Introducing South Westland to the World: A Surveyor’s Artistic Record

Thursday 06 January 2022

by Julia Bradshaw

As late as the 1860s, South Westland was terra incognita (unknown land) for most Pākehā New Zealanders. Captain Cook had sailed by aboard the Endeavour in 1770 and Captain John Lort Stokes had charted the coastline from the Acheron in 1851, but until the discovery of payable gold in Central Westland in 1864 little interest had been shown in finding out more about the wild country on the west side of the South Island.

Willam Cooper portrait photo from divorce file at Archives NZ

William Marshall Cooper. Archives New Zealand  R25710427

The discovery of gold led to a rush and the Canterbury Provincial Government, whose territory at that time included “West Canterbury”, sent surveyors who had the important role of laying out new towns and surveying the exact boundaries of gold claims.

One of the surveyors sent to Westland in 1865 was William Marshall Cooper (1833–1921) who, like many early surveyors in New Zealand, was also a competent artist. Canterbury Museum holds a very interesting sequence of sketches, made in 1867, that are the first comprehensive views made of South Westland.

In February 1867, Cooper was sent down to the latest West Coast gold rush at Haast River, a relatively unknown and uninhabited area in the southern part of the province.

Even though it already appeared that the new goldfield wasn’t very rich, there was a scramble for sections in the town that Cooper laid out which a goldfields’ veteran described as the most frenzied he had seen. The special reporter for the West Coast Times “pitied Mr Cooper, who was jostled unmercifully by a mob of rowdies, who disputed the possession of every section that was marked”.

Cooper's 1867 survey plan of Haast Beach township

William Cooper’s 1867 survey plan of the township at Haast Beach. Archives New Zealand  R18283311

Cooper headed south again in April 1867 when he was included in an excursion organised by the recently appointed Westland Commission. The Commission was set up to advise on the best method of governing the West Canterbury goldfields. They had proposed a trip to the southern part of the Canterbury Province, an area that few knew anything about but which the discovery of gold had suddenly made more interesting.

The Commission chartered the steamer Bruce to travel from Hokitika to the southern boundary at Big Bay. Accompanying the five commission members were Dr James Hector (Government Geologist), Malcolm Fraser (District Surveyor) and John Rochfort (District Engineer). A number of others managed to get themselves included in the party which was contemptuously described by the Grey River Argus as a “holiday trip”.

No official report of the expedition survives, despite it being paid for by the Canterbury Provincial Government. From the newspapers we know that the trip was blessed with fine weather, that Milford Sound (some way south of the Canterbury boundary) was reached on the evening of 2 April and that two nights were spent there before the party started back to Hokitika. Rivers and harbours were examined and Cooper was kept busy surveying river mouths which, said the West Coast Times, were “destined hereafter to be the inlets of important settled districts”.

After his return Cooper painted views of the scenery onto 10 large (760 mm by 1315 mm) map outlines of the southern coastline. While the first two maps have not survived, the remaining eight cover the coastline from Bold Head (south of Ross) to Transit Bay, just south of Milford Sound. Each map has a series of small watercolours, ranging in size from 80 mm wide to 150 mm wide, showing various points of interest along the coastline.

Map featuring Cooper's artworks

Cooper’s artworks on the outline of the Milford Sound District. Map 10, Canterbury Museum 1971.139.8

The sketches provided the first views of the southern goldfields at Ōkārito and Hunts Beach and the latest rush to Haast River. They are significant because they provide early and comprehensive views of South Westland’s landscape before any photographs were taken.

Not only do the paintings give details of the grandeur of South Westland, tiny human figures and boats provide a sense of scale. Although some of the illustrations are small the views provide some interesting details, particularly around the use of river mouths for anchorage in the absence of any natural ports.

Cooper watercolour Haast River

Cooper’s sketch of Haast River. Detail from map 6, Canterbury Museum 1971.139.4

The sketch of Haast River mouth shows five ships moored in the lower reaches of the river. These were transporting hopefuls and provisions to the nearby gold rush. One morning during February 1867, the Alhambra, Kennedy and Yarra all crossed the bar to moor in the river so Cooper’s scene is not an exaggeration.

Likewise, Cooper’s sketch of the Arawata (now Arawhata) River mouth shows a steamer crossing the bar while the map has the information “Small craft may enter but lay [a]ground at L.W. [low water]”.

Cooper’s sketch of Arawhata River

Cooper’s sketch of Arawhata River. Detail from map 6, Canterbury Museum 1971.139.4

Cooper’s sketch of Cascade Point

Cooper’s sketch of Cascade Point. Detail from map 8, Canterbury Museum 1971.139.6

Another watercolour shows the paddle steamer Bruce (which Cooper was travelling on) proceeding south past the impressive cliffs of Cascade Point. Another version of this view but without the steamer is held by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (1992-0035-1670).

Cooper’s sketch of Okarito

Cooper’s sketch of Ōkārito. Detail from map 4, Canterbury Museum 1971.139.2

Cooper was promoted in 1868 but after that his career stalled, probably due to the scandal surrounding his father-in-law, George Winter, Treasurer for Westland County Council. In August 1869, after a dramatic escape attempt, Winter was arrested and charged with stealing £2,500 from the Council. The following year Cooper was passed over for the position of District Surveyor and he afterwards transferred to Westport where he worked on mining surveys.

Despite his lack of career advancement, Cooper’s paintings were getting significant exposure. His sketch of Ōkārito was reproduced by lithographer John Diedrich Schmidt, as part of a collection of West Coast views published in 1869.

About 150 of his watercolours appeared in the Otago Fine Arts Exhibition in 1869. The English speaking world had the opportunity to see the wonder of Milford Sound when the widely read The Illustrated London News engraved three of Cooper’s sketches from the map series and published them on 2 January 1869.

Cooper’s sketch of Milford Sound

Cooper’s sketch of Milford Sound. Detail from map 10, Canterbury Museum 1971.139.8

 Engraving of Cooper’s view of Milford Sound

One of the three engravings of Cooper’s views of Milford Sound which appeared in The Illustrated London News, 2 January 1869.

Canterbury Museum also has another version of one of Cooper's Milford Sound views painted by Charles Enys (1840–1891). John Enys visited Milford Sound with James Hector in 1873 and subsequently asked his artist brother to copy Cooper’s work for him.

Milford Sound by Charles Enys

Milford Sound by Charles Enys, Canterbury Museum 1957.26.4

Dr James Hector, Government Geologist, had also been on the Westland Commission trip and the connection between the two men was maintained. In 1874 Cooper loaned a series of paintings to Hector, who was now Director of the Colonial Museum in Wellington. The Westport Times commented that while they were rough sketches “made on the spot” they “convey a more truthful impression of the scenery than is often found in a more highly polished drawing”. The paintings would later appear in the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia, USA, for which James Hector was the New Zealand representative. These paintings are now part of Te Papa’s collection.

Photo of New Zealand Court at 1876 International Exhibition, Philadelphia, USA

The New Zealand Court at the 1876 International Exhibition, Philadelphia, USA. Cooper’s paintings are on the two shelf ends facing the viewer (four on each side). Alexander Turnbull Library PA1-f-257-12

One of the paintings shown in Philadelphia was a simplified view of a sketch made by Cooper in 1867 of the Waiau Glacier and this painting is now part of Te Papa’s collection of Cooper’s work (Te Papa 1992-0035-1671). Te Papa’s collection shows that Cooper continued to paint scenes while he was working in Westport and the Buller district.

In late 1876, Cooper left for Australia and by 1878 was employed as Surveyor of Public Parks in New South Wales. He authored a booklet Track from Katoomba to Jenolan Caves in 1885 which included a map titled “Tourist Map of the Blue Mountains”. The only known painting by Cooper from this period is an 1878 watercolour of a train travelling along the Zigzag to the Blue Mountains (State Library of Victoria, DL Pf 102). In late 1884 Cooper was Surveyor for the Australian Squadron’s circumnavigation of New Guinea and the resulting publication, Narrative of the expedition of the Australian squadron to the south-east coast of New Guinea, October to December, 1884, included some of his sketches.

Cooper was divorced by his first wife but married again in Australia in 1884. Cooper and his second wife later went to England and by 1893 were living on the Isle of Wight. Cooper lived there until his death and doesn’t appear to have painted except for when he was commissioned to provide a visual record of Southampton in 1896–1897. The 65 watercolours he produced are held by the Southampton City Council. No paintings by Cooper have been found after this date despite the fact that he lived until 1921.

Apart from the collections of Cooper’s work at Te Papa and in Southampton, England, there are examples at both the Hocken and Alexander Turnbull libraries. The National Library of Australia has two of Cooper’s watercolours. One is of Martins Bay and the other a view up the Hokitika River.

The maps of South Westland with Cooper’s sketches came to the Museum in 1971 from the Geography Department at the University of Canterbury. During the previous 100 years, the first two maps had been lost but the eight remaining maps have been photographed and are now available on Canterbury Museum’s Collections Online.

julia bradshaw portrait photoJulia Bradshaw is Senior Curator Human History


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