T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: The way we were

By T.J. McNamara

Impressive scenes of early Auckland reveal links between Victorian times and the present day

The Three Kings, Volcanic Crater, Auckland (1875)  by John Kinder. Photo / Auckland Art Gallery
The Three Kings, Volcanic Crater, Auckland (1875) by John Kinder. Photo / Auckland Art Gallery

The city of Auckland was born in Victorian times and Auckland Art Gallery, in its architecture and collections, is a spectacular combination of the 19th century and the modern.

Two exhibitions show how its rich stock can be used to help us understand and enjoy art - and to see the way we were. Kinder's Presence exemplifies the past and present in a lively way.

The Rev John Kinder, whose house at the top of Ayr St in Parnell is a treasure in itself, is an example of a gifted, multi-talented Victorian gentleman. Born in London in 1818, he was a scholar, clergyman, schoolmaster, painter, photographer, gardener and an inveterate traveller.

He left more than 400 watercolours and an equal number of photographs, many of which record scenes in early Auckland at a time when Parnell was still almost a separate village.

There have been big exhibitions of his work before but this one, on the mezzanine floor, is small but cleverly conceived.

His photographs are matched with the work of three contemporary photographers whose style has been influenced by Kinder, and who have been attracted to sites visited by him.

Most of the work is in black and white with two notable exceptions by Chris Corson-Scott. Particularly fine is one that provides a series of links between the gallery, Victorian times and the present. The splendid colour photograph, done last year, shows his father, the late Ian Scott, a distinguished painter with works in the gallery's modern collection, sitting on rocks beneath cliffs and pohutukawa on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula.

Corson-Scott had gone to find and paint a spot where Kinder made one of his finest photographs, which is in the show. The Corson-Scott photograph is notable for the details of tall grass and the colour of the rocks washed by the sea. Almost equally impressive is his unusual panoramic view of St Heliers and the harbour, taken from a high viewpoint.

A Kinder photograph of virgin bush in the Coromandel prompted Haru Sameshima to search for primeval bush, and he found it only in southern Fiordland. His black and white photographs vividly emphasise the almost impassable tangle of uncut New Zealand forest. Mark Adams also captures a sense of enduring bush and rock in a staggered series of images of a geological incline.

Kinder's watercolours of Auckland itself evoke the sense of time past. He recorded the growth of the town from small beginnings to a prosperous and spreading city. His painting of the Three Kings shows all three standing proud with not a house in sight. Two of the Kings are long gone, eaten away by quarrying for road metal.

The Victorian city felt the need to establish its cultural credentials and, among other ideas, established an art gallery and persuaded donors to fill it. What they gathered were examples of contemporary English painting. In Victorian times, academic English painting flourished as never before. Big, confident narrative, historical and scenic paintings were available and Auckland got its share.

For a while last century they were unfashionable, and there was even at some stage talk of selling some of the collection. Now they are hugely back in favour and the collection is priceless.

Victorian Tales of Love and Enchantment showcases some of its treasures in the grand space of the mezzanine floor, at the centre of the oldest part of the gallery. Some of the work has been loved by generations of Aucklanders.

Frank Bramley's For Such is the Kingdom of Heaven is probably the best-loved example. The setting is Cornwall and the clothes are a documentary in themselves. Some of the painting is masterly, with a group of ragged children with patched clothing watching the sad procession. One is a little redheaded girl whose characterisation is deftly conveyed. There is also plenty of room for speculation. A small girl carries flowers by herself in the white-frocked singing procession. Is the curious colour of her face a sign that she might be the next victim of the sickness?

Specialist paintings include Briton Riviere, who gained fame and fortune as a painter of animals. His Androcles and the Lion has a splendid close-up of the royal beast, sharp teeth and all, but pathetically holding up his paw to have a thorn pulled out. The show includes names most often seen in exhibitions overseas. Cold winter landscape has seldom been so well painted as Sir John Millais' Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind with a story of bitter parting in the snow.

The lofty ideals of Lord Leighton are symbolised in his Spirit of the Heights. It has just a trace of the solemn absurdity that could afflict the grand manner, with an exceptionally handsome woman in an impractically thin, transparent robe perched high on a mountaintop, thinking noble thoughts. Yet it has a certain magnificence.

Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema combines Victorian interest in Rome and the Middle East in his sultry Cleopatra. It has a frame that is an artwork in itself.


At the galleries

What: Kinder's Presence; Victorian Tales of Love and Enchantment, both to April 27
Where: Auckland Art Gallery
TJ says: Two shows that make imaginative use of the gallery's collections, local and historical

- NZ Herald

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