Volume 1. Number 7.Posted: October 15, 2011
W. A. Bowring: The travails of a true colonial artist.
In October 1902 the Otago Witness described Walter Bowring as a true colonial artist. According to the newspaper, he had attained this status, through being ‘born and bred’ and ‘trained and educated’ in the colony. The Witness also ascribed other attributes, to the young Bowring including – that of a ‘good “all-round” man.’ Such accolades, imbued with an early Kiwi nationalist sensibility combined with a strong and diverse body of work, should, one might expect, kept Walter Armiger Bowring’s subsequent reputation in rude good health.
Yet despite early accolades, Walter Bowring’s name has all but disappeared from the lexicon of New Zealand painters. In part his reputation has suffered because his was an itinerant career – he worked in Auckland, Christchurch Wellington, Napier and Australia before his death in Sydney in 1931. His reputation has also been further tarnished because as an artist he sailed a little too close to the shores of commercial art and was far too successful at it, to truly fit the romantic notion of the New Zealand artist. Furthermore the paintings on which Bowring’s contemporary reputation rested were portraits – a genre that New Zealanders have struggled to integrate comfortably into the mix of a national concept of art.
Yet a small group of paintings, completed around the First World War, while the artist was living in Napier, may yet hold the key to the re-establishment of Bowring’s reputation as an interesting and engaging late colonial/early twentieth century painter. The irony is that these very works, and in particular, The Homecoming of the Troops (1915) and Departure of the Hospital Ship “Maheno”, (1915), were for the artist himself, representative of a rare event, a career failure.
Auckland born, Walter Armiger Bowring showed early aptitude for drawing and as a young man, having gained a number of school prizes at Auckland Grammar School, began to consider the possibility of art as a profession. However, as the Otago Witness explained, ‘the opportunities for steady study and training in the colony are very few and fewer still are the persons willing to regard art as a worthy life aspiration.’ The path that Bowring chose through those difficulties was a fairly typical one for the period, blending a career as a professional illustrator and cartoonist with a parallel commitment to the exhibition of paintings through art societies.
Initially Bowring studied part time in a studio run by artists Louis J. Steele and Kennett Watkins in Victoria Street, Auckland. This experience confirmed his ‘natural bent’ and through it ‘his mind was strengthened.’ Consequently in 1895, Bowring was able to join the staff of the Auckland Observer, under the satirical cartoonist W. Bloomfield. Bowring’s tenure there was not long and he soon relocated to the Christchurch Spectator and then to the Christchurch Weekly Press before becoming a Christchurch-based freelancer supplying to a number of New Zealand newspapers and magazines. In 1902 Walter Bowring sold his first work to the English journal Punch.
This began a long association with newspapers and magazines that brought Bowring early and considerable financial rewards. Success in the field of painting however, would take longer to attain. Bowring exhibited in Christchurch and Dunedin from the mid 1890s, to largely good reviews and by 1902 was reported to be concentrating his efforts of the painting of animals – “his presentment of dogs and horse having earned him considerable appreciation and a few good commissions.” Yet it was not as an animal painter that Bowring saw his future reputation lying but in the grander fields of portraiture and figure painting.
In 1905, Bowring left for London where he studied painting with Augustus John and William Orpen, painters whose range of subject matter Bowring clearly hoped to imitate. Returning to Christchurch the following year he concentrated on establishing himself as a full-time painter. With Christchurch emerging as something of a hub in the development of twentieth century New Zealand portrait painting, Bowring was by the end of the first decade of the century considered amongst the country’s finest portrait painters and was receiving a considerable number of official commissions.
This was helped in part by Bowring’s ability to partner official portraits with unofficial cartons and caricature. The often ribald humor of these cartoons appealed to the denizens of the smoky gentleman’s clubs inhabited by those who commissioned Bowring’s more official portraits.
By 1914 Walter Bowring had moved to Napier. The transition was by no means unusual, he links between wealthy, portrait commissioning, Canterbury families and those of Hawke’s Bay were strong. Bowring probably saw opportunities aplenty in Hawke’s Bay. He had certainly painted Hawke’s Bay notables before he took up residency in the province and completed a considerable number of portraits while living there, including those of Sir Douglas McLean, Sir William Russell, and James H Coleman. 
Bowring was central to the establishment of the Napier Arts Society – perhaps as a much needed venue for the exhibition of his own oils – but he was clearly looking for a challenge greater than that offered by the Hawke’s Bay art scene or indeed by the genres of portrait painting or caricature. When in 1915 a number of artists came together in Wellington to raise money to purchase “water-filter wagons for the New Zealander in Egypt,” as part of the war effort, Bowring was among them.  With an initial plan for an auction sale of household goods rejected, an auction of paintings was proposed instead.
On the day Bowring’s large oil Kapai Te Koura topped the bidding at £41 but the sale disappointed both the artists and the organizers. One writer commenting that “prices were ridiculous, and that ‘some pictures went for prices that certainly would not pay for the framing.” Kapai Te Koura, depicting a Maori boy eating crayfish, was accompanied by a smaller landscape work, Golf Links, Heretaunga. What Bowring and other artists in the same project, including Nugent Welsh, who also presented landscapes, failed to understand was that to stimulate the buying habits of their fellow countrymen they needed to connect their patriotic cause with the sale of patriotic subject matter of the painted kind.
Later that year, Bowring avoided the same mistake when he exhibited three paintings with strong patriotic themes at the Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington. On this occasion however Bowring had an ulterior motive. He had applied or was considering an application for the position of Official War Artist. These paintings were designed to advertise the artist at his best and these, alongside other works that span the period between The Arrival of HMS New Zealand (1913) and Storm breaking over Marine Parade (1917), illustrate that Bowring had reached a new level of intensity and accomplishment in his work.
The first of the three ‘war’ works at the Academy was a portrait of Brigadier General Robin (1915) New Zealand’s first ‘locally created’ general. It was essentially an extension of the sort of portraiture on which Bowring’s reputation had been built and that he would return to after the war in portraits of Brigadier General Freyberg VC (1920) and Major General EWC Chaytor (1920). More interesting, in terms of the development of Bowring’s work were the remaining works The Departure of the Hospital Ship “Maheno” (1915) and The Homecoming from Gallipoli (1915)
The Departure of the Hospital Ship “Maheno” depicted the Union company liner S. S. Maheno in the livery of a hospital ship departing Auckland during a characteristic, storm shower. The press was enraptured, describing the work as recording historical fact … far better than any print can do. Where the work succeeded was in capturing the dramatic intensity of what was in essence an unremarkable event – the departure of a ship. A small crowd braves the lashing shower huddling under umbrellas to watch the departure of the white ship – that is for a moment bathed in the bright light provided by a parted cloud.  The symbolism of the work – the light of hope – nicely paralleled the gathering storm clouds of Bowring’s earlier The Arrival of HMS New Zealand.
The largest of Bowring’s three war works The Homecoming from Gallipoli (1915) is usually thought to be sourced from a photograph of SS Willochra disembarking the first of the wounded in Wellington on 15 July 1915. However Bowring rejects the starchy formality of the photograph, in which an ambulance and a cordon of uniformed officers met the wounded as they disembark. Instead he chose a later moment when the formality of the situation had broken down and the newly arrived wounded mingle with their loved ones on the wharf. Behind them Bowring captures– as the Evening Post put it – the sorrowful procession of halting bandaged, limping men down the gangway.
With The Homecoming from Gallipoli (1915) Bowring undertook a large scale figurative composition with the confidence of an artist aware that he is tasked with creating iconographic history painting to be. The press also sensed this, writing of The Homecoming – New Zealand’s part in the war has already been committed to canvas and history is being written in paint. Bowring’s period as an illustrator made him aware of the requirements expected of The Homecoming… to carefully combine elements of individual portraiture and intimate personal moments and with a broader nationalist/imperial schematic. He knew too to use a suitably large scale and the result is both poignant and heroic.
Why Bowring failed to receive an appointment as a war artist is unclear? It certainly seems that both The Homecoming from Gallipoli and Departure of the Hospital Ship “Maheno” were purchased for official collections, as was the earlier Arrival of HMS New Zealand. So the issue was not one of quality. Furthermore at the end of the war, Bowring was commissioned to paint official portraits of Capt Henry Hall-Thompson (1919) as well as the pervious mentioned portraits of Freyberg and Chaytor (1920) suggesting that the artist’s relationship with officialdom remained intact.
In many respects Bowring seems to have reached his peak as a painter with the works of this period. In Napier he completed Storm breaking over Marine Parade (1917), possibly the last of his large-scale figure in landscape groups. Storm breaking over Marine Parade has much in common with Departure of the Hospital Ship “Maheno” in that the action is provided by a group huddled against the elements. Yet whereas those watching the Maheno struggle against a cold Auckland westerly – the Napier painting involves a battle with sea spray against a storm figured sunset borrowed from Turner. The figures watch something offshore, and out of frame, as rollers break across the sea wall. The painting is atmospheric and romantic and a work that, like so many of Bowring’s other works deserves to be better known than it is currently.
In 1920-1 Bowring left again for London, ostensibly to paint the Freyburg portrait, commissioned by order of the New Zealand Government and intended for the Dominion War Museum. Bowring, it was reported, ‘had hoped to settle down in London professionally’ but finding ‘everything in the art world … very slack just now’ felt a return likely. He remained there until 1923, providing cartoons to Punch and other journals and becoming a member of the Royal Society of Oil Painters. Instead of returning to New Zealand he relocated to Sydney where he continued to paint the business and political figures including portraits of Sir James Oswald Fairfax and James Robert Millar Robertson both now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. Walter Armiger Bowring died in Sydney in 1931 aged 57.
Despite the assertions of the Otago Witness, Bowring turned out to be almost the antithesis of a ‘true colonial artist’ – but he was perhaps more of a ‘good all round man’ than is currently recognized. Today Bowring’s works remain dispersed and largely unrecorded but recourse to original catalogues and press reports reveal an artist of an extraordinarily broad ability, producer of landscapes, genre pieces, animal paintings and portraits. That his portraits survive in institutional collections, Hawke’s Bay Club, Wellesley Club, NZ Parliamentary Services Art collection, and National Archives, rather than in art galleries means that they occupy a space outside that frequented by most art visitors. Yet intierent artist that he was, there is a good chance that a visitor’s chance encounter with an accomplished portrait of a Pakeha male executed through the first decades of the twentieth century will be a W A Bowring.
Douglas lloyd Jenkins
Hubert Ernest Vaile
the plaster casts at Auckland Museum
How to name your whale boat
One of the first tasks for the new entrant in the profession of New Zealand shore whaling will be the naming of his whaleboat. As well as keenness of mind, and fleetness of foot, choosing the right name for your craft is likely to be a crucial factor in the success or failure of the venture.
The name should both reflect, and imbue the qualities of your vessel and your crew: hopefulness and willingness, speed and agility, bravery and luck. A review of some of the whaleboat names currently in use around the New Zealand coast reveal a number of commonalities which attempt to express these ideals:
Water Witch, Garibaldi, Lola Montes, Lord Lushington, Calliope, Backwoodsman, Queen Bee, The cannibal hero, Minnie – late toothache, Happy go Lucky, Will if I can, Swiftsure, I don’t know, Just in time, Grace Darling, No Name, HeroGo-ahead, New Zealand Maid, Hope, SecretPride, Pea, Wild Duck, Thistle, Bride, Rip, Pipeclay, Lord Duncan, Hopping, Freeman, City of London, Tito Kowaru, Unknown, Cure, Red Nose, OurBoys, Amateur, Danger, Shark, Harlequin, Ladybird, Magnet, Stranger, Trial and Black Jock
Originality, brevity and ease of articulation form the essential core attributes of a good name.
You are not tasked with naming her majesty’s latest man-of-war so a certain irreverence is certainly allowable. Gentle rhyming or alliterative devices are always popular, as are double entendres. Irony can be useful, but should be applied with care. Humour likewise.
A name which reflects upon an important matter of the day, or is taken from a public figure can work in many circumstances. References to Greek antiquity often have an enduring appeal to the learn-ed or romantically minded whaler.
A name that combines both personal meaning and a certain amount of public ambiguity is the best of all. ‘Minnie – late toothache’ is a good example of this type.
A name should not be too jolly or too morose. A grand name, or a very plain one should be avoided, and can only be considered ideal when coupled with one of the devices above.
In terms of practicality choosing a name that slips readily off the tongue, and carries far, is essential when both readying to go out to sea, and when recounting the exploits of the day around the fire that evening. It is also recommended that you, or someone of your acquaintance be able to write, or at the very least recognise the name in print.
It should also be remembered that too memorable or flamboyant name may draw unwanted attention from authorities and is a factor worth considering if you are trying to maintain a low profile.
The very best names should not be plucked out of thin air, but like the naming of a child form a natural union with she who is to be named. It is safest to only confirm the boat’s name after having made her acquaintance, and preferably spent some time in her company. Name her wisely, with care and with consideration – your fate and the fate of your crew rests in her hands.
The Travails of a True Colonial Artist
Image Credit: W. A. Bowring, Departure of the Hospital Ship ‘Maheno’(1915) oil on canvas. NZ Department of Internal Affairs, National Collection of War Art, Ref: AAAC 898 NCWA Q387
 The Witness identified Bowring as the first New Zealander to have work accepted for Punch the cartoon in question appeared in the issue of August 27th 1902
Image Credit: Photographer unknown, Portrait of W.A Bowring and friend, Collection Robert and Barbara Stewart Library and Archives, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, Walter Bowring archive CAG 19
Image Credit: W. A. Bowring, Portrait of R. Douglas McLean (c1910), oil on canvas, Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust/ Ruawharo Ta-u-Rangi. ref:92/100
 The first of these is held in the collection of the Hawke’s Bay Musuems Trust, the later are in the collection of the Hawke’s Bay Club, Napier of which Bowring was a member.
 Evening Post, May 1915 p9.
Image Credit: W. A. Bowring, The Arrival of HMS New Zealand (1913),oil on canvas. NZ Department of Internal Affairs, National Collection of War Art, Ref: AAAC 898 NCWA 537
 The third of Bowring’s war paintings from 1915 was a portrait of Brigadier General Robin, New Zealand’s first ‘locally created’ general.
 This painting has strong parallels to the earlier Arrival of HMS New Zealand (1913) which depicts a similarly stormy Wellington harbour.
Image Credit: W.A. Bowring, The Homecoming from Gallipoli (1915), NZ Department of Internal Affairs, National Collection of War Art, Ref: Ref: AAAC 898 NCWA 537
Image Credit: W.A. Bowring, Storm Breaking Over Sea Wall Below Bluff Hill, Napier (c1917), Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust/ Ruawharo Ta-u-Rangi. ref: 73/177
Image Credit: S.P. Andrews, Portrait of W.A. Bowring (1920), Alexander Turnbull Library, ref:Reference Number: 1/1-015273-G.
Hubert Ernest Vaile: the plaster casts at Auckland Colonial Museum.
Image credit: Auckland Library Heritage Images, Hubert Vaile: ref 2-V52, 2-V51, and 2-V57.
How to name your whale boat.
Note: all names from Nineteeth century newspaper reports.
Image Credit: detail, Scrimshaw, Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust/ Ruawharo Ta-u-Rangi .
Image Credit: Robert Gibbings, Illustration from the Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex, Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust/ Ruawharo Ta-u-Rangi .