Portrait of the Treaty artist

By Peter Alsop

A new book uncovers the story of New Zealand's best-known Treaty painting and the man behind it. Co-author Peter Alsop reveals a tale that's been 78 years in the making.
Marcus King The Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi 1938 oil on canvas. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Marcus King The Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi 1938 oil on canvas. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

Douglas Lloyd Jenkins has referred to The Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi as "New Zealand's most recognisable history painting" and "one of New Zealand's great artworks".

Since its creation in 1938, the potency of the painting - held today in the Alexander Turnbull Library - has come to represent popular perceptions of how the Treaty signing took place. It's a painting many New Zealanders recognise, yet few have seen in the flesh. Far fewer, even among art lovers, could name the artist: Marcus King.

When King took up employment with the Tourist Department in 1935, he entered a government service with an inventory of familiar stereotypes of Maori refined for publicity over the previous 35 years. Rotorua and its various attractions, including images of young "Maori maidens" all conveyed the idea that New Zealand was the Wonderland of the Pacific.

European conventions of representation and display continued to reveal Maori as a distinct "other"; New Zealand's exotica. While the productivity and beauty of the landscape was also prime publicity, Maori assumed a near-equivalent role.

The Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi was a new angle. Though a mainstream topic now, in 1938 the significance of the Treaty was being awoken by New Zealand's pending Centennial Exhibition. At a key time King elevated the status of the Treaty-signing event, portrayed as a moment of grand theatre even though New Zealand's history was yet to be fully discovered by its people.

One would be forgiven for thinking the painting was commissioned for the Centennial celebrations but, instead, it went to the 1939 New York World's Fair. It's possible the painting was expected to return in time for the Centennial, but the World's Fair was extended into 1940 and there is no evidence of the painting in Centennial photographic collections.

In New York, the World's Fair offered a welcome post-Depression optimism about the future of the Western world. Themed The World of Tomorrow, it aspired to a utopian vision that captured the attention of 44 million visitors. For King, it was an important outing on one hand but, on the other, just another international exhibition that he'd been used to since London's Empire Exhibition of 1924.

Dick Frizzell in his studio after completing his 2014 recreation of King's 1952 Treaty painting. Photo / Supplied
Dick Frizzell in his studio after completing his 2014 recreation of King's 1952 Treaty painting. Photo / Supplied

While a new promotional angle, in context the Treaty painting was along familiar "civilising" lines. Paired with a second King painting, The Landing of the Maoris, the "before and after" marketing was clearly intended to show the world how quickly New Zealand had caught up. The companion mural, which later hung in the Waitomo Hotel, was also technically skilful and impressive with a classical composition. Though the original of The Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi was in New York, it quickly became known to New Zealanders as well, the start of a long-running reproduction record. Free Lance magazine used the painting as an unbound "presentation plate", a low-cost artwork in the day, in 1939. Such special editions of magazines and papers, typically released at Christmas, were popular literature and prized for attractive covers and the use of breakthrough printing technology. King's domestic Treaty exposure was off to a great start.

Since that time, the painting has been frequently reproduced in academic publications, popular media and on multiple government and private websites. Examples range from a children's encyclopaedia to publications like The Treaty of Waitangi Companion and an online presence on government education website Te Ara and the New Zealand History website.

No other painting by a New Zealand artist has pervaded popular culture in such an extensive and influential way.

King also completed a second, bigger Treaty-signing painting in 1952 (also extensively reproduced, including by the Human Rights Commission as a celebration of human rights milestones in New Zealand).

Photographs exist of King executing the mural, along with a colour transparency of the completed work. However, the whereabouts of the painting is currently unknown, despite various attempts to locate it in England given its exhibition at London's Imperial Institute soon after completion.

Four murals were exhibited in London, including another by King of a Maori pa. The whereabouts of this work is also unknown, though a photo and small surviving sketch work hint at how impressive the painting would have been. It also included, unassumingly in the painting's foreground, a relatively unknown Maori pastime, "moari" (giant strides), a game where a number of ropes were attached to the summit of a tall pole on the edge of a river or coastal pool to allow a fun drop into water.

Maori Village by Marcus King. Photo / Archives New Zealand
Maori Village by Marcus King. Photo / Archives New Zealand

This was a fastidious detail, a hallmark of King's best works, positioned to be of interest to the curious viewer and intended to encourage further scrutiny of the painting and of Maori culture itself. Cleverly, the pa is also included in the background of another of King's paintings of a Maori village.

Despite the popularity of the Treaty paintings in reproduction (particularly the better-known 1938 version), the exposure has not been kind to King's status, or even his visibility. Reproductions often don't acknowledge him by name; something that occurred as early as the 1939 Free Lance poster. Even last year, the Listener used the 1952 Treaty image twice in its February Treaty issue without acknowledging King.

Gareth Morgan gave significant profile to the Treaty in 2015, using both of King's Treaty paintings alongside a discussion of the rights of societal groups while failing to mention the artist. King, it seems, is near anonymous as the painter of one the country's best-known works of art.

Notwithstanding, King's mid-century paintings belong to an important development in the country's history and identity as New Zealanders took greater interest in rediscovering Maori culture. This included a greater level of research into pre-European settlement and an interest in accurately recording the detail of carvings and tattoo.

For King himself, it was a mission rooted in early life in Manaia, Taranaki, when stumbling upon the remains of a Maori pa, an experience indelibly etched on the mind of a young boy. Respectfully connected to the subjects of his painting, King was greatly enthused about reconstructing the reality of Maori customs, artefacts and daily life, giving his paintings sincerity and even a documentary effect.

For the paintings that went to London's Imperial Institute, Mirror magazine noted a "great deal of historical research was necessary to ensure the accuracy of details in these paintings [with] very useful assistance from both the Turnbull Library and the Dominion Museum".

When it came to the Treaty paintings, however, King didn't get everything right. Though he would have composed the paintings with care, Treaty specialist Dame Claudia Orange has noted the February 6 signing was not planned by Hobson and caught him by surprise. "He came ashore in civvies just grabbing his hat as he left" - far from the immaculate uniform in the 1938 painting.

King's paintings of the Treaty signing and Maori culture maintain a presence in New Zealand art. For some artists this encompasses overt recognition of King's talent. For others his work is a curiosity from the past and a subject to be deconstructed and rebuilt anew.

Marcus King, 1958. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Marcus King, 1958. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

Although well-intended educational and historical paintings, the predominant mono-cultural ideologies and societal values that informed such works (and to some degree perspectives of Maori art at the time) are now outdated. In comparison, post-modern work by artists like Shane Cotton and Lisa Reihana represent distinct and questioning perspectives about Pakeha perceptions of indigenous culture.

An appropriation of the 1952 Treaty painting by Dick Frizzell in 2014 - to recreate the missing painting - acknowledges King's skills as an artist trained in Western painting traditions, recognising the complexity of the composition of figures and their integration into a strong narrative.

Wayne Youle's 2015 Fool's Gold, a detail of King's 1938 painting, adopts a more political perspective, placing Maori as more central to the painting with the table of seated European dignitaries completely removed. It also denudes the identity of figures, perhaps representing all people and generations, while the "posterised" aesthetic exaggerates the painting's promotional intent (and gives a wink to King, a leading poster artist himself).

Across his impressive career, King achieved far more than his paintings of Maori culture.

Other large-scale murals promoted New Zealand as an alluring tourism utopia and productive agricultural paradise. He also excelled in Impressionism and became New Zealand's best travel poster designer for which he is now best known.

That's a span very few artists can claim. Public-spirited, he was also a founding vice-president of the National Association of Art in 1924, which sought to stimulate New Zealanders' interest in art in its widest sense; a progressive perspective at the time.

King's span of exposure - across decades, artistic styles and continents - likely mark him as New Zealand's most viewed artist, promoting the country to the world with art that also found its way into New Zealand homes and continues to do so today.

Yet, until now, his art and life have remained a mystery.

- NZ Herald

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