Topic: ‘Upper Hutt, with Railway Station’ by Christopher Aubrey (1890) by Debbie McCauley

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This descriptive analysis of Christopher Aubrey’s painting ‘Upper Hutt, with railway station’ was written by Debbie McCauley on 27 August 2008 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

Late Victorian (1870-1890) paintings provide important historical records of past New Zealand landscapes. Upper Hutt, with railway station is a 345 x 550mm watercolour on paper by artist Christopher Aubrey (c1830-1902). Depicted is Upper Hutt’s (Wellington regions) railway station in 1890. The original is held by the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington (Ref. C-030-030).

Aubrey has provided a sweeping view of the area, allowing the viewer to survey the wider topography of the landscape surrounding the town. This arrangement may be due in part to Aubrey’s background, of which little is known. His watercolours of New Zealand colonial townships date from the 1860s to the early 1900s. According to Ferner Galleries (2008):

The measure of control which he displays in architectural subjects and details as early as 1878 – particularly in contrast to figure and animals – suggests some training and experience in engineering or another technical field, but the numerous views of hotels and farmhouses suggest also an itinerant life, perhaps earning a living by his brush. This supposition finds slight confirmation in the absence of his name in electoral rolls and street directories of the period. (p. 1)

The viewer is surveying the landscape from a high vantage point, perhaps two or so metres above ground level. The eye is drawn to the central middle distant mountains that are painted in a mauve colour, contrasting well with the yellow tones that overlay the rest of the artwork. The shadows cast by the four cows in the painting would suggest that the light is flowing onto the scene from the upper right hand side of the view, possibly at mid morning. This timeframe would fit well with the depiction of the train pulling out of the station which is shown on the far right hand side of the painting, possibly at the start of the day’s journey by rail. These railway tracks dominate the composition and serve to symbolise European progress and the changing New Zealand landscape.

There are three horizontal divisions within the composition of the painting. The foreground section shows the cows to the left with a pond-like drainage area in the front centre and railway tracks to the right. A fence cuts a swathe diagonally through the picture, being close to the viewer at the left side and sweeping upwards towards the right top edge. The right side of the painting is dominated by railway tracks running vertically into the picture, a train with smoke billowing from its stack and railway sheds with mountains behind. The train itself is very small, but detailed quite charmingly. This combination of fence and railway tracks appears to be the artists attempt at linear perspective or orthogonalisation and guide the viewer towards the ‘vanishing point’ somewhere near the railway sheds. 

In the foreground is a pond surrounded by bracken and dry grasses. Aubrey seems to have spent considerable time on the ferns and grasses as they are quite detailed. Positioned to the left are some unhealthy looking, denuded trees, with the cows arranged close by. These cows give the painting its sense of scale in relation to the buildings, train and mountains beyond. They are arranged haphazardly and are quite different from each other in appearance. A white one is sitting, with a larger brown and white one standing and looking into the trees. There is a distant black cow and what looks to be a browner one further off. It is interesting that Aubrey has chosen to paint four very different looking cows – not one is similar to the common black and white friesian of today’s farming environment. This is possibly intended to show diversity in animal production, thus hinting at the richness of the scene and the progress made in the settlement.

An insignificant amount of space has been allocated to the buildings depicted within the painting. They are very distant and run horizontally through the middle of the picture with the mountains immediately behind them. The buildings appear unimposing and seem settled into the landscape that dwarfs them. According to the supporting notes from the Turnbull, these buildings from left to right are St Joseph's Catholic Church, Edward Wilkie's bakery and boarding-house, the Provincial Hotel, P A Wilkie's second store, ancillary buildings (including railway cottages, the goods shed and the engine shed) and the railway station. The buildings are drawn very exactly, with careful attention paid to minute detail. The dominant feature of the painting is the mountains that enclose the township, seemingly providing a ‘nest’ or safe haven for the settlement. 

The uppermost section of the painting is taken up by the sky. This is a vast yellow toned expanse with no clouds represented. A slight mauve tinge on the uppermost part of the sky seems to reflect the same colour onto the same distant mountains at the centre of the painting that first draw the eye. 

Overall, Aubrey’s painting is beautifully executed with much attention given to microscopic detail. This is a very pleasing and important watercolour by an itinerant painter that likely had to create artwork in order to earn a crust of bread and a place of shelter. He has, perhaps unwittingly, created a legacy of important historical records of New Zealand.

  

REFERENCES

Ferner Galleries. (2008). Artist profile: Christopher Aubrey. Retrieved August 10, 2008 from http://www.fernergalleries.co.nz/default,3725.s

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dunn, M. (1993). A concise history of New Zealand painting. East Roseville, Australia: Craftsman House

Kelleher, J. (1991). Upper Hutt: The history. Upper Hutt, New Zealand: Upper Hutt City Council

National Library of New Zealand: Timeframes. (n.d.). Aubrey, Christopher, fl 1870s-1900s :[Upper Hutt, with railway station]. 1890. Retrieved August 17, 2008 from http://digital.natlib.govt.nz/get/7515?profile=access.

Otago Early Settlers Museum. (1990). A salute to Otago artists - Exhibition 1: Watercolours by Christopher Aubrey, March 9–April 29 1990. Otago, New Zealand: Author.

Platts, U. (1979). Nineteenth century New Zealand artists: A guide and handbook. Christchurch, New Zealand: Avon Fine Prints.

Te Hikoi Southern Journey. (n.d.). Christopher Aubrey.  Retrieved August 10, 2008 from http://www.tehikoi.co.nz/index.php/Visitors/ArtGllery.

The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. (2007). Block 1 supplement. In 74104 Introducing the Humanities. (2nd ed.). Lower Hutt, New Zealand: Author.

Whyte, S. (2007, December 1). Southern Journey. Retrieved August 10, 2008 from http:///www.stuff.co.nz/southlandtimes/4299670a6565.html.

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