James Bragge’s Wairarapa 1876 – 1878/ Christopher Aubrey: Three Views of EketahunaAratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History October 2010
Currently showing at Aratoi is a set of exquisite photographs printed from the original glass plate negatives which nineteenth century photographer James Bragge used to capture the Wairarapa at the moment of its modern genesis in two journey’s he made to the region from Wellington in 1876 and 1878.
For those journeys Bragge, who originally came from Durham, England and had a photography business in Wellington, hitched up a horse to a mobile darkroom and made what would must have been a challenging journey as far as Masterton, in 1876 and Eketahuna in 1878.
The photographs would be invaluable as an historic record alone, but it seems that Bragge was a bohemian at heart with an artistic eye who has delivered for posterity an extremely rare insight into the lives of the Wairarapa’s early settlers.
While his subjects are posed, there remains an air of informality which allows the viewer to read deeper into the personalities of the sitters, as they go about their daily business of felling the forests and establishing the towns.
The exhibition is also fascinating in providing some inkling of what the landscape of the Wairarapa was like before it was massively transformed in just a matter of years.
Some things remain the same to this day – the moods and energies one might experience looking south from Masterton’s Lansdowne hill are still the same, even if the views themselves have changed completely.
The words of praise heaped on Bragge by the reviewer of the Evening Argyle when these images were first exhibited remain as true now as they were then.
Recently purchased by Aratoi, this collection is undoubtedly one of its most valuable possessions.
The Bragge exhibition raises interesting questions (by comparison) about the three watercolours by Christopher Aubrey, owned by Tararua District Council and on longterm loan at Aratoi, which have been on display in the gallery.
Where Bragge’s life is well-recorded, little is known about Aubrey who seems to have lived an itinerant life.
Where Bragge was using state-of-the-art technology (not withstanding the fact that he could only manage a few photographs a day) – Aubrey paints his watercolours in a naïve style typical of surveyors, explorers and military men (often all one and the same) decades earlier, who painted not primarily to capture the picturesque but for more practical purposes. Indeed, it is speculated that Aubrey had an engineering background.
Beyond employing simple painting skills, Aubrey seems to have added a touch of English bucolic romanticism as exemplified by the swift stagecoach making its way into Eketahuna.
While Eketahuna was probably slower to develop than towns on the plains, by the time these works were completed in the early 1890s it would have been a reasonably well-established colonial town rather than in the process of being settled, which is not the impression you get, due to this somewhat dated painting style.
I’d speculate that Aubrey was a journeyman painter, who made a modest living painting landscapes aimed to please conservative middle class tastes, not so different to some modern day painters who might exhibit at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, for instance.
The point of this is not to consign Aubrey to the dustbin of history but to note how a painting’s style can influence how we read it, and paintings which appear to be an accurate description of their time may not necessarily be so, after all.