Historic painting discovered thanks to Puke Ariki exhibition
Siblings Jono and Emma O’Sullivan with the Christopher Aubrey painting of the Tongaporutu Ferry House. Photo / included
A painting with a story almost as fascinating as Christopher Aubrey himself has been unearthed in the tiny settlement of Tongaporutu, north of Taranaki.
The nomadic watercolorist of the 19th century finally disappeared from New Zealand without a trace, but was known in Taranaki in 1896, and his work from this period was the focus of an exhibition in the Puke Ariki Museum of the NPDC.
After hearing about the exhibit, the O’Sullivan family of Tongaporutu stepped forward to tell Puke Ariki researchers that they owned an Aubrey factory representing the Tongaporutu Ferry House in 1896.
The painting was proudly displayed in the grounds of the old guesthouse, which was a popular stopover for drovers and travelers from the north when their travels were determined by the tides at the Tongaporutu River crossing.
Puke Ariki image curator Chanelle Carrick was delighted to have contact with Emma O’Sullivan, whose family has been associated with the region for more than 130 years.
She says the Aubrey painting was lucky enough to survive a fire that destroyed the original ferry house in 1937.
“For some reason it was taken out of the house and given to a nearby family for safekeeping. We’re not entirely sure why this happened, but it was very grateful,” she says.
O’Sullivan’s great-grandfather, James McKoy, started the inn with his wife, Mary Jane, and although the area was supposed to be alcohol-free at the time of the provincial ban, there was ample evidence that the law was little bent at the elbow.
“When some of the nearby paddocks were excavated, they found hundreds, if not thousands, of bottles of whiskey buried in underground trenches,” says Jono O’Sullivan.
“We can only speculate about whether that had something to do with the safekeeping of the painting or not.”
While the painting was touched up and re-framed in New Plymouth at the now-closed Wayne’s Gallery, it shows many of the features Aubrey has used in his other works, which depict scenes from the neighborhood on his way north.
“The two characters he used are almost identical in the painting we have in Inglewood,” says Carrick.
She remains confident that other people with knowledge of other Aubrey paintings will come forward as the exhibition, titled 1896: Christopher Aubreys Taranaki, runs through August 15 at Puke Arikis Lane Gallery.
In addition to seven works by the nomadic painter, the exhibition also offers a number of interactive elements that are popular with visitors.