SMITH, William Mein;

Woburn Farm, River Hutt

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c.1850
Watercolour on paper
260 x 390mm (image); 610 x 740mm (frame)

William Mein Smith served in the British Army in Britain, Canada, and Gibraltar. He was appointed Surveyor General to the New Zealand Company in 1839, arriving in Te Whanganui-a-Tara 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 New Zealand 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 Smith is likely to have been a visitor.

Although very different from the aristocratic way of life they had left in England, their time in New Zealand was a great success, until 23 February 1855, the night of the most severe earthquake ever recorded in Wellington. Petre lost confidence in his farming plans and 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 (built 1932), stands on some of the original Woburn land, as does Hutt Valley High School. The house was demolished in 1981.

The above notes are the work of Marian Minson, Curator Pictorial Collections, Alexander Turnbull Library. They were made in 1987, when this painting featured as one of the library’s limited edition prints. When the painting came to auction in 1986, it was attributed to S. C. Brees, the New Zealand Company’s principal surveyor, but 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 in the library’s sketches by Smith proved beyond doubt that the painting is his work, not that of Brees.

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