beyond doubt that the painting is his work, not Brees’s.