Nineteenth-century European settlers and travellers mainly showed fear and loathing of New Zealand’s wild landscapes. However, in Britain, other voices spoke positively of untamed nature. There were two sources for such views: Christianity and (more radically) Romanticism.
Christians saw God as the all-powerful creator, and the wild places of New Zealand as revealing the genius of his creation. In the 1830s, the missionary William Yate thought that the Bay of Islands allowed contemplation of God’s love and wisdom. Another early missionary, William Marshall, considered Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) ‘a pyramid of God’s own handy work’. 1
Missionaries were not alone in such views. English artist Augustus Earle visited New Zealand in 1827, and felt that painting the ‘wild and magnificent’ Bay of Islands allowed ‘the contemplation of the Creator’. 2 Later artists, from Charles Blomfield to Petrus van der Velden, saw their art as a window onto God the creator.
As Britain became more industrial and urban, more people adopted the nostalgia for places untouched by the economic changes of the age. Romantic views of wild nature emerged. The Scottish Highlands, England’s Lake District and the European Alps attracted travellers and artists hungry to escape the smokestacks of the Midlands.
Some people began to regard New Zealand, especially its mountains, with new interest. One traveller noted that someone who had ‘felt his soul awed and elevated by the romantic and sequestered grandeur of these portions of the universe’ in a mountain forest would find New Zealand especially appealing, because its ‘wilderness seems wilder still’. 3
These responses drew on the concept of the sublime, defined by English philosopher Edmund Burke as feelings of awe, horror and fear. The sublime could be evoked by vast, rugged, dark things, including mountains, oceans, and natural spectacles like volcanoes.
Pretty as a picture
In Station life in New Zealand (1870), Lady Barker described the Waimakariri River as ‘the most perfect composition for a picture: in the foreground a great reach of smooth water, except just under the bank we stood on, where the current was strong and rapid; a little sparkling beach, and a vast forest rising up from its narrow border, extending over chain after chain of hills, till they rose to the glacial region, and then the splendid peaks of the snowy range broke the deep blue sky line with their grand outlines.’ 6
New Zealand’s volcanic area was one place where travellers could find the sublime. The artist George French Angas found it in the rolling vapour from Mt Ngāuruhoe – ‘a majestic scene: sublime in its grandeur’. 4 The Southern Alps and the southern lakes also evoked the sublime.
Landscapes and painting
New Zealand’s landscapes attracted painters. George French Angas came to New Zealand in the 1840s, looking for ‘the grandeur and loveliness of nature in her wildest aspect’. 5
Painting in turn affected the way people viewed the landscape. They looked for scenes with a foreground that framed the layers of mountains behind – like a painting. Scenery was often described as a ‘glorious painting’ or ‘a lovely picture’.
In the late 19th century John Gully’s watercolours of New Zealand alpine scenes became popular. For a growing urban middle class, his paintings were comfortable images of beautiful New Zealand.