Old photo sparks voyage of discovery

By Roger Moroney

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The photograph was part of a colourful and socially rich collection of pictures, textiles, furniture, fine arts and lace which was donated to the museum by Elizabeth Webb. Photo / Thinkstock
The photograph was part of a colourful and socially rich collection of pictures, textiles, furniture, fine arts and lace which was donated to the museum by Elizabeth Webb. Photo / Thinkstock

It is a simple photograph which, like many images from New Zealand's past, has a rich history behind it.

A history tinged with sadness, which visitors to the MTG (Museum Theatre Gallery) - when it is officially opened tomorrow - will be able to look upon for themselves.

It is a photograph which intrigued MTG's curator of social history, Georgina White, when she came across it in the Hawke's Bay Museums Trust collection and she embarked on an expedition of discovery, to find out more about the man in the photograph.

He was a young man whose face showed he was not in good health. "It really captivated me. I thought: why would someone who was ill have their photograph taken and why was it kept?"

The name "Willie" on the back of the photo was Willie Webb, whose family had moved from England to New Zealand in 1884 and settled in Ormondville, in Central Hawke's Bay.

The photograph was part of a colourful and socially rich collection of pictures, textiles, furniture, fine arts and lace which was donated to the museum by Elizabeth Webb about 20 years ago.

Research revealed that Willie was just 19 when he came out to New Zealand. He was a young man battling tuberculosis and was sent to the new colony in the hope that the climate and fresh air would cure him.

The Webb family of 14 sailed to New Zealand a year after Willie had left, and were eager to see how he was getting on. Sadly, they were told upon arrival that he had died a couple of months earlier.

The photo took on a whole new meaning for Ms White and she scoured through letters and diary entries from his mother Maria.

She discovered that Willie Webb was a very talented artist and unearthed some remarkable watercolours he had done. "It is a sad story. It is a very local story but it unravels a story offering intimate insight into a Victorian mother's grief."

In June, Ms White travelled to Italy, where she presented her research into the story of Willie Webb at a conference organised by Victoria studies associations from around the world.

The photograph of Willie Webb, along with other items from the Webb Collection, will be on show at the MTG, where Ms White is curating the exhibition Take these with you when you leave - Treasures of the Archive.

Also ready to receive visitors from tomorrow is the exhibition Architecture of the Heart, which MTG director Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and curator of designs collection Lucy Hammonds describe as a gift to the people of the region.

They wanted to stage an opening exhibition which would connect with the community. They scoured the museum's vast collection and came up with the simple notion of "home".

Mr Lloyd Jenkins said the home focus was perfect, as the MTG was now the new home for art in Hawke's Bay.

"Architecture of the Heart is a celebration of the home and its relationship to our culture," Ms Hammonds said. Home was the thread which unified the parts of the collection, time periods and types of artists.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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