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C-025-009 webHere is young Charles Heaphy’s view of Te Aro flat, from his cot­tage up on Flag­staff Hill, above the Lamb­ton Quay/Willis Street inter­sec­tion. Wil­lis Street skirts the har­bour and heads up to the right. The beach across the middle of the pic­ture roughly fol­lows the line of present-day Wake­field Street. It was Septem­ber 1841, and the Wel­ling­ton set­tle­ment was just 17 months old.

Heaphy’s paint­ing is often paired with his scene from the same vant­age point (painted sev­er­al months earli­er) look­ing north along the Lamb­ton Quay shoreline towards Thorndon and the inner har­bour. Togeth­er they prob­ably still remain the best-known paint­ings of very early Wellington.

It was art with a pro­mo­tion­al pur­pose. Heaphy was employed by the New Zea­l­and Com­pany, the spec­u­lat­ive col­on­ising enter­prise that foun­ded Wel­ling­ton. Suc­cess depended on a steady flow of new set­tlers and Heaphy’s task was to present a pictori­al view of Wel­ling­ton as the per­fect place for a new life. His water­col­ours were sent back to the com­pany dir­ect­ors in Eng­land, pub­lished as litho­graphs and widely distributed.

Wel­ling­ton is shown at its very best. The weath­er is balmy and wind­less. The hills are a little flat­ter and the har­bour rather busier than was ever actu­ally the case. Well-fed Eng­lish farm anim­als graze con­ten­tedly in the fore­ground, while a respect­able pair on horse­back prom­en­ade grace­fully down Wil­lis Street. In the back­ground a coun­try road meanders through empty green mead­ows into the dis­tance. It was an enti­cing scene for a pro­spect­ive emigrant.

The fol­low­ing year, Heaphy’s book Nar­rat­ive of a Res­id­ence in Vari­ous Parts of New Zea­l­and upped the pro­mo­tion­al ante. Everything about Wel­ling­ton was good, espe­cially com­pared with Auck­land, which had “very little land for imme­di­ate use, as the island there is extremely nar­row and the coun­try very swampy”. Even the Wel­ling­ton wind was praised, for bring­ing “extraordin­ary salubrity”.

Heaphy’s enthu­si­asm for Wel­ling­ton was cer­tainly genu­ine but, as his bio­graph­er Iain Sharp affec­tion­ately notes, some of his claims “are such blatant spin-doc­tor­ing he must surely have writ­ten them with tongue in cheek and eyes twinkling”.


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