Often described as the father of art in Dunedin, William Mathew Hodgkins was a founder of the Otago Art Society and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery — the colony’s first — as well as father of the city’s greatest artistic export, Frances Hodgkins. He was also a painter in his own right and an important early theorist of art in New Zealand. Born in Liverpool in humble circumstances, Hodgkins arrived in Dunedin in 1862 and established himself as a lawyer. Although he appears to have had no formal artistic training, he had keenly studied art in London galleries, especially the works of JMW Turner. As he outlined in his ‘History of landscape art and its study in New Zealand’, a paper delivered to the Otago Institute in 1880, the English landscape tradition had reached its apotheosis in Turner’s sublime paintings and watercolours. Turner’s command of atmospheric effects had much to teach artists in New Zealand, said Hodgkins, and his sketches were ‘a perfect mine of artistic wealth’.(1)
The young colony might want for masterpieces by Turner or any other artist, but Hodgkins argued that New Zealand was ‘a land absolutely teeming with artistic subjects of the most varied kind’.(2) A wet day on a wild coast shows Hodgkins’ application of the Turneresque sketch — a small, rapidly executed watercolour, painted out of doors — to one such subject. In closely harmonised tones of blue, green and brown, with fluid washes and lively brushwork, Hodgkins addresses himself to the changing conditions of weather and water. If such sketches retain a freshness and immediacy appealing to modern eyes, they were only one side of Hodgkins’ work. The other — a style he shared with contemporaries including JC Richmond and John Gully — was larger and more elaborately executed ‘exhibition pictures’. In both aspects Hodgkins was mindful of what he saw as the mission of the landscape painter: ‘to make us acquainted with of the beautiful places on God’s earth, and so render us more grateful to Him’.(3)
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).
1. WM Hodgkins, ‘A history of landscape art and its study in New Zealand’, Otago Daily Times, 20 November 1880; reprinted in Peter Entwistle, William Mathew Hodgkins and his circle, exhibition catalogue, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, 1984, p. 159.
2. Ibid., p. 160.
3. Ibid., p. 161.