Sketch from the South Bank of the Rangitiki, result 1 of 1
' The fittest country in the world for colonisationæthe most beautiful country, with the finest climate and the most productive soil': this was Edward Gibbon Wakefield's description of New Zealand in 1836.(1) It was also the view promoted by the New Zealand Company, with its aim of recreating a British rural arcadia in the southern hemisphere. The company's plans involved the sale of land, divided into one-acre 'town' sections and hundred-acre 'country' sections, to intending settlers. These sales took place in Britain, some even before the company owned any land in New Zealand, and many were made to speculators who had no intention of emigrating.
This land had to be surveyed, and William Mein Smith was appointed the company's surveyor-general in July 1839. Smith was an artillery officer; the production of accurate topographical drawings and measured plans was a basic skill of his profession. His ability had been recognised in 1836 when he was appointed master of plan drawing at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He arrived in Port Nicholson (Wellington Harbour) on 5 January 1840, less than a month before the first shiploads of company settlers landed on Pito-one beach. Smith's task of surveying their sections and laying out the street plan of the settlement was severely hindered by floods, the rugged bush-clad terrain and the pressing need to find land for the hundred-acre sections. There was not enough land near Port Nicholson, and the company looked north, towards the flatter lands of the Manawatu and Rangitikei districts.
In September 1841 Smith went to Wanganui to superintend the selection of rural sections. He would have made this sketch, a precisely observed panoramic view, during the journey. The dunes in the foreground counterpoint the vast expanse of potentially rich agricultural land across the river. Smith depicts a solution to the land hunger of Wellington's settlers, but perhaps recognising that Maori still considered themselves owners of the land, he takes the trouble to annotate with their Maori names prominent landmarks such as the distant volcano 'Tonga-riro' and the 'Rua Wahine' mountain range. The sketch is a fine example of the work for which Smith is best remembered today: 'his exact sketches and watercolours of early Wellington, the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa'.(2)
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).
1. Cited in Philip Temple, A sort of conscience: The Wakefields, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2002, p. 175.
2. Philippa Mein Smith, 'Smith, William Mein 1799-1869', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (accessed 7 November 2008).
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