The Sarjeant Gallery's collection is multi-layered and worth much more than the fluctuations of fashion and market trends.

The layers contain a priceless visual record of aspects of Whanganui's history, the social fabric and tastes of the community that the Gallery served.

When Nick Lambourn, Head of Department, Topographical Pictures of Christie's auction house in London paid a recent visit it was for a purpose that only the Sarjeant could help him with.

Mr Lambourn was researching a painting by John Alexander Gilfillan that will be included in Christie's annual topographical auction later this year in London. Topographical art depicts landscapes, towns, ruins and buildings.

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Christie's Gilfillan watercolour of two women spinning fabric by a window is almost identical to one held by the Sarjeant. Mr Lambourn spent some time comparing the paintings to determine the identity of the two women.

"It's rather intriguing because we think it's a portrait of Gilfillan's mother and, in the one you've got here, his first wife [Sarah Murray].

We are wondering whether it's his second wife he has painted in a second version of the same composition or another version of his first wife. We are trying to work out that puzzle," Mr Lambourn said.

John Gilfillan was an itinerant artist who worked in Australia and New Zealand after teaching art in Scotland. In 1845 he began to farm at Matarawa, and near Putiki Pa, became friendly with local Maori and made many drawings.

In 1847 young marauding Maori travelling through the district killed his wife and four children and seriously injured Gilfillan and his eldest daughter who later resettled in Australia.

"The Gilfillan is from your local material but of course the Sarjeant's range is much wider and has great Victorian pictures, modern British, a few old masters so it's a much bigger picture than just the regional interest, and that's why we come here.

It's an extraordinary collection for a small centre, something to make the most of and to look after."

Whanganui was one of the major centres in the past and the Sarjeant's collection of over 8000 works reflects the city's historical importance.

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This explains why the collection is on a par with those of the major centres such as Dunedin, Auckland and Christchurch said Sarjeant curator, Jennifer Taylor-Moore.

"One of our points of difference is having a large, regional collection in a smaller centre."
Mr Lambourn has visited the Sarjeant five times since his first visit to New Zealand in 1994. He made an immediate personal connection with the collection, excited to discover John Collier portrait of the famous painter Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema.

"That was really interesting for me because part of my family married into his family.

Anyone who comes to New Zealand will find connections with something personal."

He has seen the improvement of the storage conditions from the brick basement at the Sarjeant Gallery on Queens Park - "a beautiful building" - to the modern temporary premises at Sarjeant on the Quay.

Nick Lambourn of Christies
Nick Lambourn of Christies

"It's wonderful to see, even in this temporary home how wonderfully well you have done. Everything is so much easier to access. When doing evaluations you just pull out racks."

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He said oil paintings are fairly robust but paper based artworks are more vulnerable to humidity.

The new, enlarged, climatically controlled conditions of the redeveloped gallery will create the optimum environment for the collection and the increased gallery space provide far more exhibition room.

"It is really exciting because you have a great collection and it needs more space for hanging. Usually only a tiny percentage of a collection is exhibited at any one time and when members of the public want to see your pictures I think they have a right to see as much as they can within reason.

The new building will make the collection more accessible."