Land was of great importance to Māori, who often described it in a symbolic or metaphorical way. The North Island was Te Ika-a-Māui, a fish caught by the demigod Māui; the country was Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud; the land itself was Papatūānuku, the earth mother. Hills and other natural features revealed the stories of ancestors.
However, Māori art did not include landscapes, and their oral traditions did not involve aesthetic descriptions of outdoor scenes.
The concept of ‘landscape’ (the land viewed as scenery, valued for its aesthetic qualities) was a cultural import to New Zealand from Europe. Even there, the practice of climbing a hill to see the view, or describing a complete landscape, had begun only in the centuries just before Europeans reached New Zealand.
In 1907 Katherine Mansfield lay on the sand at Island Bay in Wellington, looking at the ‘fairy land’ of the South Island to her right and golden hills to her left. She wrote in her journal, ‘When New Zealand is more artificial, she will give birth to an artist who can treat her natural beauties adequately. This sounds paradoxical, but is true.’ 1
Europeans in New Zealand looked at the land in different ways, depending on their reason for being there. Scientists recorded natural features, surveyors made maps, travellers looked for the exotic, and promoters of immigration or tourism had a commercial agenda.
New Zealand is a country of great natural variety. People who enthused about one type of scenery, such as snowy mountains, may have found other landscapes, such as treeless plains or rocky coasts, unappealing.
People’s perceptions of the landscape come partly from the wider culture, but responses are also subjective. Different views have sometimes led to heated conflict over the beauty or value of particular places.
The historian of attitudes to the landscape must rely on written or painted sources. Artists and writers (including explorers and scientists) recorded their views of the landscape – but their attitudes may not have been typical of the wider society.
Also, until the mid-20th century, people who wrote about the land were usually addressing a British audience. New Zealanders may have responded quite differently.
The first European observers of the New Zealand landscape, in 1769–70, were the British navigator James Cook and his crew, including the naturalist Joseph Banks and the artist Sydney Parkinson. They had been instructed ‘carefully to observe the Nature of the Soil, and the Products thereof,’ 1 so they wanted to record the new land’s potential usefulness for Europeans. They brought attitudes of observation and science developed in the 18th-century Enlightenment.
Sydney Parkinson, the artist on Cook’s first voyage, decided that the land around Anaura Bay, with its flowering shrubs and fruitful valleys, was ‘agreeable beyond description, and, with proper cultivation, might be rendered a kind of second Paradise’. 2
Travelling up the east coast of the North Island, Cook noted that the country was green and pleasant, and had good soil. Banks found the Thames area pleasing because the timber could be used to build defences, houses and boats, the river would provide fish, and European vegetables could be grown.
Cook reacted differently to the West Coast of the South Island. He saw the mountains as ‘nothing but barren rocks’, so that ‘no country upon earth can appear with a more rugged and barren aspect’. 3 For him, New Zealand was only beautiful if it could meet European needs.
Eighteenth-century Britain encouraged scientific exploration – but emotional responses to the landscape were also fashionable. When Cook’s ship the Endeavour stopped for water at Cook’s Cove, near Tolaga Bay on the North Island’s east coast, Parkinson thought a natural rock arch was very romantic. Banks described it as an ‘extraordinary natural curiosity’ – ‘so much is pure nature superior to art.’ 4 He later observed the ‘truly romantic’ sight of a pā on top of a rock and a natural grotto in Mercury Bay.
In 1773, on his second voyage to New Zealand, Cook travelled again in the Fiordland area. Astronomer William Wales thought a waterfall in Dusky Sound was ‘one of Nature’s most romantic scenes,’ 5 and the artist William Hodges painted it in this spirit.
These two perspectives – the utilitarian and the romantic – were to be the two main literary perceptions of the New Zealand landscape for the next century.
Nineteenth-century Pākehā society was a world of immigrants. To attract people halfway around the globe, propaganda promoted New Zealand as a fertile land with a benign climate, ‘reserved by Providence for the use of men,’ 1which could provide rural labourers with land and reasonable wealth.
Once the immigrants arrived, they were mostly concerned with how the land could be used. Samuel Butler observed in Canterbury, ‘A mountain here is only beautiful if it has good grass on it … if it is good for sheep, it is beautiful, magnificent, and all the rest; if not, it is not worth looking at.’ 2
The land was to be exploited. Rivers were to be panned for gold, trees logged, and the plains cleared for sheep farming. There was an old Taranaki saying: ‘One blade of grass is worth two trees.’
To settlers, the untamed landscape seemed unwelcoming, and native bush seldom looked beautiful. The early settlers of Nelson expected paradise, but found ‘[i]nstead of the bread fruit tree there is the flax tree in a swampy piece of Ground.’ 3The new arrivals were far from home, and their expectations of fertile, pleasant land for farming had often not been met – instead they found rocky mountains, wild rivers and impenetrable bush.
Laurence J. Kennaway, just off the boat in Canterbury, wrote: ‘That man must have a strong, cold heart, who in stepping from a ship’s boat into a really new country, does not feel bewildered, and something desolate.’ 4‘The most dreary and desolate looking country eye ever beheld,’ wrote settler and diarist Sarah Mathew in 1840 on seeing the land around Auckland. 5Others described the landscape as barren, gloomy or bleak.
Many settlers, homesick for British woods, thought the New Zealand bush was monotonous and dull.
Some Christians judged ‘untamed’ country as an immoral wilderness. For the missionary Richard Taylor, the North Island’s Volcanic Plateau was ‘a world blasted by sin.’ 6
Emigrating from a densely populated country, many settlers found New Zealand lonely and quiet. Women especially missed the buzz of society, family and friends. Sarah Mathew talked of ‘the utter solitude, the deep silence that prevailed’ 7, and writer Lady Barker about her intense aloneness. Sarah Courage admitted feeling terribly alone. The missionary and explorer William Colenso, looking at the Whirinaki forest, saw ‘Solitude all!!’ 8
In his poem ‘Te Whetu plains’, written around 1874, Edward Tregear lamented the quiet of New Zealand, comparing it with his memories of England:
All still, all silent, ‘tis a songless land,
That hears no music of the nightingale,
No sound of waters falling lone and grand
Through sighing forests to the lower vale
No whisper in the grass, so wan, and grey, and pale. 9
Nevertheless, this land that Europeans saw as empty was regularly used by Māori. But they were often not seen by settlers – or their suspected presence led to more alienation and fear.
When legislation with mild conservationist elements was introduced into Parliament in 1874, there was furious opposition. Few saw the native landscape as something to be preserved.
Settlers believed that the bush could be made beautiful, if it became an English garden. Progress meant turning a wilderness into a civilised land, replacing bush with farmland and English trees. With grass and oaks around them, expatriates would feel at home. When Felton Mathew visited Paihia in 1840 he noted that ‘the gardens redolent of the perfume of sweet briar and clover, revived old English feelings’. 10
Settlers approved of anything which gave a ‘dash of Home’ to the picture – even ‘the luxuriant growth of well-known English weeds’. 11In his guidebook for immigrants, Charles Hursthouse suggested planting stands of English trees to increase the scenic beauty.
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.
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.
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.
Around the turn of the 20th century, two developments led to a new appreciation of the landscape: tourism was growing, and nationalism was emerging.
From the late 1870s the Union Steam Ship Company encouraged overseas tourists to visit New Zealand. Guidebooks were written for the new market, presenting New Zealand as a place that lacked Europe’s gilded domes and marble palaces, but offered scenic grandeur.
The ‘wonderland’ of the hot lakes around Rotorua was promoted in the very first tourist guidebook, written in 1878. However, the prime attraction, the Pink and White Terraces, were obliterated in Mt Tarawera’s 1886 eruption.
The southern lakes were a second magnet. In the 1890s the Milford Track, sometimes called ‘the finest walk in the world’, drew tourists south.
The third drawcard was the Southern Alps. Climbers travelled from other countries to conquer the high peaks. One mountaineer, the Australian Freda Du Faur, recalled that she worshipped the peaks’ beauty as soon as she saw them.
In the second tourist guide to New Zealand, The New Zealand tourist (1879), Thomas Bracken described New Zealand as ‘a land of stupendous mountains, roaring cataracts, silvery cascades, fantastic volcanic formations, magnificent landscapes, noble forests, and picturesque lakes’. 1
Guidebooks started to show New Zealand’s scenic beauty in photographs. Pictorial New Zealand suggested that while the mountains were as grand as the European Alps, ‘for wildness, and pure, grand savagism of nature, – they leave the modernised, civilised, hotel-comforted Swiss Alps far, far behind.’ 2
In the mid-19th century, settlers had disliked New Zealand’s solitude and silence – but these features were now valued. The photographed landscape was mostly unpeopled, except for the hot springs, where Māori maidens added an exotic element.
In 1901 the New Zealand government set up a Department of Tourist and Health Resorts and promoted C. N. Baeyertz’s Guide to New Zealand, which praised ‘the most wonderful Scenic paradise in the World – unequalled Fjords, Awe-Inspiring Geysers’. 3 The capital letters emphasised ‘the impotence of mere words’ to extol the New Zealand landscape, which was promoted as a microcosm of the world’s beauty. The fiords were like Norway, the Alps like Switzerland, the lakes like Cumberland, the Whanganui River like the Rhine – all made by ‘nature’s artist’.
In the late 19th century there was an increasing national pride – including pride in the scenery. In 1898 New Zealand became the first country in the world to feature landscape images on its postage stamps. A few writers, especially in the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, told traditional Māori stories which enriched the land with history and human associations.
New Zealand’s forests were being felled for timber, and to clear land for farming. The earliest European settlers had seen the bush as desolate and bleak – but now there was some nostalgia. In 1898, the politician and writer William Pember Reeves mourned the passing of the forest. Ten years later, Blanche Baughan wrote that as fire and axe destroyed the bush, ‘Tis a silent, skeleton world … Ruin’d forlorn, and blank.’ 4
A few farmers fenced off small patches of bush. There were some government attempts to save the forest, as much to conserve the timber as for aesthetic reasons. A circle around Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) was safeguarded, and Egmont and Tongariro national parks were set up. Yet few people valued the bush. Even Pember Reeves wrote lyrically of the colonist who grew a ‘sweeter English rose’ 5 in his garden.
In 1903, Premier Richard Seddon proudly passed the Scenery Preservation Act, which aimed to protect places with outstanding natural beauty, and signalled official recognition of the importance of New Zealand’s landscape. The popular description of New Zealand as ‘God’s own country’ included the idea that it was the most beautiful country in the world.
At the turn of the century, people also started to see beaches as sites of natural beauty. Going to the beach became a popular activity for urban New Zealanders.
By the beginning of the 20th century, a limited appreciation of the New Zealand landscape had developed. A few well-known beauty spots – Mitre Peak, Aoraki/Mt Cook, the Drop Scene on the Whanganui River, Mt Ruapehu – had been preserved and had become iconic.
Yet there was still some suspicion of the bush and nostalgia for the English countryside. Alan Mulgan noted in his 1958 book The making of a New Zealander that the largely dark green and blue landscape of 1840 would have been monotonous. English trees and crops had added beauty, colour and seasonal variation. Cutting down the bush was still largely equated with progress.
In the 1930s and 1940s a group of young intellectuals, including Robin Hyde, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover and Charles Brasch, rejected cultural dependence on Britain. They saw the starting point for a distinctive New Zealand culture in the unique qualities of the land. In 1939 Brasch called his first book of poetry The land and the people. In 1947 he started the literary journal Landfall.
In her 1967 novel The rainbirds, Janet Frame highlighted a New Zealand family’s pride in their ‘view’, in contrast with the attitude of a sister newly arrived from England.
‘– See the view, Beatrice said, waving her arm in the direction of harbour and hills.
‘– Yes, see our view, Geoffrey echoed, with a pride that Lynley could not understand.’ 4
Writers expressed alienation from what they saw as the materialism and philistinism of New Zealand society. They looked to the land for refuge and a sense of belonging – especially austere, challenging landscapes, rather than those that were picturesque or settled. Men alone could be happier in the bush than among the gossip of the suburbs. The poet Denis Glover rejected inspiration from ‘quaint old England’s quaint old towns’ and mythologised Arawata Bill, a gold prospector in Fiordland’s mountains. It was a place where God ‘made mountains and fissures/Hostile, vicious and turned/Away His face’. 1 Yet there he also found gold.
In his 1939 novel Man alone, John Mulgan (Alan’s son) described a man escaping society in the Kaimanawa Mountains. Deep in the forest, amid tangled ferns and bush-lawyer, he found himself ‘surrounded and drowned in the hills and bush, safe and alone and submerged’. 2
Mulgan and Glover’s landscapes were frightening and imposing – yet they were also refuges. In his 1940 centennial prize-winning essay, The deepening stream, the journalist Monte Holcroft described the landscape more positively. In a sense of transcendental union with the hills, he found the possible beginnings of a New Zealand intellectual tradition – and relief from a nearby camper talking in a nasal drawl about business in the city.
New Zealand painters continued to look to the hills as their subject. Some, like Peter McIntyre, Austen Deans and Douglas Badcock, were popular artists who painted landscapes. The Kelliher Art Prize, established in 1956 to encourage painting ‘in a realistic and traditional way’ was dominated by oils of hills and mountains.
Painter Leonard Mitchell, who won the first Kelliher Art Prize in 1956 with ‘Summer in the Mokauiti Valley’, described the scene as ‘that part of New Zealand where the human heart is, on the grass where we build our wealth and our substance and our life’. 3
A small group of modernist artists shared this fascination with the land, as the basis of a meaningful culture and as a place from which mainstream society could be critiqued. They drew on elements of European styles – post-impressionism in the case of Toss Woollaston, cubism for Rita Angus and Colin McCahon. They focused their eye on new landscapes, very different from romantic alpine scenes – Central Otago for Angus; Nelson for Woollaston; North Otago, Northland and the Waitākeres for McCahon. McCahon added Christian symbolism. He drew on scientific studies to emphasise the land’s structure, and pointedly omitted signs of human habitation, while Bill Sutton painted colonial buildings such as churchyards on the Canterbury Plains.
However, while some painters looked at the landscape in challenging ways, they were a minority. 1950s New Zealand continued to churn out calendars with images of iconic places like Lake Matheson, and people searched for suburban homes ‘with a view’.
After the 1960s, respect for the integrity of the landscape became more widespread. The massive public campaign against raising Lake Manapōuri to provide hydroelectric power (1969–72) showed a new appreciation of the beauty and intrinsic value of wild landscapes. The Resource Management Act 1991 stated that applications for new constructions had to consider ‘any physical effect on the locality, including any landscape and visual effects’. 1
Poet Hone Tuwhare expressed anger about the destruction of forests in his 1978 poem ‘Warawara, Pureora, Okarito’:
Have given private Enterprise
Permission for to strip
And rip-off Kauri, totara
Kahikatea for to supply
Timber for million-dollar
Yachts and mansions
Stop your raping of the land.
Fuck off. 2
Calendars and photographic books of mountain and lake scenery flowed from the country’s printing presses, and tourist promotions still focused on the unspoilt outdoors. In the 2000s, Tourism New Zealand’s slogan was ‘100% pure’.
Some photographers brought new perspectives. In Robin Morrison’s 1981 book The South Island of New Zealand from the road, the landscape was peopled with local characters, quaint buildings and abstract shapes – not snowy mountains or sparkling lakes. Laurence Aberhart photographed cultural artefacts like Masonic temples or war memorials. The natural landscape was an out-of-focus backdrop. Craig Potton offered close-ups of limestone formations, or unusual wind or mist phenomena. The sky was no longer always blue.
After the mid-1950s, writers reacted against earlier authors’ identification with the wilderness. Poets like Louis Johnson and Fleur Adcock found inspiration in the domesticity of the suburbs. Even James K. Baxter, who had once gazed at ‘the altar cloth of snow on deathly summits laid’, turned instead to the ‘human day dream’ of child, wife and city. 3
In 1998 Philip Temple, who still wrote about wild landscapes, complained that ‘[i]t has been post-modernly uncool to see mountains over malls, to weigh forests more than French fries, to hear the louder sounds of rivers under te reo [the Māori language].’ 4 The term ‘landscape’ increasingly described urban settings.
In 1992 New Zealand band the Mutton Birds had a hit with ‘Dominion Road’, named after the main street of an Auckland inner-city suburb. The song describes a vivid urban landscape:
Dominion Road is bending
Under its own weight,
Shining like a strip
Cut from a sheet metal plate,
Cause it’s just been raining.
More than any other medium, film showed new perspectives of the New Zealand landscape. The 1977 film Sleeping dogs explored familiar themes such as the dangers and satisfactions of ‘going bush’. In Vigil, Vincent Ward gave the northern Taranaki back country a wild, dark beauty reminiscent of McCahon’s paintings.
The 1981 hit Goodbye pork pie brought a change – it was a road movie in which the landscape was just a blur, seen through the windows of a yellow Mini as it raced from one end of the country to the other. Once were warriors (1994) began with a shot of beautiful, unspoilt New Zealand scenery – soon revealed to be a photo on a billboard, in an urban landscape of poverty and violence.
An increasing number of films and television dramas had urban and suburban settings.
Yet New Zealand's scenic landscapes remain important to the film industry – albeit to represent places far from New Zealand. In the Lord of the rings trilogy in the early 2000s, the rolling hills of the Waikato became Hobbiton, the Volcanic Plateau represented Mt Doom, and inland Canterbury was Edoras. New Zealand was Middle Earth, a place where the strange bush and rock formations and epic alpine scenery seemed otherworldly.
The chronicles of Narnia, another mock medieval epic, was also shot in New Zealand. The country has represented ancient Greece (the Hercules and Xena series), North Korea (The rescue), Illinois (Dead kids) and Japan (The last samurai).
New Zealand is promoted as a filming location because of its exceptionally varied landscape. Film New Zealand, the country’s film locations office, writes that ‘[t]he range of scenery in New Zealand is unique – from the mangrove-fringed tidal inlets of Northland to the snow capped volcanoes of the Central Plateau, from the forests of the Urewera to the majestic fiords, glaciers and mountains of the south.’ 5
In 2007, 85.7% of New Zealanders lived in towns or cities. Yet the landscape still had a special place in their hearts. When asked what they valued about their country, most New Zealanders mentioned the natural environment and the outdoor lifestyle.
Although the creative arts focused increasingly on urban settings, the rural landscape retained its importance – for economic reasons (in the film and tourist industries), and for sentimental ones.
McNaughton, Trudie, ed. Countless signs: the New Zealand landscape in literature – an anthology. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986.
Pound, Francis. Frames on the land: early landscape painting in New Zealand. Auckland: Collins, 1983.
Smith, Bernard. European vision and the South Pacific. 2nd ed. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Shepard, Paul. English reaction to the New Zealand landscape before 1850. Wellington: Dept. of Geography, Victoria University, 1969.
Temple, Philip, ed. Lake, mountain, tree: an anthology of writing on New Zealand nature & landscape. Auckland: Godwit, 1998.
Wevers, Lydia. Country of writing: travel writing and New Zealand, 1809–1900. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002.