ARTS - AS an English ex-pat, Rowan Belcher understands the desire to travel halfway around the world in search of adventure.
He did it himself when he 30 years ago moved to New Zealand to immerse himself in the Wellington art scene, making his way to Gisborne in the mid-1990s.
So he understands why, despite the restrictions of the travel of old, adven-turers of more than 120 years ago would make their way to New Zealand to view the magnificent Pink and White Terraces.
Or they did, until 1886 when the eruption of the volcanic Mount Tarawera blew up what was considered to be the Eighth Wonder of the World, at the same time burying nearby Maori villages and killing somewhere between 120 and 160 people (that’s still up for debate).
“Coming to New Zealand from elsewhere myself, I found the idea of all these people coming on a mission to see this wonder to be absolutely fascinating,” says artist/educator Belcher. “I got to wondering why they came here and what experiences they had along the way.”
But Belcher admits that, before he got to thinking about such things, it was a pretty painting that first seduced him into curating an exhibition that focused on the long-lamented Terraces.
Invited by former Tairawhiti Museum director David Butts to curate a small show based on the museum’s in-house collection, Belcher was rummaging around in the “vault” when his eye was caught by a huge, gleaming, gilded frame.
In it, he found, was a magnificent painting of the Terraces by revered Auck-land artist Charles Blomfield (1848–1926), loaned to the collection by a local family.
“It really got my attention so I decided to look into Blomfield’s work and his experiences,” Belcher said. “That evolved into research around the eruption itself, which was fascinating.”
Blomfield’s work based on the Terraces is well documented — somewhat obsessed with the landform, he painted it both before and after the eruption, paying local Maori for the privilege and often camping for weeks in the surrounding bush.
With good examples of the English-born artist’s work these days fetching around $200,000 Belcher knew he had stumbled across an extraordinary work, but there was more to come.
His research also revealed that though former Mayor of Gisborne William Crawford (1844-1914) was renowned for photographing his home region, he also took a number of spectacular shots of the Terraces.
There was another find in a series of works by Auckland artist Kennett Watkins (1847-1933).
Tairawhiti Museum does not have Watkins’ most famous work . . . The Phan-tom Canoe: A Legend of Lake Tarawera is in the possession of Auckland Art Gallery. It does, however, have in its collection half a dozen of the artist’s Terraces water-colours, perhaps gifted to mark the 15 years he spent living in Ruatoria district to be close to a son farming there.
Belcher shows most of those works, along with Blomfield’s painting and about a dozen of Crawford’s photographs.
And though choosing them proved to be an interesting exercise for an arts professional who plans to expand into curation, their selection also proved to be an emotional process.
“Sometimes it is the skill of an artist that stops you in your tracks, but often it is the stories behind the works and there were certainly plenty of those,” he said.
“Blomfield, for example, was so affected by the eruption that he would never part with any of his original paintings . . . he’d only sell reproductions; in Crawford’s work you really get that sense of loss; and Watkins was also clearly affected by what he saw.”
The aspect of the show he enjoyed most, he added, was the combination of paintings and photographic prints.
“The paintings bring in that atmosphere and the sense of romantic beauty that an artist can bring to a work. But Crawford’s photographs allow us to also see exactly how the Terraces looked and that is a unique opportunity.”
■ Eighth Wonder, curated by Rowan Belcher, will be on at Tairawhiti Museum from tomorrow.