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Object: Landscape with settlers

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Title Landscape with settlers
Production Messenger Sisters (attributed), circa 1857, Taranaki
Medium summary oil on board
Materials particle board, oil paint
Classification paintings
Dimensions Image: 238mm (Height) x 320mm (Length)
Frame: 342mm (Height) x 426mm (Width) x 35mm (Depth)
Credit line Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds
Registration number 1999-0003-1

New Plymouth was a planned settlement, initiated by the Plymouth Company in 1840 and later subsumed into the programme of managed colonisation promoted by the New Zealand Company. Underpinning that programme was a stream of propaganda designed to entice potential colonists. Describing the Taranaki province in 1849, Charles Hursthouse wrote that ‘a man whose life in England has been a constant weary struggle to maintain his situation, but who sees with bitterness that his children must descend in the social scale, may soon create a fine estate, and live ten years longer to enjoy it’. Pursuing the theme of social elevation, Hursthouse suggested that in Taranaki a tenant farmer would ‘soon rise up to be the independent proprietor’, while even a ‘halfstarved labourer may revel in rude plenty, build his own house on his own land, and soon raise himself to comfort and prosperity’.1

Attracted by such prospects, William Bazire Messenger arrived in Taranaki with his family in 1853. According to his son, Arthur, the sisters Jane, Mary and Louise found life in the new settlement harsh, and their spirits sagged ‘under the rude hardships imposed upon them. Gifted in the arts of music and painting, and with scant leisure for anything but the unremitting round of daily tasks, it is no wonder that pioneering becomes a heavy burden on them.’2

Despite this, the Messenger sisters were able to record the early life of the province in their paintings. Unusual for being in oil — a medium uncommon for early colonial artists, and certainly for women — this painting has the naïve style and richness of anecdotal detail that lends the works of the Messenger sisters their particular charm. It focuses on the recently completed family home and the clearance of the surrounding bush in readiness for cultivation. Enclosing the scene, the bush also signals the task ahead for the family, and perhaps even suggests a hint of danger — after all, hostilities between settlers and local iwi would erupt into violence only a few years later. Presiding over this, however, is Taranaki, its snow-capped peak shining against a bright sky, as if to remind the settlers of their lofty aspirations.

William McAloon

This essay appears in Art at Te Papa, (Te Papa Press, 2009)

1. Charles Hursthouse, An account of the settlement of New Plymouth, New Zealand, from personal observation, during a residence there of five years, Smith, Elder Co., London, 1849, pp. 154–55.
2. Arthur H Messenger, ‘Coming of the Messenger family to New Zealand; the life and story of William Bazire Messenger’, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Häkena, University of Otago, MS-0562, pp. 13–14.

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