Edith Halcombe (1844-1903) was born in the Hutt Valley, Wellington as Edith Stanway Swainson. The daughter of William Swainson, an esteemed naturalist and botanical draughtsman, Edith learned to sketch and paint from a young age, and soon became a highly proficient artist. Her work spans watercolour, etching, pencil drawing and oil painting, and tends to focus on her surroundings, illustrating the landscape as she experienced it.
In 1863 she married Arthur Halcombe (1834-1900), who was a school inspector in Wellington, and would go on to become a member of the Wellington Provincial Council for Rangitikei. The couple settled in Westoe, Rangitikei, at the estate of the politician and artist William Fox, under whose patronage Arthur had emigrated to New Zealand. Edith would later assist Fox in his attempt to climb Mt Taranaki, producing a series of oil paintings illustrating various stages in the journey.
From the early 1870s, Arthur worked as an immigration agent, helping to establish new settlements throughout the central North Island. By 1874 the couple had moved to Feilding, where Arthur was engaged through the Emigrant and Colonist’s Aid Corporation as an agent for the Manchester Block. One of the settlements, Halcombe, founded in 1876 was named after Arthur, and the nearby Stanway settlement named for Edith, reinforcing Arthur’s involvement with the colonisation of the area.
Edith was closely associated with the work of her husband from the inception of the settlement. It was here she produced a series of lithographs intended to document the development and the newly evolving landscape of the Manawatu County. The lithographs were intended to be published alongside writing by Arthur to encourage immigration to the region, however no records of such a publication have been located to date. This is the proposed title page illustrated by Edith, an amalgam of images narrating the transforming environment and pinpointing moments in the process of change. The title itself is framed by both a tall, upright fern on the left, and a felled log and axe below.
In this way, Edith’s work sits within the context of contentious land sales, surveying, immigration, displacement and dramatic environmental change. One article written in 1881 describes the Manchester Block at the time of the Halcombe’s arrival as “simply an unoccupied waste of forest.” For Edith and Arthur, this landscape was one with huge potential for progress. The development of this land was not seen as degrading the environment, but rather transforming it into productive and profitable land which more people could call their home.
Looking back at these works now, we can draw out the relationship between systematic colonisation and the impact on the environment in Aotearoa. From earlier works showing the Surveyor’s camp tightly enclosed by native forest, to those showing buildings and roads, we can see the process of clearing and taming the land, leaving hills and pastures bare, ready for new residents.
In 1917 J. Allan Thomson, then Director of the Dominion Museum, wrote of one of her views of the town of Halcombe:
“Halcombe’ shows a still later stage in the taming of the wild. Long vistas clear out into the virgin forest, show the progress made in roading, and on the angle of such a road line stands a big square two-story building probably referred to in the newspapers of the time as ‘Palatial’. Yet only a stone’s throw distance on the opposite corner, a couple of comely haystacks are seen sandwiched in amongst the houses.”
Edith’s work highlights a landscape in transition, and allows us to have a window into a fleeting moment in the history of our landscape. Despite being produced with the aim of advertising settlement and encouraging land sales, Edith’s work displays a particular pragmatism and clarity. It speaks to the reality of settler life without the overtly romantic lens of many of her contemporaries.
Edith Stanway Halcombe, Art Object File, Te Papa.
Mary Louise Ormsby, ‘Halcombe, Edith Stanway,’ Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Halcombe, Edith Stanway – Dictionary of New Zealand Biography – Te Ara.
G. M. Swainson. ‘Halcombe, Arthur William Follett,’ Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Halcombe, Arthur William Follett – Dictionary of New Zealand Biography – Te Ara.
‘The Manchester Block’, <em>Patea Mail,</em> 17 May 1881, pg. 3.
Rona Chapman, VUW intern, 2022