Ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured indeed to be asked by Dr Ron Radford to launch, or rather reveal, this new acquisition – a portrait of the Maori Warrior Chief Hohepa Te Umuroa (1846) by William Duke (1815-1853).
I am also delighted to see on show some other works by Duke alongside this unique painting, as it fills a gap in our artistic history of the period 1840-1855, and recognises an artist who has been hidden away in some important collections, but never so grand as finding a place in the National Collection in the National Gallery of Australia.
Duke’s work, once described as “naïve but not incompetent” in reference to his painting, was diverse, eclectic and somewhat commercial – being a journey from his natural talent to some modest fame.
His work ranges from scenic theatre sets to lithographs, paintings, and even the sculpture of a ship’s figurehead, and fits more as descriptive and presentational than art.
Duke arrived in Australia in 1840 from County Cork aged 25, and he and his wife Lucy set about raising a family of 6; the eldest Mary Emma, was to marry my great grandfather James Bryce from Scotland (1857).
And I must say it’s quite nice to have a ‘duke’ in the family!
His early career, from being described on arrival as a carpenter, moved into a job as a scene painter for the Royal Victorian Theatre Company in Sydney.
In his short life he moved first to New Zealand (1844) where the smaller pictures -- The Celebrated Chief Hone (or John Heke), and the portrait of Mekata (Maketu), now held by the National Library, were begun, before moving to Hobart (1845) where the portrait Hohepa Te Umuroa was made, and the whaling lithographs and paintings were commissioned.
He moved back to Melbourne where he became well known as scene painter and mechanist for the Royal Victorian Theatre Company, and there some fame arrived.
His commissions in Hobart stemmed from the desire of the owners of the whaling fleets to depict their ships at work during the great whaling period of the mid to late 1800s.
His lithographs reflect the excitement and challenge of brave sailors in small boats killing whales with harpoons, or grand paintings of ships under sail with stirring titles like “The Flurry” (1848), “The Chase” (1848), “The Rounding” and “The Cutting In”, and the major work “Offshore Whaling with the Aladdin and Jane” (1849)
But it is the painting of HOHEPA TE UMUROA that has captured the interest of the art world as the only known sitting portrait of a Maori Chief in the aftermath of the Maori Wars (1844-46).
The look of this young man, over 6 feet tall, with tattooed face, with his tokutoku (weapon), showing strength and courage, must have been fascinating to Europeans on the mainland at the time.
Alas poor Te Umuroa died of tuberculosis in 1847, on Maria Island Prison, within a year of this painting.
He was buried with due solemnity and dignity with a large headstone showing the respect that the colony had for these brave martyrs.
In 1988, 140 years later, a delegation of Maori elders came to Hobart and exhumed his body – still a full skeleton wrapped in the mat -- and returned him to New Zealand where he now lies at Jerusalem on the Wanganui River near Wellington.
By sheer coincidence this past week I have been in New Zealand with Quentin on a State Visit, and I found the story of Hohepa (Joseph) very moving – as we received many Haka salutes and nose presses.
It was moving to see men and women dressed just like the warriors of 1844 welcoming us to their land.
The tragedy of this young man, this patriot, and his death at 26, filled me with sadness and reminded me of the shared history of our two countries.
The story of Hohepa Te Umuroa is to be celebrated in a large scale opera soon to be played in Wellington, entitled “Hohepa” – the story of a friendship between a Maori Chief and a Pakeha settler during the Maori Wars.
Imagine my melancholy surprise at the coincidence of this event and today’s launch.
Despite the importance of Duke’s art work, most fame seems to have been bestowed for his scenic displays at the Royal Victorian Theatre and the American Circus, for it is here that his work as a stage artist and mechanist drew gasps of breath from audiences.
“Superior to anything as yet seen in the Colonies”
“An effort of genius and art which would do honour to any exhibition in the Colonies.”
One wonders what would have been his life’s work had he lived beyond 36.
Duke’s life was admired but it was not well rewarded. While supporting a wife and 6 children he seems to have sold off works too cheaply in an effort to survive.
The reference to his death was reported in the Hobarton Courier, 26th October 1853 under the title “Death of Mr Duke the Artist”.
“Mr Duke, an artist who became popular here by the production of his pencil and the urbanity of his deportment, died at an early hour on Monday morning at his residence in Collingwood. Last Saturday week he was engaged on some painting and decorations at the American Circus for Mr Rowe, by whom he had been partially employed for two or three weeks past, and was expecting to be able to proceed with the portraits of Mrs C. Young.”
It goes on to describe his failing health, death and the losses reducing him to poverty.
This does not diminish the esteem in which we hold this special artist, and my pride in an ancestor.
When I discovered the lithograph of William Duke in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the Director, Bill Bleathman shook my hand and said he was honoured to meet a descendant of William Duke.
We were both very excited especially to find that there were high quality prints of two of his lithographs and the painting New Town Road, Hobart.
To have acquired the Hohepa portrait is a coup, but to have displayed it together with the other side of William Duke’s work is a greater gift than we ever expected.
For this I thank Ron Radford very much.
I am now honoured to be able to officially launch the exhibit of works of William Duke, marine painter of Van Dieman’s Land, and to welcome the portrait of Hohepa to the National Gallery of Australia.