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Te Ru - Movers and Shakers at the NZ Portrait Gallery

A painter whose portraits of Māori preceded those of Goldie and Lindauer, is the focus of the new exhibition at the NZ Portrait Gallery from June 27.

Wi Tako Ngatata, c 1858 - 1861, oil on canvas. Collection Moutere Love Family Trust. Provenance Wi Tako Ngatata; Te Amo Hohepine (Josephine) Love; Makaore Ngatata Love; Mataa Te Puni (nee Love); Ivor Te Puni; Island Moutere Love.

Te Ru - Movers and Shakers features the work of 19th century painter William Beetham.  Born in Yorkshire (1809)  where his painting career started, he moved to London in 1836 to embark on a professional career with some notable success- he exhibited at London’s Royal Academy and was commissioned to paint a number of notable portraits of aristocrats and national leaders.   His move to New Zealand in 1855 was motivated by his wish to settle his seven sons on the land. The eventual purchase of property  in the Wairarapa was later developed by his sons as  “Brancepeth”, though Beetham himself remained in the Hutt where he also farmed a small holding.   Painting remained his private as well as his public passion.  

The first survey of Beetham’s work for over 40 years, the exhibition, curated by Jane Vial,  includes a number of portraits of Māori leaders which have been held by iwi and not previously seen publicly.  His first commission to paint Māori came within a month of his arrival here, when Tamehana Te Rauparaha requested  a posthumous portrait of his father.   Subsequently a number of Māori asked for portraits including Wi Tako, the leading chief in Wellington of the time.  Māori have noted Beetham’s accurate painting of the moko.

Some of theāori sitters are pictured in formal European dress, others in their own chiefly regalia. Many of the younger chiefs had grown up among pakeha and adopted their dress and hairstyles.  Beetham didn’t date or sign his portraits, and curator Jane Vial, a specialist in 19th century portraiture, is using personal details like hair style and costume, as well as historical reference to date them.

Beetham’s portraits were popular among Māori and pakeha alike, and his paintings of social groups, urban and rural leaders, children and family groups, shed fascinating light on social as well as political interactions of the day and offer a graphic account of the early settlement history of the wider Wellington region.   Set during the fading days of the New Zealand Company and the early provincial era, the portraits set up dialogues between the movers and shakers of the day.   The battle between the big pastoralists, represented  by Dr Featherston and the Chiefs Wi Tako and Te Puni, and the smaller agriculturalists, is conveyed  through those portraits commissioned in the lead up to the crucial 1858 Provincial election.

The exhibition also includes the huge 1858  portrait of Edward Jerningham Wakefield, commissioned by his supporters as  ‘a lasting Memorial of that Gentleman's exertions in the favour of Radical Reform in the Provincial Government’

It’s thought Beetham painted until the late 1860s, after which he turned to poetry and to establishing a more secure future for the arts in his adopted country.

Te Ru - MOVERS AND SHAKERS – the early portraits of William Beetham, curated by Jane Vial. NZ PORTRAIT GALLERY Shed 11 Wellington Waterfront.

June 27 – Sept 8   10.30 – 4.30pm  daily  free admission       04 472 8874.

Updated on 23rd July 2015