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Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Tama, Te Ati Awa (184? - 1909)

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Watch an interview with descendant Maunu Stephens.

This imposing portrait was commissioned by the public of Nelson in 1909 to mark the recent death of a famous local identity, Huria Matenga. Wearing a fine cloak and displaying the precious tail feathers of an entire huia bird in her right hand, Huria is posing before a stormy landscape in which we glimpse a ship foundering on the rocks.

Unveiled by the Governor, Lord Plunket, on 21 February 1910, the painting bore the following label:

In public recognition of the brave deed of Huria Matenga, chieftainess of the Ngatiawa, Ngatitama and Ngatitoa tribes, who, in company with her husband Hemi Matenga, at risk of life, swam with a rope through stormy sea, thereby saving the lives of the crew of the Delaware, wrecked at Whakapuaka, September 3rd, 1863.

The portrait is a memorial to a New Zealand heroine. When the brigantine Delaware came to grief on the rocks at Whakapuaka, near Nelson, it was the local Maori community who came to the rescue. Together with Hemi Matenga and Hohapata Kahupuku, Huria swam out through thunderous seas and succeeded in securing a rope from the ship to rocks. Huria, heroine of Whakapuaka, was named the 'Grace Darling of New Zealand'. Huria Matenga died at Whakapuaka in 1909, at the age of 68. Her tangi was attended by over 2000 people, both Māori and Pākehā, marking her importance in both worlds.

Lindauer had painted a portrait of a much younger Huria Matenga in 1874, soon after his arrival in New Zealand, and this earlier portrait had been acquired by Auckland businessman Henry Partridge for his collection of Māori notables.

Huria Matenga was painted in Lindauer's specially constructed studio on the outskirts of Woodville, the North Wairarapa township to which Gottfried and Rebecca shifted their family in 1889. It was in this sun-filled room, illuminated by skylight, that Lindauer painted so many of his exceptionally dark portraits. Like this posthumous portrait of Huria, many of these paintings were based on photographs.

Nelson's grand portrait of Huria Matenga is remarkable as a depiction of a respected Māori figure who, through her heroism in rescuing the crew of the Delaware, was identified by a Pākehā community as worthy of a memorial. Other civic bodies around New Zealand occasionally commissioned an oil portrait of a mayor or local founding figure, but Nelson's initiative was extraordinary for its time.

 

Roger Blackley
September 1998
(abridged)

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