I have the very good fortune to have a wall in my office that is ideal to hang large artworks. It was very recently painted an deep forest green and, even more recently, was installed a magnificent painting of the Whanganui River, by Thomas William (T.W.) Downes in 1896. Earlier this year the work was donated by the late Kathryn Swan to Whanganui Regional Museum and this is the first time it has been available to view. In this painting, Downes appears influenced by the Hudson River School of a generation earlier. Downes had a close association with the Whanganui River in the late 19th century as a boat operator and Supervisor of River Works and with a deep interest in Maori cultural life, it would be easy to see how this painting style could have captivated him. Through his writings – such as his books Old Whanganui (1915) and History of and Guide the Whanganui River (1921) – as well as his artistry, he seems to embody the spirit of the river, so aptly put generations later:
E rere kau mai te awa nui nei Mai i te kahui maunga ki Tangaroa
Ko au te awa Ko te awa ko au.
The river flows From the mountains to the sea.
I am the river The river is me.
This photo of Downes shows the gentle, restless enthusiasm for which he was known by his contemporaries. He looks just about to smile. The Encyclopedia of New Zealand Te Ara says that it was reported at the time that Downes knew the river better than any other European. The fact that he took the time to understand the river and its inhabitants, and that he cared enough to make careful recordings not only shows him as visionary, but has left us with an irreplaceable record of a time and a lifestyle that is now long gone.
Having an image of Downes’ record of this time on my wall feels like a privileged and direct link to the river’s generous people, its rich history and its many natural wonders.