The twilight of altruism


    In 1885 landscape painter Alfred Sharpe won a gold medal for his watercolour A Golden Eve, Waiheke Island at the New Zealand Art Students’ Association. The then president of the association, Mr Kennett Watkins, called it “a dream soft with evening’s glow and after tints of tenderness”.

    The painting shows a clearing, ringed with native trees and ferns, a glimpse of what might well be either Te Putiki o Kahu or Maunganui in the background, and a hint of two figures – the human element speaking loudly to the stumps of trees felled in the foreground.

    That painting was bought by Auckland Art Gallery in 1991 where it now sits in storage.

    By 1890, Sharpe had relocated to Newcastle on the east coast of Australia – then an industrial  centre for coal mining, copper smelting and soap making. Having long been a lover of more bucolic landscapes, those dark, Satanic surroundings affected Sharpe’s work and he started giving his paintings more pertinent titles such as Woodman, Spare that Tree, More Tree Destruction and the rather wonderful Arboricultural Thugs.

    In 1890, however, he also produced a second version of his Waiheke study. This time with the slightly varied title of A Golden Evening, Waiheke Island and on an appreciably larger 91cm wide canvas, this second version from memory is near identical but for two notable exceptions: firstly the pohutukawa are in bloom (a sure sign of rose-tinted hindsight) and the stumps in the foreground are far more prominent.

    Sharpe’s studies of an environment under threat – even more than 130 years ago – obviously strike a chord still. But there’s also a postscript to his 1890 watercolour that also talks to the harsh reality of progress and the loss of any lingering “tints of tenderness”. 

    In 1998 the Australian Financial Review reported “a big brown watercolour of dead trees” had sold in August of that year to a home decorator called Vince Johnson during at auction of the contents of the Sir Joseph Banks Hotel in the Sydney suburb of Botany. Bidding for A Golden Evening, Waiheke Island had started at $A300 and the gavel had finally gone down at $A18,700.

    A fair price, you might think.

    Well, think again, because before the end of the year Mr Johnson had put the painting into an auction on this side of the Tasman and Te Papa had forked out $99,000 of taxpayers’ cash plus GST for it. And he’d more than quadrupled his money.

    I was thinking of Sharpe’s paintings this week and pondering that there’s always money to be made in progress. Sometimes it’s from felling the trees, sometimes it’s from selling paintings of felled trees.

    After my editorial on affordable housing last week I’ve had a fair amount of correspondence talking about progress. Some of that correspondence was from, let’s call them the tree-fellers. Some was from people further down the chain, let’s call them the painting sellers.

    At the heart of a lot of that correspondence was the idea of making money out of developing land on Waiheke. There wasn’t much in the way of obvious altruism – the sort of “tints of tenderness” that had so struck the judges of Sharpe’s vision of Waiheke.

    There are examples of altruism on Waiheke. There’s the team at Waiheke Budgeting Services I spoke to last week, and there are  the members of the Waiheke Community Housing Trust who have battled red tape and ridiculous planning regimes to get their first build off the ground in recent months.

    That project has relied on volunteers, donations, loans and good faith and will – finally – have their stage one access and parking of the Waiheke Road site done by Christmas. The build will start after Christmas and, all being well, it will be tenanted by May.

    More than a century ago Alfred Sharpe captured what he saw as the twilight of an era of natural beauty and the dawn of what he described as “arboricidal profanation”. There seem to be scant few left to prove him wrong. • James Belfield

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