Page 1: Biography
Decorator, artist, music teacher
This biography, written by Muriel Williams, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993. It was updated in August, 2020.
Charles Blomfield, the son of Elizabeth Emily Hickman and her husband, William Blomfield, a cutler, was born on 5 January 1848 in Holborn, London, England, the seventh of nine children. Charles's father died in 1857 leaving Elizabeth a young widow with eight children (the eldest son, William, had died in 1856). She managed for five years, but in 1862 decided to emigrate to New Zealand with the Albertland settlement association which hoped to start a nonconformist community there. Her second son, Samuel, married by this time with two small children, agreed to bring his own family as well, but the two eldest daughters preferred to remain in London.
The Albertlanders commissioned several ships for the voyage and the Blomfields sailed in the Gertrude, leaving London in October 1862. They arrived on 9 February 1863 in Auckland where they decided to settle. Elizabeth worked as a midwife, Samuel found work in the building industry, and Charles was employed by a house painter and was taught paint mixing, wood graining and other decorative skills. He was later to set up a business specialising in decorative art work.
By 1867 economic depression and unemployment had come to Auckland. Following the discovery of gold at Thames, Samuel took his family to live there; he soon found employment building houses for the hundreds of people who joined the goldrush. Charles Blomfield, with two of his friends, was among the gold-seekers, but their claim was very poor and after weeks of hard work they had only a meagre amount to show for their efforts.
Blomfield was strongly attracted by the native bush and began to paint pictures of the scenery. Although he had no previous training, he found he had a natural talent and soon mastered the art. From then on he painted wherever he went. Working in oils he painted his subject directly rather than recreating it in the studio from sketches.
After his return to Auckland Blomfield fell in love with Ellen Wild, whom he had met at the Baptist chapel in Wellesley Street. They were married at Auckland on 30 January 1874 and set up their home in Ponsonby, near Elizabeth Blomfield's house. In 1879 they bought a section in Wood Street, Ponsonby, for £169; their house was built in time for their third daughter to be born there – they were to have seven children. Charles and Ellen Blomfield were both interested in their church work and helped Thomas Spurgeon to build the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle; Charles painted a text behind the pulpit.
Blomfield travelled extensively throughout New Zealand on painting expeditions. He used all types of transport, including stage-coach, packet steamer, train and rowing boats. He stayed with friends, in boarding houses and sometimes rented cottages. He often walked great distances, camping in the bush or sleeping in the porch of a Māori chief's whare. He carried all his camping and painting gear and basic foodstuffs, consisting mainly of flour, porridge, bread and tinned meat, but also learned to catch fish, eels, rabbits and hares to supplement his meals. Blomfield frequently travelled alone, but sometimes took a friend and (later) one of his children with him. While Charles was away Ellen had to look after the household and bring up the children on her own.
On 31 December 1875, during one of his camping trips, Blomfield reached Lake Rotomahana and saw the Pink and White Terraces, which he found 'exceedingly beautiful and graceful'. He managed to paint a few pictures without being caught by the Māori, who objected to people finding their own way to the terraces; they would demand £5 for any drawing or photograph, or destroy any sketches made. Some years later Blomfield decided to return to the area, and in 1884 he arranged through a friend, Charles Haszard, to pay a lump sum so that he was allowed to stay as long as he pleased. Accompanied by his eight-year-old daughter, he camped and painted for six weeks, taking home many different aspects of the terraces. Early on the morning of 10 June 1886 Mt Tarawera erupted, destroying or submerging the terraces. Blomfield was heartbroken, and decided to see the devastation for himself. He returned to the area in October and painted several scenes of the terrible destruction. Realising that the paintings he had made of the terraces were a valuable record, he refused to sell them, and made many scale copies for sale instead. The prices for these soon trebled in value.
Blomfield continued to travel throughout New Zealand painting pictures of mountains, rivers, lakes and cloud effects, but his greatest love remained the native bush, of which he wrote enthusiastically in his diary. He had received some musical tuition on the voyage from England, and supported himself by working as a music teacher and singing inspector in schools, as well as by the sale of paintings. He was a frequent exhibitor with the Auckland Society of Artists from 1873 to 1877 and the Auckland Society of Arts from 1881. He also exhibited at the New Zealand Industrial Exhibitions in Wellington in 1885 and 1889, the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition in Dunedin in 1889–90, the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880–81, and the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch in 1906–7. He was represented at the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art in 1940.
Blomfield's detailed landscape studies initially won him critical approval and glowing newspaper reviews, but by 1889 he was being accused of painting for the tourist market. As his popularity waned he visited Australia in 1893 in the hope of selling paintings. He set up a studio briefly in Wellington before returning to Auckland. In his later years he ceased painting, perhaps as the consequence of a nervous breakdown. His style was no longer in favour, and he frequently attacked modern trends in art.
Charles Blomfield died in Auckland on 15 March 1926; Ellen Blomfield died in 1945. Their daughter, Elizabeth, who had been taught by her father, exhibited as Bessie Blomfield until 1908; following her marriage, she exhibited as Bessie Kendon. She died in 1984 aged 104.