By Iain Sharp
AUP, $64.99 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

MAJOR Charles Heaphy: artist, explorer, propagandist, cabbage grower, surveyor, soldier, Member of Parliament, Commissioner of Native Reserves, Victoria Cross. Like many early settlers Heaphy seemed to throw himself into various roles. It is his art for which he is most remembered, although this wasn’t always the case. As he drew for much of his life, this biography principally focuses on his art while discussing the various other roles he played. It’s a great read, written in an easy style, with bits of light-hearted humour and tongue-in-cheek modern reappraisal.

The story is told using a heap of Heaphy’s drawings and paintings, and exciting extracts from his journals. The illustrated works are, generally, very appealing, using combinations of pencil, pen, and watercolour paints, they are often minimal compositions, but quite detailed. In them I can see inspiration for a good number of contemporary artists, as well as many of our best 20th Century artists. Pleasingly most of the works discussed are illustrated in the book, however many of them are printed quite small which makes reading the fine detail rather hard. If it weren’t for Sharp’s text aspects of some of the works would be lost to the reader.

Being very familiar with, and a great admirer of Mt Egmont from the southward (his most famous work), I was unfamiliar with pretty much anything else he had done. I have become a great fan of these also. There’s an easiness and lack of complexity in his drawing style which I find appealing, very much as if all are just sketched on location, though I imagine most were completed elsewhere. And they are a record of our history, many done at a time prior to photography reaching these shores.

While talking specifically about Cave, Gt Barrier Id, Sharp states “Because the gap in time that separates us from the artist includes decades of musing on the psychology of race and gender, the modern viewer is bound to interpret these paintings in ways unlikely to have been a part of Heaphy’s conscious intention.” While he often re-imagines the works in a modern context Sharp regularly points out that we cannot always know the artist’s intention when creating works, thereby treading a line some writers choose to ignore.

As someone who’s very intermittent reading of Michael King’s History of New Zealand hasn’t gotten quite as far as 1839, this volume fills in enough bits of the climate of the times to give us a context in which to view Heaphy’s work (both artistic and employment). We get brief biographies of various important friends, acquaintances, and adversaries, as well as discussion of major events to which Heaphy was somehow connected, such as the work of the New Zealand Company, and the growth of the King Movement.

Initially it was Heaphy’s travels which I was most interested in, and their coverage seemed rather light. But to fit such a full life into a lavishly illustrated 200 page book means nothing is really dealt with in great depth. What I would have appreciated though was a map or two charting Heaphy’s many travels & explorations.

Heaphy wrote of his first years in the country in Narrative of a Residence in Various Parts of New Zealand and his description of Wellington Harbour and the Hutt Valley made me smile with recognition, but also pine for a Hutt Valley free of today’s intensive suburbia which, ironically, Heaphy encouraged – “The harbour resembles an inland lake rather than an arm of the sea, and in beauty, certainly far surpasses that of our English lakes. As we worked up to the anchorage, the noble expanse of water, surrounded by a country of the most picturesque character, formed a scene of indescribable beauty; and as the valley of the Hutt River opened to our view, apparently extending far inland until bounded by the snowy range, we wondered that a place which seemed so much to invite settlement, had not before been colonised.”

Sharp describes Heaphy as “an optimist and a disappointed man”. He longed for European recognition, either as an artist or in some other field. In a grand scientific tradition, this lead to some hostility between Heaphy and Ferdinand Hochsetter, as the former tried to establish himself as a knowledgeable geologist (apparently) using some of Hochsetter’s findings.

Heaphy continued travelling up until his death. Taking on roles which required him to get around the country whether as surveyor, soldier, MP, Commissioner, or judge. It was his winning of the Victoria Cross for which Heaphy was largely remembered upon his death. Sharp suggests that the award, the first time it was given to a ‘New Zealander’, was more for political reasons than for an act of overwhelming valour – particularly when his act to save one man resulted in the death of two others.

It felt like the book rushed to an ending; that there were aspects of his later careers which could have been dealt with in more detail. But maybe even the life of this bureaucrat was rather uneventful. Certainly his death came quickly, both in the book and in life. Suffering from tuberculosis, Heaphy moved to Queensland and died a month later. For a man so connected with the colonisation of New Zealand it is sad to hear that he is buried in such foreign ground, in a country to which he had no connection.

The book ends with Sharp examining changes in the public perception of Heaphy since his death. Sharp says “The aim of the current book has been to examine Heaphy’s career as a whole in the context of his times.”, and that he hopes to ignite some discussion of Heaphy’s art. The first aim has been achieved bringing together the various strings of his bow to present a whole. Whether the second aim will be realised remains to be seen.