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Gisborne’s ‘unsung national treasure’

Stamps due to be released by NZ Post next month and a Tairawhiti Museum exhibition scheduled for 2022 focusing on 19th century Gisborne artist Sarah Ann Featon indicates she was a woman of stature. Why was that so? The Gisborne Herald’s Wynsley Wrigley finds out courtesy of Gisborne historian-researcher Jean Johnston and NZ Post . . .

Sarah Ann Featon may be unknown in Gisborne today.

But in the late nineteenth century, the Gisborne botanical artist was a best-seller, a prominent citizen in the community, and had her work presented to Queen Victoria.

The watercolour artist will have some of her work featured on stamps to be released by NZ Post on May 5.

During the 1870s and 1880s from their home in Customhouse Street, Mrs Featon and her surveyor husband, Edward, took on the challenge to disprove “the mistaken notion that New Zealand is particularly destitute of native flowers”.

They published a book featuring 40 watercolours of New Zealand's flowering plants along with text written by Edward.Four of the watercolours have been chosen by NZ Post.

The book entitled Art Album of New Zealand Flora, the first full-colour art book ever published in the country in January 1889, was a best-seller,

It was marketed as a coloured illustrative version of Sir Joseph Hooper's Handbook of New Zealand Flora which had been the standard scientific reference for more than 20 years.

It uniquely shared matauranga (Maori knowledge) of the plants.

The book was praised as a “colonial work of art” and a copy was sent to Queen Victoria in 1897 to mark 60 years of her reign.

Copies can be accessed in the HB Williams Memorial Library and in the collection of Tairawhiti Museum.

In 1919, widowed and in need of extra finances, Mrs Featon reluctantly parted with her life's work.

She sold her collection of 134 watercolours of New Zealand's flowering plants to the Dominion Museum, Te Papa's predecessor, for only £150.

NZ Post stamps and collectables programme and content manager Lynette Townsend said the Gisborne artist was an “unsung national treasure”.

“We not only create a stunningly-beautiful set of stamps but also highlight the work of a talented and relatively unknown artist.

“The images selected were chosen in collaboration with Te Papa curators who picked their favourites based on research interests, aesthetic appeal, and a desire to present an interesting and varied mix of New Zealand plant specimens.

“We also took into account practicalities such as the size of stamps and which illustration would or wouldn't work well on these tiny canvases. Wherever possible, we aimed to accurately represent the original watercolours.”

The collectable stamp programme at NZ Post is influenced by a broad range of factors.

“Those include commemorative events, a desire to create stamp sets that appeal to our loyal collectors, and an aspiration to produce a well-curated, diverse range of stamps that reflect our history, culture, our past, present and future. No stamp is ever printed without a reason.”

Te Papa held a small exhibition of Sarah Featon's work in 2019, and Tairawhiti Museum will host an exhibition next year.

Research and a publication on her life is also under way.

Gisborne historian-researcher Jean Johnston said Sarah and Edward Featon and their son came to Gisborne in 1875.

They both came from the same part of London and it is likely that Edward knew Sarah's uncle who had a navigational instrument business.

Edward emigrated to Auckland in 1860 as a 19-year-old with his father, stepmother and his brother John.

He was employed as a navigational instrument maker and optician and joined the Onehunga Naval Volunteers in 1863 and later the Auckland Naval Volunteers.

In 1869, acting on government orders, he led a contingent of men with a 6-pound Armstrong gun in the defence of colonial Tauranga which was being threatened by Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki and his followers.

He was appointed Captain in the Auckland Military Volunteers, resigning his commission to join the Lands and Survey Department in 1874.

Edward Featon was awarded the New Zealand War medal.

He continued his voluntary military service in Gisborne with the formation of the Cook County Artillery Corps that merged into J Battery of New Zealand Artillery Volunteers. He served as instructor and Sergeant-Major, and then as Quartermaster-Sergeant when the Volunteers made their way towards Opotiki in 1889 at the time of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki's possible return to the Gisborne district.

He was awarded a Long Service Colonial Medal for his services as a volunteer.

Success of album reported throughout NZ

Sarah Ann Porter was born in 1847 and was the eldest of four children of Henry William Porter and Sarah Hannah Porter. Henry was a licensed victualler (publican).

Sarah Ann Porter arrived in Auckland on January 29, 1870 on the maiden voyage of the sailing ship City of Auckland and married Edward Featon in St Paul's Church, Auckland.

The couple had a daughter, Sarah Ann, who died as an infant and son Edward Victor who was born in 1872.

Mrs Johnston said it has been suggested by Sarah's granddaughter that Sarah was encouraged to paint by an uncle who was interested in art.

The Featons' botanical project took many years and they had the support of another botanist, missionary William Colenso, as well as Gisborne-based Archdeacon W. Leonard Williams who would send or drop in specimens to add to the collection.

Edward, in his surveying work, also collected flowering plants and noted the growing conditions of each specimen.

With an interest in literature, in 1877, Edward Featon — in conjunction with Josiah Sigley — organised the Turanganui Public Library and for 15 years was a member of its committee including taking on the role of treasurer.

He helped in the establishment of the first library building in Lowe Street.

The library committee also arranged industrial and fine arts exhibitions in the new library and Sarah Featon entered in a number of categories.

The success of the Featons' Art Album of New Zealand Flora was reported throughout the country and they travelled to Dunedin to exhibit and promote their work in the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition held during 1889 and 1890.

The family moved to 107 Disraeli Street and as E. H. Featon and Son, Manufacturers, made products for sale including, Surpho-Carbol Dip for dressing sheepskins, bonedust (pure) for pastures and gardens, Winter Dressing for painting and spraying fruit trees, and Cleanser Brand, a sanitary soap.

Sarah Featon continued her interest in botanical art and painted throughout her life.

She is remembered by a granddaughter as a tall, alert, elderly lady of determined character, who was continually occupied with painting, leaf pressing, sewing, the making of model Maori villages, and other handcrafts.

The National Library of New Zealand also purchased some of her later paintings from her granddaughter during the 1970s.

Sarah died on April 28, 1927, aged 79, and was buried in Makaraka Cemetery alongside her husband Edward who had died in 1909.

They were survived by their son Edward Victor who married Emily Deason Robinson in 1915 and their two granddaughters, Constance Sarah Isabella Featon and Emily Pearl Featon.

' Tairawhiti Museum is seeking more information about Sarah and Edward Featon. Please get in touch with the museum if you are able to help with any images or further information.

TREASURED GISBORNE ART: Te Papa collections manager Andrea Hearfield (left) shows Gisborne historian-researcher Jean Johnston one of Sarah Featon's paintings. Mrs Johnston's research on the 19th century artist will help Tairawhiti Museum in holding an exhibition next year. Picture supplied
GREEN FINGERS: Four works of art by Gisborne botanical artist Sarah Featon chosen by NZ Post to feature on stamps will be released on May 5. Pre-orders can be made at collectables.nzpost.co.nzPicture supplied