Will You Look at That

Fact: New Zealand has a national portrait gallery. Not many people know that.
Listener: 17 January, 2004.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

You would hardly know that New Zealand has a national portrait gallery, hidden on the busy corner of Wellington’s Bowen St and Lambton Quay in the debating chamber used when Parliament House was being refurbished. The local bookseller tells me that he constantly has to point the way.

We do not seem to be a nation of portraiture –– just snaps. The camera has existed for almost the whole of European settlement, so we have pictures of almost everyone (early Maori excluded). The tradition of formal oil painting remains, but we are so earnest that we lack those wonderfully satirical studies scattered through the Australian National Portrait Gallery (also, coincidentally, housed in a past Parliament building).

Instead, our gallery focuses on themes. The current one is of scientists. Passing the copy of Joshua Reynold’s painting of Joseph Banks, through a gallery of the science interpreters –– journalists, writers, film and television –– the central chamber displays 10 scientists who explored and recorded our natural heritage, setting up some of our key scientific institutions. They include James Hector (Dominion Museum), Leonard Cockayne (conserving and regenerating the native bush), Thomas Cheeseman (Auckland Museum), Frederick Hutton (geology and zoology), Charles Chilton (crustacea, including crabs and crayfish), John Holloway (a clergyman who studied mosses), Robert Falla (birds and conservation), Charles Fleming (birds and conservation) and Trevor Hatherton (leader of our scientific team in the Antarctic).

The official portraits tend to be formal, even pious. Fleming, however, is shown informally sitting on a rocky outcrop in his shorts; it better captures the man, and –– in truth –– the fun that was also in their professions, as well as the hard grind and intellectual challenge. But a good photograph is worth a thousand snaps: in some ways, the accompanying photographs and memorabilia that supplement the paintings better illustrate the kind of lives the scientists led, the people they were and the passions they pursued.

Ironically, the two women in the exhibition –– Lucy Moore, the “mother of New Zealand botany”, and Margot Forde –– do not have formal portraits, only photographs, although each is worthy of one (but not too pious, please). I took considerable pleasure in the Forde story, for her father was Bernard Ashwin, who as secretary of the Treasury is one of our greatest public servants. When I wrote of him in my book The Nationbuilders, I had no sense of the significance of his eldest daughter, who established a seed bank that, in some instances, is the entire world community –– the store of last resort of the Australasian grasslands. She is commemorated by the Margot Forde Arboretum and the Margot Forde Forage Germplasm Centre, an international resource containing 70,000 seed samples of 1600 different forage species. (More substantial memorials than anything for her economist father.)

When writing The Nationbuilders, I looked for a suitable scientist to tell that part of our history. I should have collected together a number of them in the way the Portrait Gallery does, for they built the nation, too, by studying, recording, preserving and protecting our environmental heritage.

It would be great to go around the exhibition with adolescents with a scientific inclination, who would be inspired by the portrayed lives –– and who could join the rest of us who feel awe at their achievements, and know that the nation is in part what it is because of the people portrayed here.

Alas, there were few –– young or old –– there when I visited the gallery. It’s an exhibition noble in concept, well-executed, exciting and inspiring –– and poorly publicised. Bit like nationbuilding, really.