I know I only posted about my painting of Captain Cook’s ‘Endeavour’ yesterday, but I have got a little behind with my blogging and there is one more painting to report on.
This is a painting of the gunboat ‘Avon’ (which could be regarded as New Zealand’s first steam-powered warship) towing the iron-clad gunboat-barge ‘Midge’. These vessels were part of Waikato River Flotilla that took part in the invasion of the Waikato district of the North Island in 1863-64.
The invasion of the Waikato was the largest and most important campaign of the 19th-century colonial New Zealand Wars. Hostilities took place between the military forces of the colonial government and a federation of Māori tribes known as the Kingitanga Movement. The invasion was aimed at crushing Kingite power (which European settlers saw as a threat to colonial authority) and also at driving Waikato Māori from their territory in readiness for occupation and settlement by European colonists.
The colonial forces were aided by the large flotilla of vessels operating on the Waikato River and its tributaries. The flotilla comprised shallow draught boats, including gunboats and barges for transporting troops and supplies, as the front line moved progressively south.
Before we look at how I went about paining my picture, here’s a quick look at the finished item.
We see the little paddle-steamer ‘Avon’ of 40 tons, 60 feet in length, and drawing 3 feet of water. She had been trading out of Lyttelton before being purchased by the government for conversion into an armoured steamer. Iron plates with loopholes were bolted inside her bulwarks, and the wheel was enclosed with an iron house. A wooden blockhouse-like structure was added later abaft the funnel to provide more protection. ‘Avon’ was armed with a 12-pounder Armstrong in the bows, as well as several rocket tubes.
‘Midge’ was one of four gunboat-barges, each 30 feet to 35 feet in length. They had been open fore-decked cutters in Auckland Harbour. They were armoured with lengths of bar iron, and in the bows of each boat was a gun-platform for a 12-pounder. Troops and supplies were put into these barges, which were towed up the rivers by steamers.
The basis for my painting is a plan view of ‘Avon’ draughted by Harry Duncan in Grant Middlemiss’s excellent book The Waikato River Gunboats.
I have previously built a small model of the ‘Avon’, using a plastic toy as a template. Whilst not completely accurate (for example, the paddle boxes are quite different) it gives a general impression of what she would have looked like.
For the background I decided to base my painting on this moody water-colour of the Waipa River by 19th-century artist Frank Wright. The Waipa was one of the Waikato River’s tributaries used by ‘Avon’ during the campaign. I’ve never visited this area, so it was important to have some reference material to ensure I captured the look and feel of the river.
Before touching any paints, I did a lot of planning with a graphics program on my computer. I photographed my little model, and superimposed it onto the Wright water-colour. I then used the program’s tools to mock up some reflections and smoke, and to add a Māori warrior on the bank. Doing this allowed me to play around with the sizing and placement of the various components until I was completely happy with the composition.
The grid was to help me transfer the finished layout onto my much larger canvas. I simply used charcoal to draw a grid of exactly the same proportions onto my canvas, and then carefully copied the contents of each square. Much easier and more accurate than trying to copy the whole picture at once!
The above slideshow takes you step-by-step through my painting process, starting with the rough background that I did with a house-painter’s brush, and finishing with the final fully detailed rendition.
So here she is, the gunboat ‘Avon’, complete with captain and crew. For figures I paint a white silhouette first, then colour it in using Games Workshop Contrast paints (I wonder if Games Workshop realise that artists could be a huge untapped market for their model paints!).
And here’s ‘Midge’ with its commander, Midshipman Foljambe. He later went on to become Governor-General of New Zealand. ‘Midge’s’ gun is behind the iron doors at the bow.
Two Māori warriors hide on the bank, waiting for their chance to take some potshots at the gunboats. Volleys from the bank were a constant danger, and in February 1864 Lieutenant William Mitchell was shot and killed as he stood on ‘Avon’s’ paddle box.
Unlike my ‘Endeavour’, a ship that has been painted many times by loads of artists, I suspect this is the only large painting in existence of either ‘Avon’ or ‘Midge’ (though they do appear in smaller size in some contemporary pictures and on the cover of Middlemiss’s book).
I’ve already had a bit of interest in my painting, but I don’t want to sell it. So I am currently investigating how to get art-quality prints produced for sale.
5 thoughts on “My painting of two colonial New Zealand Wars gunboats”
Very, very nice work!
Another very nice job, great composition and colouring Roly. I like your slideshow. I use exactly the same computer graphics (Photoshop Elements in my case) and grid technique when planning my paintings, it saves a lot of unnecessary experimentation and worry.
Thanks Chris. I enjoy making the little slideshows too, as it reminds me of the journey I have had to get to the final picture. As to the computer graphics program, I guess back in the day we would have done this with numerous little rough outline sketches!
Yes indeed and I sometimes used to cut out paper shapes and try them in different positions on the background!
This is excellent work and a much neglected subject. I used the New Zealand Wars topic for my MA thesis and I’ve started working on paper cut out wargaming figures and battlefield objects for the wars. The Avon is on the largest models for the Invasion of the Waikato book.