Last night, Laura and I attended the opening of ‘W A Bowring: a true colonial artist’ at the Hawke’s Bay Club – just across the road from the museum. This is an exhibition of all the Walter Bowring paintings in the Club’s collection, most of which are portraits or caricatures from the early 1900s that depict Club members of that time.
The Club approached us late last year with the suggestion that we hold a concurrent display of Bowring’s works at the Museum, and we’re pleased to have been able to do so. Six works by Bowring from our collection are now on display in the Octagon of the museum. Meanwhile, the Club’s exhibition will be open to the public, with free entry, each Saturday morning in June from 9am-12pm.
Bowring was described in a newspaper article of 1902 as a “true colonial artist, since he was born and bred, trained and educated in the colony.” This was true; however as a ‘first-generation’ New Zealander with European parents and art teachers, his work has much in common with many other Pākehā artists of his time who had immigrated from Britain or continental Europe.
As such, Bowring’s paintings in the Octagon fit well alongside the late 19th century landscapes in the adjacent ‘Gifts of Nature’ exhibition. Like the landscape painters (and many other colonial painters in New Zealand), Bowring‘s paintings depict local subjects in a manner that was closely bound to European conventions, yet isolated from the latest developments there.
An example is his 1912 work ‘Storm Breaking over Sea Wall Below Bluff Hill, Napier, which depicts a local scene in a style strongly reminiscent of JMW Turner, the renowned English master of landscape – who had died half a century before this work. The Impressionists had since come and gone, followed by Vincent van Gogh and the Post-Impressionists, and Cubism was in full swing. Colonial New Zealand was further removed from these revolutionary ideas due to its cultural allegiance to Britain rather than France, with modern art taking longer to catch on amongst the British artists and public.
In fact, Bowring made his position on modernism clear after travelling to London to study the work of both the Old Masters and his European contemporaries, writing that “for so called modern art in its more extreme form, I have no sympathy at all.” He spent a year studying with prominent English painters Augustus John and William Orpen, and was inspired by their command of portraiture. He returned home and began a prolific career as a portrait painter, proving talented at capturing an accurate likeness.
His skill in that field brought him numerous commissions, while his background as a newspaper cartoonist furthered his popularity, as he could accompany a traditional portrait with a witty caricature of the same person. He was commissioned to paint numerous wealthy and prominent Pākehā men in all areas of power: central and local government, commerce, clergy, military and so on. Included in our display is his grand portrait of Sir Douglas McLean, along with both a portrait in oils and a light-hearted watercolour caricature of Maurice Bower, town clerk of Napier for 37 years.
Jess Mio – Art Curator, MTG Hawke’s Bay
Published in Hawke’s Bay Today Saturday 28 May 2016