Scoop Review of Books

Life and Times of Charles Heaphy

Heaphy by Iain Sharp
Auckland University Press, 232 pp. $65. Reviewed by SIMON NATHAN

9781869404215.jpgIn 1915 Alexander Turnbull purchased a cache of early New Zealand paintings, originally the property of the New Zealand company. Costing £585 (today worth about $NZ76,000), it was one of his most inspired acquisitions. A large group of paintings by Charles Heaphy was repatriated to Wellington and over the following decades New Zealanders started to recognise the importance of Heaphy as an artist. Iain Sharp’s book is welcome because it illustrates and explains Heaphy’s paintings in the context of his life and times.

Charles Heaphy distinguished himself in several fields – as an artist, as an explorer, and as the first colonial soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross. His father was an artist/draftsman, and Charles obtained some professional training. But both his parents had died by the time he was 19, and he had to make his own way in the world. He obtained a job with the New Zealand Company as a draftsman, just in time to leave on the voyage of the Tory to the future city of Wellington 1839. His striking images of New Zealand, some later converted to lithographs, put a favourable slant on the places he visited over the next three years, with abundant pasture, plenty of timber, deep and calm harbours, and only a few peaceful natives. But even if he painted through an optimistic filter, there is no doubt that Heaphy was a more talented artist than any of his contemporaries, which is why so many of his paintings still appeal today.

At Te Ara, the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand , we have used many Heaphy images as illustrations because they are so vivid. One of my favourites is his oblique aerial view of Wellington harbour – an image for which he needed both a good idea of the topography as well as an active imagination. This sort of view may be commonplace now to air travellers, but it’s a view that Heaphy had to visualise as he never got off the ground.

Iain Sharp gives a stimulating commentary on the paintings, and on how Heaphy’s images changed with time. Compare, for example, his 1839 view, Mt Egmont from the southward, with a view ten years later when he was no longer working for the New Zealand company, Mt Egmont from the Sugar Loaf Islands. The first is a picture postcard, but the land looks less inviting in the second and the coastline is unfriendly, with no obvious landing places.

After his contract with the New Zealand Company expired, Heaphy had to scrape a living as an undercapitalised farmer near Nelson. It did not appeal, and he jumped at the opportunity to join Thomas Brunner on two exploring trips to the West Coast. The second of these, from March to August 1846, has gone down in legend as one of the great exploring tips in New Zealand, travelling along the rugged coast from Cape Farewell down to the Arahura River. The travellers would not have survived without their Maori guide Kehu, who helped them find food. Heaphy painted his most striking West Coast painting, Mt Cook, Greenstone country, Middle Id., near the present town of Hokitika.

From 1848 Heaphy became an Aucklander. He worked as a surveyor (eventually becoming Provincial Surveyor for Auckland), and his output of paintings decreased as he became immersed in work and social activities. Many of the maps he produced are beautifully drawn. He was fascinated by the volcanic comes around Auckland, mapping and illustrating them, including an evocative watercolour of Rangitoto. As occurred often in his later paintings, surveyors and a theodolite are in the foreground.

Heaphy enlisted in the colonial forces during the military invasion of the Waikato in the early 1860s. In February 1864 he was involved in a small action where he protected a wounded soldier although wounded himself. It was an act of gallantry, for which he was nominated for the Victoria Cross. It was not immediately forthcoming, because at that time it was only available to members of the regular British forces. With the support of Governor Grey the rules were changed, and Heaphy was the first colonial soldier to receive the award. The photograph of Heaphy taken after the award ceremony is one of the few images in which he appears.

In 1879, near the end of his life, Heaphy delivered a lecture to the Wellington Philosophical Society with the title, ‘Notes on Port Nicholson and the Natives in 1839’. By this time he had been in New Zealand in for forty years, and presented himself as one of the founding fathers. It is an interesting account, based both on his memories and experiences in New Zealand. Free from the need to worry about the concerns of the of the New Zealand Company, he was prepared to give a realistic account of the difficulties of the early days of European settlement in Wellington.

This volume is a fascinating account of Heaphy’s life, strongly linked to his paintings. The administrative aspects of his life, both as surveyor and latterly as Commissioner for Native Reserves are passed over fairly rapidly, so this isn’t quite a definitive biography, but those interested in Heaphy the artist and adventurer will be well satisfied. Design and reproduction of the paintings in excellent. Its interesting to be able to compare most them with the same images on the web, and evidence of what a good job the printer has done.

A couple of postscripts:

1. Many of Heaphy’s images can now be viewed on the internet. You can get links to many of the major institution in New Zealand at Matapihi. Just click on the link, and enter ‘heaphy’ in the search box (top left). Notice how many images and sketches are faded – clearly Iain Sharp has chosen the best ones for the book.

2. Although the reproduction of the images in HEAPHY is faithful to the originals, I can’t help feeling that some could have been displayed better with the use of modern image processing technology. Unfortunately this is out of the control of printer or publisher because libraries that own images normally forbid enhancement as a widely accepted tenet of early 21st century curation policy. But I would ask if it is fair to an artist to display his work as if it is a museum piece rather than living art, particularly if images have faded or been discoloured? Does anyone doubt that Heaphy would have liked his images to be displayed to best advantage?


Simon Nathan is a Wellington writer and reviewer. He’s the editor of the forthcoming The Amazing World of James Hector.


  1. sara clifford, 27. November 2008, 10:27

    Hi i was just curious but i believe you should have more information about his family . as i remember he had a daughter called patricia and had other children as patricia is my great grandmother and meaning i am direct descendent . it would be nice to see some more info about his family and his wives .

  2. Rosie Blackbourn, 12. July 2009, 15:35

    If you are commenting about the Charles Heaphy book?
    Heaphy and his wife had no children. I have a family connection through his wife Kate (nee Churton)

  3. Louise Jessup, 12. October 2009, 5:40

    You are quite right about Charles having no children, and we are interested that you have a connection through his wife Kate. We descend from Charles brother Thomas Frank Heaphy who was my great great grandfather. We do know quite a good deal about the family history and would welcome any further information

  4. Nina Smart ( nee Clifford ), 19. October 2010, 22:39

    Sad because my father alwaystold me that hes my great grandad…..I was brought believing that Charles Heaphy was my great grandfather and that he did have a daughter Patricia Mary Heaphy who married my grandfather Llyod Charles Clifford, Patricia is burried in Nelson NZ,

  5. Nina Smart ( nee Clifford ), 19. October 2010, 22:41

    Love to chat with Louise, sounds like we related, maybe Thomas was my great granddad? Contact me Louise, I in Nelson ph book

  6. Muzaffar, 1. November 2010, 0:47

    dear Nina Smart
    Im interested in every thing about Thomas Heaphy the Younger.Especially his stay in Rome.