The highpoint of George O’Brien’s artistic career in New Zealand was the inaugural exhibition of the Otago Art Society in 1876, where he exhibited a remarkable twenty-eight paintings. These received mixed reviews. O’Brien’s realism was out of step in a colonial art world that accorded the highest praise to John Gully’s romanticism. Reviewers considered O’Brien’s work to be merely topographical, and while they praised his ‘painstaking accuracy’ they feared it was ‘quite destructive of artistic effect’. It was, however, conceded that ‘a few centuries hence the record will prove interesting’.(1)
After working periodically as an architectural draughtsman and civil engineer, O’Brien was appointed Dunedin’s assistant surveyor in 1872. His close attention to detail may have been fostered by his occupation, but his work has come to be recognised as less the product of straight topography than that of a unique vision — one that saw New Zealand as a ‘man-made colonial Arcady’.(2)
The surrounding Otago region provided the main subject for O’Brien’s painting, and he created a distinctive pictorial output consisting of views of the harbour, the town and its architecture. Despite their apparently realistic appearance, however, his views are highly contrived and reflect a very personal and visionary impression of place.
Otago landscape is typical of O’Brien’s landscapes, and demonstrates the liberties he took to achieve an ideal view within the conventions of a classical landscape in the manner of Claude Lorrain, the seventeenth-century French landscape painter. The scene has been effortlessly manipulated to fit O’Brien’s favoured oval format. The foreground is highly detailed, with flax bushes framing the lefthand side; the fence on the right leads the eye over the hill, plunging into a cool blue valley and on to a small settlement already cast into dusk. The hills are sharply defined, and the sky, garishly aglow with the orange and pink hues of a sunset, consumes almost half the painting.
Within the context of colonial New Zealand, O’Brien’s work is most closely related to that of his Auckland contemporary, Alfred Sharpe. Both seem to share an affinity with the Pre-Raphaelite manifesto of truth to nature and an emphasis on brilliance of colour.
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).
1. Otago Daily Times, 3 November 1876, p. 3, cited in Roger Collins and Peter Entwisle (eds), Pavilioned in splendour: George O’Brien’s vision of colonial New Zealand, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, 1986, p. 36.
2. Peter Entwisle, ‘Et in Arcadia ego? The origins, development and nature of George O’Brien’s vision of the New Zealand landscape’, in Peter Entwisle and Roger Collins (eds), Pavilioned in splendour: George O’Brien’s vision of colonial New Zealand, p. 18.