Burial place of Hone Heke, Bay of Islands

Alfred Sharpe1883

Te Papa

Te Papa
Wellington, New Zealand

This essay originally appeared in New Zealand Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2018).

More than any other painter of his generation, Alfred Sharpe displayed an awareness of the ecological impact of colonisation. The realisation that New Zealand was undergoing irreversible transformation lies behind the elegiac paintings he conceived as ‘mementoes of the glories of our grand forests’.1 He wrote, ‘The firestick of the settler is devastating square miles of magnificent forest at a time; his axe is laying the monarchs of the forest low, one by one, and his cattle are breaking down and destroying all the lovely undergrowth, and spreading the seeds of European grasses and plants everywhere, which seeds grow so vigorously that they soon strangle the delicate native vegetation of the country.’2

In late 1882 Sharpe visited Pākaraka in the Bay of Islands, where the Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke Pōkai had been laid to rest in 1850. He described the area as ‘a dry, scoria-covered plateau, so dry and densely covered with an impenetrable canopy of the heavy dense foliage of the puriri, turiri, and karaka, as to completely exclude the sunlight’.3 He noted that the undergrowth had been damaged by grazing cattle, and carefully delineated the marauding foxgloves — escapees from a missionary flower garden. While the secret ‘burial place’ is not depicted, Sharpe relishes the historical depth of reference that brings together colonial and Māori history.

Time and again Sharpe’s depictions stress the damaged quality of the colonial landscape. A golden eve, Waiheke Island, the composition for which he won a gold medal from the New Zealand Art Students’ Association in 1885, shows a glade full of stumps — the site of what Sharpe would have termed an ‘arboricidal profanation’.4

While the vigorously sprouting tree ferns in the foreground speak of nature’s regenerative capacity, the Māori figures visible on the far side of a clearing reinforce the melancholy message of
a contaminated Eden. Sharpe wrote of a race he thought was ‘dying out’ and in need of commemoration alongside the disappearing forest.5

Roger Blackley 

1 Alfred Sharpe, ‘What is our art society doing?’, New Zealand Herald, 27 April 1887, p. 6.

2 Alfred Sharpe, ‘Picturesque New Zealand: Notes by an artist and tourist "off the beaten track"’, Illustrated Sydney News, 3 January 1891, p. 18.

3 Alfred Sharpe, letter to the editor, New Zealand Herald, 21 April 1883, p. 6.

4 Cited in Roger Blackley, The art of Alfred Sharpe, Auckland City Art Gallery and David Bateman, Auckland, 1992, p. 92.

5 Alfred Sharpe, ‘The forthcoming art exhibition’, New Zealand Herald, 25 September 1884, p. 6.


  • Title: Burial place of Hone Heke, Bay of Islands
  • Creator: Alfred Sharpe (artist)
  • Date Created: 1883
  • Location: Auckland
  • Physical Dimensions: Image: 454mm (width), 750mm (height)
  • Provenance: Purchased 1977 with Ellen Eames Collection funds
  • Subject Keywords: Landscape paintings | Forests | Death & burial | Islands, Bay of (New Zealand) | Ngā Puhi
  • Rights: No Known Copyright Restrictions
  • External Link: Te Papa Collections Online
  • Medium: watercolour
  • Art Genre: landscape
  • Support: paper
  • Depicted Location: Islands, Bay of (New Zealand)
  • Registration ID: 1977-0027-1

Get the app

Explore museums and play with Art Transfer, Pocket Galleries, Art Selfie, and more

Flash this QR Code to get the app
Google apps