William Beetham Portraits

Close to Home: William Beetham Portraits: Selected paintings from Te Ru Movers and Shakers: Early New Zealand Portraits by William Beetham, an exhibition toured by the National Portrait Gallery – Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History, Masterton February 2014

The names Beetham and Brancepeth have tended to float around in my general vicinity for many years without alighting on any particular focus – which this particular exhibition achieves.

William Beetham is primarily known as the founder of Brancepeth Station, east of Masterton, which grew in its heyday to 30,000 hectares, 300 employees, a 32 room homestead, grand stable with a coach-house, buggies, motorcars, library, school, smithy, store, cookhouse, slaughterhouse, kitchen gardens and number of work camps in the hill-country. Phew! – before being broken up in to smaller farms in the early twentieth century.

But before William Beetham was a key figure in colonial Wellington and the Wairarapa, he was a respected young portrait painter in England, exhibiting at the Royal Academy in London at just 25 years. The paintings in this exhibition comprise only a part of the Movers & Shakers exhibition it belongs to, which is a bit of a shame as from looking at the catalogue of the full exhibition it appears there are some interesting paintings, particularly of Maori that would shed even greater light on Beetham as a painter. The portraits of local Maori in particular look tantalising, painted in an honest manner with none of the “dying race” or “ethnological curiosity” flavours of many other artists of the same period.

Still, what does Close to Home reveal? In terms of painting technique, it shows an artist who was not committed to any particular school of art and open to trends from Neo-Classicism to the radical “warts and all” Realist style of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). The exhibition speculates that Beetham may have been taught by one of Lawrence’s students. His portraits of his father and mother with their faces fully rendered but body only sketched, are typical of the Lawrence style. The portrait of his father is full of life and character.

Interestingly, some of the works in the show have an almost Renoir like quality, although the chances of any direct influence are virtually nil, I imagine, even if they were painted around the same time.

Perhaps my favourite portraits are those of Jacob Joseph, a Wellington general merchant and real estate agent, and his wife Kate (above) with whom William and Mary had a close relationship. There is almost a stylistically naïve quality to the paintings which well suits the characters of two sitters with Kate in particularly being known for her warmth and charm which comes across more richly than any photograph of the time could have captured.

Death stalks the sitters, many of whom did not live to a long age, a reminder of how precarious life was in those days. As for Beetham’s self portraits – the first from early in his career displays a young man with fashionably Romantic inclinations but at heart quite solid and sensible, and it appears it was the latter qualities that guided his life decisions, although it has to be said that moving to a town barely 15 years old on the other side of the planet certainly shows a person willing to take a chance.

There’s a photograph of a painting of Mary before their marriage which shows a lively and even saucy personality. It isn’t clear that this was painted by Beetham but I suspect not as his paintings are a bit more rigid. But you can see from this work and his early self portrait around the time that they both were part of the aspirational lower middle classes.

As a painter, and the son of an inn keeper, Beetham could undoubtedly see only a limited financial future in England. Anxious about the prospects for their children, the couple emigrated to New Zealand in 1855, and it is quite a sweet tale that Mary sneaked William’s paint brushes and easels into the luggage without his knowing. The fact that Beetham had chosen not to bring them himself indicates where his priorities lay and his modesty about his own talents.

His primary aim seems to have always been to capture the likeness and character of his sitter which he achieves to a high degree. He was never a radical and the paintings never escapes a certain feeling of conservatism and establishment. This is most apparent in his watercolour sketches which lack any fluidity whatsoever.

The late double portrait of William and Mary shows they have morphed into your typical elderly Victorian couple. That said, the fact that Beetham choose to do a self portrait and the skill and sensitivity he brings to the subject of himself and his wife shows an artist’s heart was still beating under the conservative dress.

David Famularo

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